Category: Basement & Garage

From Wreck Room to Rec Room: Drying Out the Basement

Drying Out the Basement

The basement in its somewhat original condition (after the drywall from the previous owners was removed).

One lesson I learned fast when I bought a house is that a homeowner’s number-one enemy is not the mortgage—it’s the water. That vaguely brown spot on the pantry ceiling? Water leaking in between the two-story side wall and the one-story extension, where 90-year-old tin flashing had completely corroded. The rotted windowsills? Water overflowing the clogged and poorly pitched gutters, then cascading onto the windows below (apparently for decades). And the basement’s musty smell and chalky walls? That was water too. And it was everywhere: seeping in through leaky old windows, dripping down the walls from where the foundation met the sill, and creeping in from below where the foundation walls met the floor.

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Bob Vila Radio: Basement Waterproofing

There’s no such thing as a waterproof basement.  The key is to minimize the water that gets in and get it back out again before it affects your home.

From Basement Finishing and Family Space: Keep Water Out of the Basement, Season 17 Episode 11

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There’s no such thing as a waterproof basement. Special waterproof paint on the walls or coatings on basement floors may keep leaks from showing for now, but if the hydrostatic pressure in the earth around the foundation is great enough, water will find its way in. The key is to minimize the water that gets in and get it back out again before it affects your home.

Often, a basement is wet because it’s the next stop for rainwater after it leaves the roof. If gutters are clogged and overflowing or downspouts dump water too close to the house, and especially if the ground slopes toward the foundation, water is literally funneled into your basement. Gutter maintenance, downspout extensions and re-grading may go a long way toward a drier basement.

Inside the basement, digging a perimeter drain and installing a sump pump is the most common way to remove any water that comes up through the floor or through the walls. Since flooding can happen suddenly and is often accompanied by a power outage, some systems even include a second pump to handle extra volume and a third battery-powered backup pump.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day. 

For more on basements, consider:

Keep Water Out of the Basement (video)
How To: Dry a Wet Basement
Know the Rules for Finished Basements

Bob Vila Radio: Finishing a Basement

Finishing your basement is a great way to add space and value to your home. If you have enough ceiling height and you’re willing to take care of moisture problems first, your basement is a good candidate for a build-out.

Photo: Bob Vila's "Home Again"

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Some Advice About Sump Pumps

Sump Pumps - Flooding


There are a few rules to keep in mind about sump pumps.

The first is that you’ll never have to buy one if you purchase a house that never floods. The second is that, if you do buy a house with a water problem, there may be several ways to correct it before resorting to a sump pump and pit. Third, if you must buy a sump pump, buy a very good one—in fact, it may make sense to buy two or three!

I’m lucky with basements. Having purchased five houses in my life, not one has been wet. Some dampness in summer, yes, but nothing a dehumidifier couldn’t handle.

When being shown a house by an agent, try to begin your tour in the basement. If there’s evidence of a significant water problem (such as an active sump pit and pump or high-water marks on the walls), walk away before you fall in love with the kitchen or master suite. A wet basement is going to cause all sorts of problems beyond water—rust, rot, mold, and unhealthy indoor air.

Related: 7 Ways to Avoid Basement Flooding

If you simply must buy the house or have already bought it, try to stop water from entering. I’ve known homeowners who put in a sump pump only to abandon its use after installing an outdoor curtain drain that diverts water to a pond.

Installing or repairing gutters so they don’t drain near your foundation can also make a big difference. And if a walkway, patio, or pool deck slopes toward your house instead of away from it, they are contributing hundreds of gallons of water to your problem.

There are services that can re-level slabs so they drain away from the house, and many types of patios can be removed and reinstalled with the proper slope without too much expense.

Sump Pumps - Diagram

Photo: Umbrella Plumbing

Buying a Sump Pump
If your water problem is serious (e.g., a high water table that gets higher when it rains), you will need a sump pump. Here are some quick tips on selecting the right sump pump to buy:

• Choose a submersible pump over a pedestal pump if your sump basin has the space. Submersible pumps allow the sump pit to be covered with a lid, reducing pump noise and stopping debris from falling into the pit. An airtight lid also helps keep moist air from being released into your home.

• Buy a pump with a cast iron core, not one made of plastic. Cast iron helps to dissipate heat to the surrounding water, lengthening the life of the pump.

• To minimize the chance of clogs, the pump should have a no-screen intake design coupled with an impellor that can handle solids up to ½-inch in diameter.

• The switch should be mechanical, not a pressure switch, and the float should be solid so it can’t become waterlogged, fail to switch off, and burn out the pump.

Secondary and Backup Sump Pumps
A secondary pump installed right next to the first is a good idea too, especially if your basement has been converted to living space or if you store valuables there. If your primary pump fails or is overwhelmed, the back-up pump automatically takes over.

For extra insurance, a battery backup pump can also be installed. When the power goes out, as it often does in a storm, the battery-powered pump can continue pumping for up to two days, depending upon the demand.

Combination packages with two or three pumps are available. A less costly option is to install a water alarm and to keep a spare pump on hand should the primary pump fail.

Bob Vila Radio: Garage Door Openers

Your garage door opener controls what is probably the largest moving object in your house. But it’s not actually the motor that hefts the weight of your garage door–it’s the springs or counterbalances. The motor only controls the lifting and doesn’t have to be that powerful for most doors.


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Bob Vila Radio: Garage Storage Options

Installing a garage storage system can have the same effect as adding a room, and it’s a good way to increase your home’s value.

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Garage Door Openers 101

For decades, homeowners interested in automating their garage doors had three choices: chain-, belt- or screw-driven openers. That has changed with the introduction of residential jackshaft and direct-drive models. Some of the conventional wisdom about the three standard options has changed, too.

Standard Garage Door Openers

Craftsman Chain Driven Garage Door Opener

Craftsman Chain Driven Garage Door Opener

Chain-driven models include a chain—similar to a bicycle chain—that pushes or pulls a trolley (carriage) that connects to a metal bar, called a J-arm, that is affixed to the garage door. If your garage is situated under a bedroom, the noise generated by metal-to-metal contact and vibration may be a nuisance. If the garage is detached, it probably isn’t. Newer chain-driven units with DC motors and soft start-and-stop technology are significantly quieter than older units.

Belt-driven openers are similar in design to chain-driven models, except a reinforced belt is what pushes or pulls the trolley. The belts may be made of fiberglass, polyurethane, or steel-reinforced rubber. Belt-driven openers are just as reliable as chain-driven openers but quieter. The negative for belt-driven openers is that they cost about $30 to $60 more than chain-driven units.

Related: Product Showcase: Garage Doors

With screw-driven openers, the trolley rides on a threaded-steel rod as a motor rotates the rod. Because this design has fewer moving parts, manufacturers claim that it requires less maintenance than other systems. Screw-driven openers, however, have run into trouble in regions that have large swings in temperature from summer to winter. In addition, they are noisier than belt-driven openers. That said, manufacturers of screw-driven openers have recently made improvements with regard to temperature sensitivity and noise. In addition, screw-driven openers are among speediest these days as well, opening a door at 10- to 12-in. per second compared to the standard 6- to 8-in. per second. (For safety, all garage door openers close doors at a slower 7-in. per second.)

Jackshaft and Direct-Drive Garage Door Openers

Raynor's Prodigy Wall-Mounted Jackshaft Garage Door Opener

Raynor's Prodigy Wall-Mounted Jackshaft Garage Door Opener

Jackshaft openers, unlike the other systems, mount on the wall beside the garage door. A 24-v DC motor drives pulleys and cables that turn the torsion bar and raise the garage door. When the motor is reversed, cable tension is loosened and the door lowers. This system is reliable and quiet. In addition, it keeps the ceiling free for overhead storage and is well-suited to garages with high or low ceilings. Jackshaft openers are more expensive than most other types of openers.

Direct-drive units are claimed to be the quietest of all garage door units, because there is only one moving part—the motor. Developed and manufactured in Germany, the motor (not a trolley) travels along a stationary chain that is embedded in an overhead rail. A J-arm links the moving motor to the door. Direct-drive units cost about the same as belt-driven units and come with lifetime warranties.

DC-Powered Garage Door Openers

Chamberlain DC Garage Door Opener

Chamberlain DC Garage Door Opener

DC motors are quieter, faster, smaller, lighter, smoother operating, and more efficient than AC motors. Many come with variable speeds, enabling soft-start and soft-stop technology. They can also be equipped with battery backup systems. With newer units, the battery is integrated with the opener motor housing. When the power fails, your garage door openers will continue to function for up to two days, depending upon how often you open and close the door. Battery backup will also ensure the continued operation of other functions, including garage lighting, security, and safety alerts. DC motors with brushes do not have the same life expectancy as AC motors, but brushless DC motors do.

For more on garages, consider:

Picking the Right Garage Door
Quick Tip: Garage Storage Solutions
Video: Dream Garage and Boat Storage

How To: Dry a Wet Basement

Protect your possessions and home from mold, rot, and insects.

Photo: Flickr

A wet basement can be obvious—water trickling across the floor or standing several inches deep at the base of the stairs. But there also are less obvious signs.

A wet basement may just feel humid and have a damp, stuffy smell. If so, wood in contact with concrete may be wet or decaying. Efflorescence, a chalky white substance left by the evaporation of water, may be seen on the walls. Basement floor tiles may be loose or popped. A carpeted floor may smell musty.

Find the Water
Fixing a wet basement begins with finding the cause. Infiltration of surface water, infiltration of groundwater, presence of outside humidity, and presence of indoor humidity are common causes of wet basements.

Surface water intrusion is when water runs toward the foundation and finds an entry. Groundwater enters through the walls and floor by wicking action or by hydrostatic pressure when the surrounding soil is saturated or the water table is high.

Warm, moist summer air can enter a house and condense on the basement’s cooler floor or walls. Indoor activities, like an improperly vented dryer, can create humidity that settles in the basement.

Fix the Problem
To avoid ongoing problems with mold or mildew, get rid of any water-damaged furnishings and possessions unless they can be properly cleaned. Then identify and treat the source of the problem.

Surface Water
If surface water is the culprit, watch how the roof drainage system works and where rain water flows during a rainstorm.

A gutter or downspout plugged with debris may be sending rainwater over the gutter, down along the foundation, and into the house. Regular cleaning or installing a product that prevents debris from getting into the trough will end that problem.

If there is no debris but rainwater is still overflowing, the downspouts may be clogged, incorrectly sized for the roof area, or insufficient for the size of the house. Consider getting larger gutters, adding another downspout, or increasing the downspout size and its corresponding gutter opening.

Downspout extensions that direct rainwater away from the house may be improperly placed or not long enough to protect the home from surface water. Experts suggest extensions of at least 10 feet to get the discharge away from the house without sending water into a neighbor’s yard.

Check the grade to see if it has been improperly set or has settled in spots, sending water toward the foundation. Check paved areas, driveways, and walkways that may be directing water toward the house. Proper slope has to be regained and may mean replacing pavement.

Basement window wells and stairwells can collect water, causing leaks into the basement. For a window well, put a drain system underneath, cover it with a clear plastic cover and be sure the well has a raised-lip edge to repel water. For a stairwell, consider a raised-lip edge and a roof to cover the area.

Groundwater is difficult to control. The ground surrounding a basement may become saturated with rainwater or an underground spring, especially if the soil is a heavy clay. Water pressure from saturated soil will push water through tiny cracks in the foundation. If groundwater levels rise above the basement floor, water will leak in.

If the problem is small, a homeowner may try patching cracks from the inside. Interior crack repair does not prevent water from getting into the exterior section of the wall. Water trapped inside the basement wall can weaken the foundation. After pinpointing the source, a homeowner might dig down along the foundation to see if outer wall repairs are small or large before making a repair decision.

Large cracks may require a structural engineer or basement specialist to fix any cracks, seal the outside, and install a drain around the perimeter of the house.

Warm moist air, from inside activities or the outside, can condense on cooler basement walls and floors. Install energy-efficient windows, use a dehumidifier or air conditioner, and circulate household air to prevent moisture buildup.

Indoor humidity can have several sources. A working sump pump can produce unwanted humidity, but can be easily controlled. Put a tight-sealing cover on the sump pump and install a floor drain with a trap so that water can get to the sump.

A dirt floor or crawl space may also emit moisture. One possibility is to pour a concrete floor over a sealed polyethylene moisture barrier on the floor. For crawl spaces, a ground cover will reduce the moisture coming up through the earth. Insulate perimeter walls if water pipes or heating ducts are in that area. Insulate cold-water pipes and walls. Install proper dryer exhausts and vent basement showers directly outside. Don’t hang wet laundry in the basement.

Fixing a wet basement may mean replacing decaying wood. If wood supports or framing appear water damaged, check with a professional to see if there are structural problems.

Basement: To Finish or Not?

Unfinished Basement

The Noonan family's first trip to the basement

Late in 2010, my husband and I, and our two young children (2 and 9 months old), moved from our teensy New York City apartment to Southern Delaware and began the process of building a new house. It was like hitting the square-footage jackpot—we could afford so much more for the same money. We were like kids in a candy store. First on our wish list: a full basement. We fantasized about a home gym, an office, a playroom for the kids, storage for tools, a craft area, media room, kitchenette, and guest room with an extra bath!

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Adding a Basement Bathroom

Adding a basement bathroom can be a plumbing challenge, but remodelers have options for underground plumbing.

Basement Bathroom

Photo: Flickr

Adding a basement bathroom adds value to the home, but installing toilets and sinks in a belowgrade environment takes more than a basic knowledge of drainpipes and sewer lines. Transporting waste to the sewer run is challenging because the gravity assist that works for upstairs waste removal will work against waste flow belowgrade. Fortunately there are a number of options that fall into the DIY category. New plumbing must meet code requirements, however, so do some homework and consider a master plumber for final connections.

Belowground Water and Waste Pipes
For some homes, moving belowgrade bathroom waste to the sewer, septic, or sanitation line is not a challenge because their lines are deep enough for add-on fixtures to benefit from gravity-assisted disposal. A call to the public works department will determine general sewer-line depth. Information specific to a home’s septic lines should be readily available to the homeowner. Consult a plumber or plumbing contractor to determine flow rates and whether the system can effectively remove waste from basement fixtures. If waste water drains by gravity into municipal sewer lines, install a backwater valve to prevent sewage backup in the basement. A backwater valve may require a permit, so check with your local building department and consult a plumbing contractor before you begin.

Aboveground Solutions
Transporting bathroom or basement wastewater to sewer or septic lines can be achieved in a number of ways. Aboveground solutions include the “upflushing toilet,” freestanding sewage-ejector systems, and composting toilets. Aboveground solutions are those that do not require the homeowner or installer to cut through any existing basement slab, resulting in lower installation costs. Upflushing toilets vary in look and operation, but generally include a pumping mechanism hidden within or behind the toilet. Some upflushing toilets permit additional waste-producing fixtures, like sinks and shower units, to drain into them.

Upflushing toilet systems are expensive, but money is saved on installation costs. “Upflushing toilets sit on top of the floor, you don’t have to break the concrete, and servicing them is easy,” says Larry Sturm, a master plumber in Pennsylvania and owner of Sturm Plumbing, the Faucet Doctor plumbing supply store, and, an online retail store. “Tie-ins take about a half hour, and recovering accidentally flushed items is pretty easy.”

Macerating and Composting Toilets
Some upflushing toilet systems include a macerating or grinding feature that reduces waste into smaller pieces prior to pumping, eliminating clogging issues. The Saniplus macerating toilet from Saniflo is an upflushing toilet system with a toilet bowl, toilet tank, and macerating unit. The macerating unit (which also houses an electrically powered motor and pump) can be placed in the bathroom or behind the wall, and is capable of pumping waste twelve feet vertically and/or 150 feet horizontally. The Saniplus allows for accompanying sink and bath/shower graywater discharge as well, costs around $900, and is easily installed and serviced.

Composting toilets are also viable solutions for belowgrade situations, but they are meant strictly for toilet waste. Composting toilets require little or no water, and must be vented to the outside for the composting process to work. The Envirolet MS10 Composting Toilet runs on electricity, is self-contained, rests on the floor, and uses heat and a dual-fan system to evaporate liquids. These environmentally friendly toilets reduce water waste, and do not use chemicals for the composting process. There is a limit to how much material can be composted in a day, so use must be monitored and the unit must be emptied. Composting toilets can cost over $1,000.

Sewage-Ejector Systems
The freestanding or aboveground sewage-ejector system is another waste removal option that does not require cutting through concrete. These systems are typically housed within an enclosure, and the toilet (usually not included) sits on top. These systems are essentially mini septic tanks. The toilet, sink, shower/bath, and washing machine can drain into these holding tanks, which also house the pump to discharge the waste up and into the home’s drainage lines. Because sewage-ejector units sit aboveground, fixtures like toilets and showers or baths will have to be elevated about six inches to gravity-drain into the tank. The Up Jon system from Zoeller sells for around $600, but does not include a toilet. Saniflo also sells similar graywater and sewage-ejection systems designed specifically for bathtubs, showers, laundry units, and kitchen sinks.

Belowground Options
Belowground sewage-ejector systems are the least expensive option, but are complicated to install. These tank-and-pump units are designed to sit in a hole in the basement floor, allowing floor fixtures to gravity-drain into the tank. These units vary in size, but are typically twenty inches in diameter and thirty inches in depth. The holding-tank capacity generally ranges from thirty to forty gallons. “The nice thing about these systems is that they come as a package,” adds Sturm. “It used to be that you’d have to buy the parts separately and put it together. Now you can pretty much drop it in the ground and tie it in.” Homeowners should expect to pay around $400 for a belowground system. The true cost, however, is in the installation. Cutting through a concrete slab to dig the hole for the unit, as well as any drainage pipes from additional basement fixtures, will set the homeowner back a pretty penny. ”It can easily cost thousands of dollars to install,” says Sturm. “And if you flush something down the toilet by accident, recovering it can be a very messy job.”