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Wringing out that basement
The condensation on the walls and the musty odor were one thing, but Bill and Gretchen Hamann knew something was terribly wrong when a small fountain erupted in the center of their basement floor.

It was another battle in a four-year war the couple has waged on one of the most annoying and potentially expensive problems of home ownership: a wet basement. There are lots of reasons moisture collects in below-ground spaces: Cracks in the foundation can admit water ; inadequate ventilation can cause walls to “sweat”; a broken downspout might create pools of water outside, which can eventually work their way inside.

Frank Bauck of Ohio State Waterproofing says that many people ignore early trouble signs like mold, peeling paint and strange odors, or puddles that form after every rainstorms or thaw.

“A lot of times [ people ] wait until a disaster and then it’s too late,” Bauck said. “The damage has already occurred.”

While there’s no foolproof method for curing a wet basement, there are many ways to decrease the chances of a small problem becoming a big one, or even from reoccurring at all.

The first step is determining the nature of the trouble. Do the walls “sweat” in the summer? Does water collect in low spots on the floor after a heavy rain? Is your washing machine overflowing? ( Don’t laugh – it can happen )

Examine the walls and floor for cracks and make sure there are no gaps around windows. Clothes dryers should vent outside to prevent condensation inside. Make sure floor drains aren’t blocked or clogged. Note any odd smells that could indicate moisture-induced mold.

If you have to run a dehumidifier year-round, Bauck said, you’ve got a problem.

The Perimeter
Next, check outside. “You want to discourage any water from accumulating around the house,” said North Ridgeville city engineer Stewart Lovece.

Gutters should be clear and down spouts directed away from the foundation. The land itself should also slope away from the house to prevent rainwater and melting snow from pooling. Basement window wells should be protected for the same reason. Lovece advised against planting trees or shrubs to close to the house, where roots can damage foundation walls or clog pipes.

Houses are equipped with belowground drainage systems, Lovece explained, which feature footer tiles placed along the exterior perimeter of basement walls to direct ground water away from the foundation and relieve the hydrostatic pressure created when soil becomes saturated. Broken or damaged footer tiles can cause water to seep through the walls.

While there are many ways water can get in, Bauck said that there are just a proven methods for keeping it out. Experts emphasize the importance of exhausting less expensive options, such as repairing cracks and replacing damaged downspouts, before allowing someone to drive a backhoe onto your lawn. Complete excavation can easily reach $10,000 or more depending on a house’s size and the severity of the foundation problem.

Many homeowners install a sump pump, a device that is set in a pit (called a “sump”) in the basement floor. Either holes in the pit’s walls admit groundwater or a trench around the inside perimeter of the basement directs excess water into the pit. When the water level reaches a specific point, the pump kicks in automatically and moves water underground, well away from the house.

Signs of Trouble
Carlton said their were numerous signs of trouble in the basement of his 67-year-old house: “There were slight cracks between the bricks that went up to the foot of the house. You could see drip lines on the inside [walls]. A musty smell that wouldn’t go away no matter what we did.”

Experts determined that the problem was most likely in the foundation; moisture from the ground was seeping through the walls. To fix it would require digging a trench around the house to expose the foundation, resurfacing and sealing the exterior walls, and replacing the footer tiles.

Sure enough, Carlton said, excavation revealed a large crack in the foundation. His house also happens to be surrounded by soil with a very high clay content, a not uncommon situation in Greater Cleveland. Clay does not drain as efficiently as sandier soil and can put extra pressure on basement walls.

Bauck notes, too, that weather variations in this part of the country – the freeze thaw cycle, severe storms and summertime draughts – can weaken and crack foundation by putting pressure on, or pulling dried out dirt away from basement walls.

In Bill and Gretchen Hamann’s case, Ohio State Waterproofing will use a sort of hybrid waterproofing method, one unique to the company, that involves hand digging a trench between 18 and 36 inches deep around the foundation and installing a second system of drain tiles to reroute most water before it reaches the original footer tiles.

Lovece said it’s critical to get guarantees on any work performed on a home foundation. He recommends asking the city building department for the names of reputable waterproofing contractors.

For Gretchen Hamann, the most frustrating part of her experience has been the difficulty diagnosing the cause for her wet basement. “You can see unborn babies with ultrasound,” she said, “and you can detect fish underwater, but they have nothing to tell you what’s going on underground.”

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