Keeping Basements Dry

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new-suburban-stockade-introStrictly speaking, keeping basements dry isn’t a sustainability topic. It doesn’t involve setting goals, food storage tips, or getting out of debt. But it does involve a major mental adjustment that you’ll have to make, from thinking about the short-term and into long-term planning.

Humans have a hard time thinking about the future, even though there’s a 100% chance that we’ll get there eventually. We tend by nature to focus on today and maybe tomorrow, and a lot more on the past (about which we can do nothing). The farther down the road, the less we think about. This is why we have a difficult time saving for our future, and making long-term decisions that keeps us safe and secure.

But if you do not keep water out of your basement, then your life will become unsustainable in a hurry. Water in the basement is aggravating beyond words, will cost you money and time to fix (sometimes substantial amounts), and all the preps you have stored in your basement will be ruined by the flood.

"We're going to send rainwater down against he foundation where the water fairies will drink it up."

“We’re going to send rainwater down against he foundation where the water fairies will drink it up.”

Water in the basement (or a crawl space) is not a problem that I had ever experienced, nor had Bill. My parents live in a house over 100 years old, with a brick foundation, and there’s never been a drop of water in that basement. My house in Norfolk and our house in South Carolina were both built on a crawl space; neither ever had a problem.

Then we bought this house here in Central Pa. Our house was originally an L-shaped ranch, with three bedrooms, built over a basement. Every house this far north seems to have a full basement as you have problems with frost heave if you don’t. It was built in the mid-1950s, solidly, of cement block and heavy timbers that you don’t see anymore. Sometime in the 70s the owners added a second story with a very large bedroom space, walk-in closet, and a bathroom. They also added a sun room on the back side of the house. They cut corners on both additions in so many ways but that’s another story for another time.

Our house was owned by the same family—I won’t name them to protect the guilty—since the day it was built; and in that time I don’t believe they ever paid much attention to routine maintenance. We kept finding things that we would look at and say, “why did they do this? Were they idiots?”

Apparently so, and in no way was that made more clear then by what happened in the basement. When Bill visited the house for the first time, the basement was crammed with the owners’ possessions, including heaps of old towels. We should have taken this for a sign. The building inspector did the best he could, but the basement was so crammed with stuff (as was the attic, another stellar example of their basic incompetence as homeowners) that he couldn’t get into every corner with a flashlight and a poking stick. Bill certainly couldn’t.

keeping basements dry

“So how do the walls look?”
“What walls?”

Bill bought the house as it met all our needs, I sold the house in South Carolina, and we all moved back in together in July 2001. It was a dry summer and the spring had been dry as well. One night in early August, it rained and it rained hard. I came back with the kids from the library to discover an inch of water approaching the basement steps of the finished portion, up onto the carpet! Opening the basement door to the unfinished portion revealed much of the basement (the floor was unevenly sloped so water wasn’t everywhere) had an inch or so of standing water.

I was not happy. This explained why the freezer—which the previous owners had left behind—had been up on skids. I raced outside and discovered that the house gutters did not have concrete splashes to divert the water away from the house. We never noticed because what house doesn’t come with them? They’re like roofs! You have to have them! Apparently, someone had, long ago, installed gutters that drained into an underground system called a French drain. These are meant to divert water away from the foundation into underground rock-strewn channels, but they last only about a decade before they have to be maintained. By the front door, the downspout didn’t line up with any kind of pipe so the rainwater was pouring up against the foundation.

keeping basements dri

If only there was a simpler way to divert water away from a house.

It was late at night by then, Bill was at work, and I was in an unfamiliar area with three kids, 2, 4, and 11. I called Bill in a panic, but there was nothing he could do, and tried to mop up. When he came home at two in the morning, he mopped some more and eventually we got all the water out of the basement.

The next day, closer inspection revealed that there was no floor drain anywhere in the basement nor a sump pump. This was probably just as well, as the previous owners wouldn’t have maintained them. They certainly didn’t maintain the gutters and downspouts and you can see them! The building inspector had noted this in his report, but we didn’t pay attention at the time to what that meant.

Since that traumatic day, I have done extensive landscaping all around the house, and I never found any evidence of an underground drainage system leading rainwater from the downspouts to the street. Never. If your house is supposed to have an underground drainage system, then you should find pipes sticking out at the edge of your lawn by the street with water coming through them when it rains. If you don’t, your underwater drainage system doesn’t work or isn’t there at all.

The next morning, I raced to Lowes and bought concrete splashes for all six downspouts. Where the downspouts went into the ground, Bill cut them away and rerouted the water to the splashes. It rained soon thereafter, and we had no water in the basement. Amazing, no?

This is basic stuff, folks! You don’t get more basic then this! Put a freaking concrete splash at every single downspout to lead the water away from the foundations! It works like magic, every single time! I paid about $10 bucks per splash and saved myself untold amounts of aggravation! $60 bucks to keep water out of the basement, and the previous owners couldn’t be bothered.

Installing the splashes—it took longer to drive to Lowes and buy them than it did to install them—was one of the easiest, and most effective repairs we did to this house. By itself, this solved 75% of our basement water problems.

As near as we can figure, the previous owners let water seep into the basement on a regular basis, had done so for years, and mopped up afterwards with their collection of moldy towels. In other words, they lived with the problem rather than make an effort, even the most minimal one, to fix the problem.

I am not that kind of a person. There was no way we were going to live with water in the basement. Thus began a multi-year evolution, with major jobs and minor corrections, that ended only a few years ago, when we finally found the source of the problem.

Next Week: Cursing the Previous Owners