BASEMENT/BUILDING ENVELOPE

AVOIDING WET BASEMENTS – Part 5 – Deciding to make a claim or not

Wet basements, to claim or not to claim

So you have had some water infiltration into your basement, what now? The vast majority of the people I deal with call the insurance company first. While this may be the best approach in a given situation it may also end up costing you a lot of your hard earned money because you jumped the gun. The reason I say this is because as soon as you make that call you are making a claim. It almost always leads to you losing your claims free status and your insurance could go up. Now don’t get me wrong, that is why we have insurance but I am suggesting that you look at the severity of the problem before you make that claim. If the problem is minor and easily repaired and cleaned up, you should likely do it yourself. If the problem is larger and more serious then insurance involvement is recommended. Your insurance company has access to many industry professionals that can set things right. Just be sure you need them first.

I am sometimes called to investigate a wet carpet in the corner of a basement. Upon arriving at the home I quickly scan the lot and downspouts before even knocking at the door. Many times I can predict from that cursory view where the carpet is likely to be wet. Once inside I usually discover I am correct. I will often see a streaks of water that has poured through a basement window and if the homeowners are lucky, only a small area of wet flooring. At this point I use my thermal camera and moisture meter to try to determine the extent of the moisture area. If the moisture is through a window for instance it may not have wet the wall at all. If the flooring is carpeted and the area is small it is usually possible to peel back the carpet and underlay and begin the drying process. The key to handling this type of problem is to get the professional opinion of an independent contractor. If the problem is small you and the contractor may opt to simply open a small section of the wall and air dry the carpet for instance. This approach should be documented and kept for reference when you are ready to sell the property. If as a home inspector I see what appears to be a past leak you need to be able to explain the event, better yet you should have disclosed it to the buyer already.

If the damage appears more widespread and materials are going to need to be discarded and replaced you should then consider calling your insurance company who will send their own representative over to have a look. I am not suggesting that you take a week to decide, these things need to happen quickly in order to avoid mold and other setbacks. All I am saying is don’t panic, assess the situation and decide with the help of others what you need to do. Obviously if you have an inch of water in your basement you will need an extensive renovation and insurance is there for that. On the other hand however, if the problem is small and can be quite easily cleaned and dried without replacing contents then that is something you can likely handle. Read on in this series for tips on how to properly clean up a mess caused by water intrusion. By the way, if the moisture is sewer related it will almost always require professional attention. Don’t mess around with sewer backups as they have significant harmful health effects if not properly cleaned up.

Finally if the flood was a sewer backup you should consider hiring me to scope your sewer line to see where the backup started and who might be responsible.

Click on this link To view actual inspection photos that correspond to Avoiding wet basements .

AVOIDING WET BASEMENTS – Part 4 – How to deal with a wet basement

How to deal with moisture in your basement

Moisture in a basement may take the form of a chronic problem or a one-time issue. The water intrusion may be severe such as a sewer backup or as simple as a little bit of water on the bare concrete floor. Whatever the severity you must find the source and correct the problem or your efforts to repair the damage will be for nothing and the problem will come back. Repairing a wet basement wall more than once for the same issue for instance, should not be an option and you insurance company will likely not take it well. This blog will talk about the small (to large) cleanups that you find yourself dealing with. This blog assumes for whatever reason, you are the person doing the cleanup and restoration. I always recommend hiring a professional crew to do this work but I understand there are times when this is simply not possible and in the smaller cases may not be necessary. It is imperative to your health and safety that you go about this in a systematic way so as not to spread the problem (potential mold) throughout the home.

I will paint a scenario of a leak that will form the advice in this blog. There are many different ways for you to end up with a wet basement but I need to narrow it down to one that may contain mold, either from a sewer backup or a flood that has wicked up into the drywall inside the basement. When dealing with sewer and wet drywall you need to consider that mold and other toxins is or will be forming in a short time within your home. The key is to contain the problem and quickly. I know many people who experience water problems and hope that if they just wait long enough the moisture will simply dry up, problem solved on its own. The reality is if you take this approach you will most likely be exposing your family to harmful molds and other toxins. Even if you expect moisture but can’t see it, you should consider investigating. I won’t get into investigations at this point except to say that special tools are usually required to detect hidden molds and moisture such as a thermal camera, moisture meter and if necessary air sampling and destructive inspections.  Remediation companies and inspectors such as myself should have these tools to help diagnose your concerns.

Let’s assume your home has experienced a sewer/ water backup and one bedroom and a hall way has wet carpet and drywall looks wet on the bottom 6” along the interior wall by the furnace room. For your own reasons you have to do the cleanup. The first step is to plan. Plan how to remove the wet contents as soon as possible. Mold will grow in ideal conditions within 48 hours so I always suggest a quick removal of contaminated materials before then. If you discovered the flood too late, then you need to set up containment and negative air before you begin the removal process. To do this I recommend getting some 6MM builders poly and some tape from the hardware store (don’t be afraid to ask their advice). The goal is to seal off the wet products from the rest of the home before removal as they may in fact have mold spores on them. Secondly you will want to create a negative air area where any loose mold spores will be drawn outside rather than into the home where they may affect your families’ health. To do this I recommend adding a fan in a basement window inside the containment area. In this way when you are entering the containment area, air is drawn in rather than expelled.

Finally you must consider the furnace and how it may spread the spores. Somehow you will need to try to isolate the air intakes from the containment areas. I also recommend a bio-wash of some sort to do the final cleaning once the wet materials have been removed. You may also want to rent an air scrubber if it is in your budget. Remember the best approach is to leave major water damage to the experts but I see lots of homeowners trying to save money but doing so at the expense of their homes air quality. If you must do it yourself ask lots of questions and do it right, your family will thank-you for it later. When you are satisfied the moisture is cut out and the home is once again clean, you should consider hiring someone like me to perform an indoor air test to make sure you have not overlooked something. When the air test come back clean, you can proceed to repair or replace the damage. Good luck but don’t take this lightly as it can be serious and remember to take pictures and document what you have done in case you need that information when selling your home etc.

Click on this link To view actual inspection photos that correspond to Avoiding wet basements .

AVOIDING WET BASEMENTS – Part 3 – Drainage under your homes concrete floor

Draining under your homes concrete floor

Wet basement floors are common in this part of the country and most contractors will tell you every home should have a sump pump. I have a different opinion as I see hundreds of dry basements that have been designed correctly and are therefore dry and they don’t have a sump pump. I hear the phrase often, “well it couldn’t hurt could it?” well in fact I believe it might, here’s why. If you jack hammer into a perfectly good basement floor you are now exposing the home to whatever might be under that floor. I have been in homes where you can hear the weeping tile running but the home has never had a leak in its 35 year history. If you disturb this process you may be opening up a can of worms you don’t want to deal with. I always say don’t fix it if it is not broke! By opening up the floor you are now directing the flow of water to the sump and relying on a pump to do what other systems have successfully done for decades. If and when your sump pump fails you now have a problem. I always look at the history of the home to tell me if changes are required.

On the opposite side of the coin you may live in a damp basement that has little or no water control systems. As a result your basement floor might have significant amounts of efflorescence (white powder) on it and you are experiencing a musty smell. Obviously something must be done and a sump pump is an obvious solution, or is it? I have experienced many damp basements that have a dry sump. The problem is this, the water under the basement floor is not free to travel to the sump. Instead of migrating under the floor to the sump pit, the water simply pushes up under the slab.

Many of the early basements models were missing two critical components that we use today, a thick layer of crushed rock and vapour barrier. The problem with most basements from the 70’s and prior, is that they did not provide a pathway for water to travel under the slab without touching the bottom of the concrete floor. Even if gravel was used, it was often pushed into the clay and became ineffective as a drainage plane. When the water table is high as it has been in recent years, the ground under the concrete floor becomes saturated. This excessive moisture often looks for the path of least resistance and that is usually up through the unprotected concrete of your basement floor. Today we add a layer of vapour barrier and 6-12 Inches of clean crushed rock that provides a pathway to the drainage system for the water rather than just letting it sit under the floor.

Adding a sump pump in an older home may help alleviate some of the water issues but don’t count on one sump in the corner or anywhere for that matter, solving your water problem. As I mentioned above, the water will take the path of least resistance and that is often up through the floor rather than across the basement to a sump. When I see this type of home and problem I will always look to the outside to see if there are any means of controlling the surface water to reduce the load on the basement. Often the slope needs correcting and the downspouts can be better arranged. If your home is built in a hole at the edge of a swamp you may have issues that require extensive repairs at a high cost. For most city dwellers however, the answer may lie in the exterior grade and water control systems. In a worst case scenario jack hammering out the floor may be necessary in order to get control of the water issues under it. As always feel free to contact me for free advice. If you require a home visit I charge $150 for a comprehensive assessment of single component systems.

Click on this link To view actual inspection photos that correspond to Avoiding wet basements .

AVOIDING WET BASEMENTS – Part 2 -Sump pumps

Sump pumps

Sump Pumps have become quite technical in the past few years. Homes with high water tables are very dependent upon the proper operation of the sump pump. There are several combinations of sumps available on the market, some that will even notify you in the event of a pump failure. Of course these systems can be expensive. In this blog I will attempt to discuss various options available depending upon your needs and some maintenance tips to help keep your pump in a dependable condition.

A sump pump has two main types of on switches that turn the pump on, both controlled by the water level. One style is built into the pump or attached directly to the pump down in the pit and wired to a receptacle on the basement wall. The built in style of pump switch is often more difficult to test and therefore often gets neglected. The second style of float as they are referred to, is the type that allows the homeowner to bypass the float and manually test the pump without getting into the sump pit. To do this you would simply unplug the two wires and plug in the pump directly to the outlet receptacle. Once this is done you should hear the motor turning. It is important at this point that you know the difference between a turning motor sound and a seized motor hum. One way I determine the difference when the sump is dry is to listen for the motor to slowly wind down when it is unplugged. If the motor suddenly stops when it is unplugged it may be seized and will not pump the water when it is needed. Also check to make sure the check valve in the line if present is not stuck in the closed position. if either of these components fails the water will rise.

This leads me to the next topic, backup systems. There are a few ways you can reduce your flood risk. One is to install a flood sensor in the top half of the sump pit. If water hits the sensor due to a pump failure, the sensor will sound an alarm. Of course you need to be home to hear it. The next approach is a second sump pump that only starts if the first fails and the water level climbs high enough to activate that pumps float. A third way to protect your home is to add a battery backup in the event of a power failure. Power outages often accompany huge rain events and thus the need for the sump to run. A forth type of protection is to add a “smart” alarm system. These systems are pricey but offer the most protection. If the main sump fails to start and the water level rises above a certain level you will receive a notification of a possible pump failure on your smart phone. You can purchase even more sophisticated systems that will include a second pump and a battery backup and all the notifications that go with those component operations.  These high end systems are great but for most of us they may be out of reach and ultimately overkill. I liken it to owning a Cadillac or a Civic. If you can afford the Cadillac great but if you own and maintain the civic you will get where you are going none-the-less. Bottom line is, sump pumps require maintenance and will eventually fail so be proactive and in tune with your sump requirements. If you don’t you may be calling a plumber or worse yet your insurance company.

Click on this link To view actual inspection photos that correspond to Avoiding wet basements .

AVOIDING WET BASEMENTS – Part 1 – Downspouts

Downspouts

One of the most common problems I come across is missing and loose or otherwise improperly installed down spouts. In the Midwest we have fairly flat properties and the soil is generally a layer of top soil over a clay base. Many of the homes I inspect have several issues related to water control and drainage. This week and most weeks in the spring and summer I hear about wet basements. Most basement leaks stem from misdirected downspouts. Sometimes homeowners try to fix a wet basement with a sump pump but if the moisture is seeping through a wall and creeps out onto the floor, a sump pump will not help. I always emphasize the importance of controlling rain and melt water on the outside first.

There are two major repairs you can do to keep your basement dry. 1. Move the water from the roof a long ways from the home. Many inspectors recommend at least 8’ but I’ll go a bit further to say make sure the discharge of the downspout is landing in an area where the water will continue to move away on its own. All too often I see 8-10ft extensions added but the water is pooling and back grading towards the home none-the-less. I often recommend using a fence as a fastening device to add more length to your roof control systems. In this way you can move water along the fence and discharge it at the front or back of the yard where it can run to the street or the back alley. In a heavy rain this could make the difference between a wet or dry basement. 2. Secondly always try to use a clay base to create a positive slope away from the home. If you have a concrete basement this should not be a difficult task, simply remove the top soil and slope away from the wall with clay. Depending upon the severity of the problem you may want to add a plastic water drainage plane and rock as ballast. If the slope is not too negative simply correct the slope and add a layer of top soil on top and seed again.

Correcting the slope and filling in low spots commonly found under decks, together with properly positioned downspouts will usually keep your basement dry. If you have a deep basement you will likely need to install window wells in order to bring up the slope near the basement. Remember that some basement windows need to be a means of egress so a large window well will be required. In extreme situations the property slope may not be repairable. In these situations you may need to add an exterior sump which is a topic for another blog. Good luck and call for free advice anytime.

Click on this link To view actual inspection photos that correspond to Avoiding wet basements .

Q: Last week our windows on the south side leaked during a driving rain. We rarely get rain from this direction and have never seen a leak here before. Do you recommend replacing the windows?

A: This sort of thing happened to me as well. I have lived in this home for over four years and never experienced any issues. All of a sudden there was a lot of water leaking in and around the window during the storm.  I immediately associated the leak with the driving wind and rain that night. I believe the water tightness of the window was adequate for all conditions except this one weird storm. I was not eager therefore to begin dismantling the window as I was sure the leak was not going to happen again. That situation was over two years ago and no and I have not experienced another leak in this window since. I recommend checking the window to see if there are any outstanding issues and if not than I would just leave it for now.

Our windows are very drafty. They are the winding crank style. What can we do to reduce the drafts?

The best approach to all window drafts is to ensure the window is fully closed. You cannot imagine how many open windows I find. Often the window closure system is not enough to fully close the window. If the window is not closed and the weather is cold outside you will often have ice build-up that prevents the window from fully closing. I recommend waiting for a warm day and using a hair dryer or similar heat source to melt any ice that may be an obstacle. Next get someone outside to push the window closed. If the window will not close don’t force it. It is likely that it is due to be replaced. Finally if the window is still drafty once closed you will want to buy the window shrink wrap to reduce the drafts for this winter and try to insulate the window better in the summer. Remember double paned sealed units are best but if your budget doesn’t allow for replacing the windows you need to make them as efficient as possible using other methods.

 

 

My home is older and doesn’t have weeping tile. Should I dig up the walls to add weeping tile now?

I am not an expert but I always say, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. If you have a wet basement I suggest trying other fixes before trying to install weeping tile. Make sure for instance, that the slope drains water away from the home. Also cover low basement windows with a plastic cover so water doesn’t get in that way. Be sure to check the downspouts. Finally you also may want to add an outside sump. In my opinion don’t try to fix weeping tile until all the other less expensive options have been tried.

 

I live in a 1950’s home with old double hung windows. The windows are painted shut and a few are broken. We have saved and are ready to upgrade the windows but are not sure of the best approach. We have lathe and plaster inside and stucco on the outside.

I have replaced windows like the ones you have described. I wish I had understood the difficulty of the job before I started. Here is my advice to save you time and money. As you describe the wall components I know how fragile they are and how difficult it is to change. The best approach is to stay away from the stucco and lathe and plaster all together. I recommend installing inserts into the existing frames. An insert is a sealed unit with a vinyl frame but no exterior brick mold or nailing flange. You simply remove the existing window and tracks that the old windows slid in. Next install the insert into this opening and seal it in place with caulking and quarter round or similar trims as directed by the window manufacturer. The new windows will be a little smaller but they will appear larger as they will be new and shiny. 

 

I bought an older home built in the late 80’s. The windows are all operable but they are the wooden style. I am considering replacing them with newer vinyl windows, would you advise this?

Here is how I usually advise my clients. If the old wooden casements are in good condition that is they open and close properly and are not broken or rotten, I say they should be fine for a while longer. Most people think the new vinyl window is going to save them hundreds of dollars once installed but this is not generally the case. Let’s think about it. Most homes in this part of the Midwest have a gas bill of $50 -$100 a month on average. Of that cost a fair amount is administration costs. So let’s assume the old window is only R-1 value. The new window is likely going to be R-3. If this window is letting in 6% of the cold the new window will let in 1- 2% instead. So how much does that 4-5% cost you? Based upon $100/month gas bill (year round) you will save approximately $5/month. The new window cost $900 to install. Therefore it will take you 15 years to pay for the new window in savings provided to paid cash for the windows. To me I don’t think this is a great way to spend your money. Of course this is my opinion and I am sure there will be people out there that will disagree with me on this. I am not suggesting that this is a great idea for all people but I am saying you need to consider all things before spending or borrowing and spending this kind of money.