Keeping Basements Dry (part 2)

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new-suburban-stockade-intro(This is the second post in the Keeping Basements Dry series. Part one here.)

Because the previous owners routinely let water into the basement (lazy? incompetent? uncaring? oblivious? who knows?) we got to learn how to fix all kinds of damage caused by water problems. One of our first jobs after moving in was to replace the oil tank. Our house, like many in the northeast, has a home heating oil furnace, using forced air to move heat around. The furnace is on concrete blocks to keep it from water damage. We have an oil tank standing on metal legs in the corner of the basement, in what is now the workshop and what had been the original, we think, coal corner.

keeping basements dry workshop

This corner of the basement was set off as a coal depot. The previous owners converted it to a workshop.

Because of moisture issues from flooding, dampness, and condensation, a tank that should have lasted as long as the house had one of its legs rusted through. Replacing the tank cost a quick $800 and was a totally unnecessary expenditure if the previous owners had installed $60 worth of concrete splashes.

Then the roof leaked, and we learned they lived with that too. A new roof took care of those problems and also kept some more water out of the basement. Water can work its way into your basement from a tiny hole in the roof, trickle down the inside of a wall where you won’t ever see it, and then end up in a puddle in the basement. You won’t know where that water came from and figuring it out will drive you crazy. Before we reroofed the house, we had to rebuild the furnace chimney. The previous owners had neglected to install a rain cap, allowing rain to get into the chimney where it, combined with the furnace gases, corroded away the inside of the chimney. That was $2,000.

After that, it took torrential downpours to reveal how more water got into the basement, but we have never gotten as much water into the basement since that first night. Although it tried, even Hurricane Ivan didn’t put enough water into the basement to reach under the door to the carpeted steps.

We realized early on that there were two separate issues to solve: an inside one and an outside one. On the outside, most of our water problems were coming from the landing by the front door. Somehow, the previous owners had managed to install a concrete pad that sloped TOWARDS THE FOUNDATION.

Yes, you read that right. The concrete landing at the base of the front steps sloped towards the foundation, making all the rainwater that landed on it head right into the wall. Worse, the land was higher at the curb, lower at the foundation, so water would trickle down the sidewalk toward the house, and the landing created a mini-waterslide, forcing water into the foundation. Wheeeee! We couldn’t afford to replace the steps and landing right away so we caulked and caulked every single crack. This helped some, particularly with the water that had been infiltrating under the steps. We also installed dry-creeks the length of the sidewalk and by the landing. This would at least stop water from approaching the house.

How did we do this? Bill dug a ditch about a foot wide, shallower at the house (about 8 inches deep), getting gradually deeper and deeper as the dry-creeks reached the street until at the street end where each ditch was about 18 inches deep. He filled the dry-creeks with coarse gravel and we topped them with slabs of Pennsylvania bluestone taken from the construction site across the street.

This is what taking advantage of good fortune and a compliant husband can get you. When we moved in, there was a lot across the street, the remnant of a neighborhood church that closed years ago. We thought we had lucked out, having a field where the kids could kick balls and fly kites.

But within months, construction crews showed up and dug a deep foundation. A dentist had bought the lot and was building his office. He wanted a deep, deep basement, and after striking bedrock, used dynamite to reach the planned depth. The result was Bluestone Mountain, a pile of dirt and rock at least 20 feet high.

“Perhaps we could snag some rocks for decoration,” my husband said. The construction guys said we could take as many stones as we wanted; it saved them the trouble of disposing them. One of them even hopped into his mini tractor and placed a huge boulder in the front yard by the driveway and in the middle of the backyard. We used them to build a wall near the side gate, to line sidewalks, and even broken stones up into particularly sharp-edge gravel.

pennsylvania bluestone wall

We used some of the Pennsylvania bluestone to build this retaining wall in the backyard. A staircase was built and pavers were laid to create a sidewalk to the gate.

We also used them to top the dry-creek beds. Bill dug nearly 80 feet of ditches. We bought and hauled home many bags of coarse gravel to fill them. This was not cheap and hard on the back. At least the stone we used to top the dry-creeks was free. The dry-creeks look decorative and they work pretty well. All the water that would build up on the lawn under the front window would race across the slope and be funneled into the foundation. After the dry-creek, this water raced across the slope and poured into the dry-creek and headed out to the street, soaking into the ground as it went.

Adding the dry-creeks meant that rainstorms had to get bigger to put water into the basement. We now only got water into the basement from the front corner where the concrete landing sloped to the foundation, and sometimes we got seepage across the front wall under the living room window. It had to be torrential rains aimed at this side of the house for this to happen.

By the way, when the sunroom was built on the back of the house, the concrete floor was poured so that it also sloped toward the house. The previous owners should have been renters. People like this are incapable of taking care of a house.

The next area to tackle was under the front window, where the soil was made of hard-packed clay and sloped towards the landing. I dug over this whole area, and turned it into a flower bed. This improved drainage enormously, looked much better, and let me reslope the ground so it went away from the house.

Landscaping the Front Yard

keeping basements dry front yard

Modifications to the front yard include a semicircle of stone, left, resloping of the front yard, and ditches covered by stones to trap water.

At the driveway side, the driveway was sloping water into that corner of the foundation along with the downspout. The splash helped there, but it didn’t do anything about the runoff from the driveway. I dug out a semicircle by the driveway edge sloped away from the house and filled it with white marble chips. This diverted water away from the house AND made it easier to walk up the driveway to the side gate.

None of the slopes that I’m talking about can be seen as they are all underground and filled with gravel. From the surface, they look level.

At the downspout at this corner, we installed the concrete splash, and then added one of those corrugated vinyl tubes to pull water still farther away. I dug out a rain garden, probably too close to the house, but this hasn’t turned out to be a problem. I originally planted the rain garden with a variety of plants, all of which were unhappy. My friend Lisa gave me ferns and they took off in this location. The ferns love being here and they soak up amazing amounts of water.

Next Week: More Fun with Landscaping