Basement Blegging

First up, apologies to Steve, as well as VodkaPundit’s regular readers, for taking up space with an entirely personal request.

I have an occasional problem with water in my basement. Since I bought my house (summer 2001), I’ve had to rip up and replace the carpet pad twice, most recently this last week after Hurricane Ivan dumped about a million gallons on Atlanta. I also have a very noticable damp spot in the basement’s “low point” after other heavy rainfalls.


It’s obvious what the problem is: the grading on the uphill side of the house has eroded away, and there’s basically now a downhill slope onto the wall of the basement (also, the people I bought the house from were lying slime who deserve to be dipped in Aunt Jemima syrup and tied to a large fire ant bed, but never mind that now).

I confirmed this yesterday by ripping up all the landscaping across the wall in front of the basement; you can actually see the holes in the dirt where water can flow down to the slap, slip through the slab/wall crack, and proceed to make my life miserable. I’ve got a jury-rigged plastic tarp that’s hopefully protecting the basement from Jeanne at the moment, but it’s definitely not a permanent solution.

Having read up a bit and asked a contractor buddy for advice, I’m planning to re-grade that part of the yard and install some kind of drainage just uphill from the new grade to carry water around the corner and away from the house. I’ve had one waterproofer come out for an estimate, which I don’t have yet but expect to be substantial (he wants to dig down to the foundation, apply a rubber/polymer layer to the wall, then recover the wall, regrade, and put in a drain). I’m having another couple of estimates done over the next two weeks.

Anyway, my question for those who’ve (a) had this done before, and/or (b) have actual expertise in the matter, what would you do? My first reaction is to do the cheap thing first, i.e., put in a grade and a simple drain myself, then if that doesn’t work, call in the professionals and write that big check.

Any thoughts, comments, suggestions, or even helpful insults would be most appreciated. I’m damn tired of moving furniture and ripping up carpet–and you don’t even want to know what my wife thinks about it…

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35 Responses to “Basement Blegging”

  1. Stephen Green Says:

    Have you tried sponges? Lots and lots of sponges?

    Seriously, my grandparent’s old place had a pretty bad leak, and I think mostly they just learned to live with it. Sigh.

  2. Harry Forbes Says:

    If you have a place to pump it, talk to somebody about a sump pump. You can power it with the Honda generator when you get a hurricaine.

  3. Steve Says:

    You need to waterproof that wall as well as keep as much water away from it as possible. Go down to slab level, apply the best grade waterproofing you can afford, lay perforated pipe around the foundation to drain water away and backfill with crushed rock. Then landscape to try to keep as much water away from the house as possible. If it’s coming up through the slab after this, you can trench through the slab in the basement, lay perforated pipe and install a sump pump.

  4. leelu Says:

    Will:

    I don’t know your ‘demographic’, i.e. how tolerant your bod is to lots of physical labor (age or mileage), but what Steve described sounds right to me, and is a Helluva Lot of Work.

    My experience with DIY has taught me that, to quote Dirty Harry, “A man’s *got* to know his limitations.” And, as my daughter’s bar review school motto goes: “do it once. Do it right. Never do it again.”

    It’s not about money. It’s about not worrying about it for the next 20 years. That, to me, is worth the $$$

    Good luck!

  5. hey Says:

    in home repair (and construction), especially when dealing with water, “Cheap” isn’t

    do what steve above says…

    you need to add good drainage gravel with big o pipe at the bottom, polymerize the foundation, then play with the backhoe/bobcat to regrade the soil and create a nice slop away from the house…

    good lesson too always ensure that you buy a house on high ground and make sure that you check the drainage before you buy (i.e. make sure that water runs away from the house on all sides)

  6. Brian Erst Says:

    Will –

    I had the same problem. My foundation is made out of somthing called “telegraph” or “telephone” tile, which apparently was in vogue in the Chicago subsurbs in the 1920s. I’ve gotten various rationales for this (it was cheap, it was provided nearly gratis bythe telephone company because it’s empty channels made it easy to wire the house, etc.), but it’s basically a ceramic cinder block (hollow on the inside, shiny on the outside).

    It’s not a particularly good foundation material, and prone to leaking when cracked. When I bought the house (from the lying bastards who finished the basement and claimed it was “bone dry”) I noticed a slight “damp” smell, but figured all basements were that way. When the mushrooms started growing out of the carpet and the floor got wet in major storms, I cursed my home inspector.

    I ended up doing two things – I had a perimeter drain system put in and relandscaped. Up in our cold, northern climes, the drainage system is generally installed _inside_, around the edge of the basement. A trench is dug to below the foundation level, a perforated tube is installed to collect the water, a water barrier is installed along the inside wall and funneled into the trench, gravel is packed around it, everything is graded so the water collects into a sump pit that contains a pump that shoots the water outside (I have a “French pit”, see below) and the whole thing is resealed in concrete. Water comes in from the walls, flows down the waterproof barrier into the trench, goes to the pit and back outside. Also, by giving ground water a place to go before reaching the foundation level (the trench is below that level), you relieve the hydrostatic pressure that will try to force water through the cracks in your basement floor when the water table rises after a heavy rain.

    The sump pump is connected to a tube that runs underground to a “French pit”, which is a 8-foot deep pit full of gravel. The tube comes in at about the 3-foot down (beneath the frost) level. Water percolates into there and gradually goes back into the water table. It’s landscaped over it and you can even tell it’s there.

    Basement has been bone dry ever since. The relandscaping (grading away from the house) also helped a lot. The basement is refinished and we don’t have any problems (aside from one section where they installed the water barrier incorrectly and had to rip out the wall and reinstall – grrrr…)

  7. JFH Says:

    Most of South Carolina has given up on basements years ago. In fact, about the only basements I’ve seen are in Charlotte and Atlanta… Could it be that ya’ll have a lot of transplants from the North East that MUST have a basement?

  8. Mr. Bingley Says:

    if you want a basement, you don’t live in the south.

    sorry, but all the useful/helpful stuff has already been said.

  9. Eskimo Says:

    Will

    My sympathies. I had just built a house last year and during our first rainy season, we watched in dismay as the rain water was NOT draining away from the house but was simply accumulating on my patio forming a pond. I kid you not, the next day I had ducks sitting (floating?) next to my planter pots.

    Basically the geniuses who did the landscaping a) didn’t properly grade the backyard or b) didn’t do it at all. Close inspection and some additional expert advice had me leaning to option b.

    Needless to say basement leaks were inevitable unless the back was regraded which is what I ended up having one (at the builder’s expense of course!). Now I have no idea what kind of yard you have, but you’re probably talking needing one of those Bobcats and a fair amount of dirt to regrade. They used about 7 yards of dirt on mine. Then plan on doing a lot of reseeding.

    I have also dug drainage trenches and am diverting the roof water coming from the downspouts using flex tubing. I have two, one diverting to the side and the other running straight out about halfway down the back yard where it slopes down the steepest. Now I have no problems at all.

    Good luck!

  10. Carey Gage Says:

    What every one else said, plus:

    Have you checked into the possibility of re-routing water runoff from the roof away from that side of the house? Gutters and leaders are not as expensive as a backhoe and a contractor, and, depending on the age of the current system, they may need replacing anyway.

    My first house was built in a (former) swamp. Nothing like Jersey swampland for building houses! The sump pump ran pretty much constantly until I laid pierced PVC piping along one edge of the foundation, directed the flow out to the street, added what seemed like 20 tons of dirt to the back yard (it was 8 yards) and tied the roof run off into foundation drainage. No waterproofing (exterior or interior) was needed.

    I did it myself, but I was young and stupid then.

    If the problem persists, my parents had a lot of success with something called “Dry-Lock”. You paint the interior side of the cinderblock with it.

    Good luck. Hope your back holds out if you do it yourself.

  11. tom Says:

    The post from Steve was right on target. You need to dig down to the base of the outside wall and waterproof it. Then apply drainage away from the house.

    Your only other choice is an industrial strength dehumidifier………

  12. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Will Collier
    RE: Pardon My “French”

    As a passive preventive measure, I’d recommend installing what is called a ‘french drain’.

    This is accomplished as follows:

    [1] On the uphill side of the house, dig a 8″ wide trench outside the house down to the basement floor level. Where the slope is at its lowest dig out from the house by several feet. This will be where the flow will be spilled out.

    [2] Apply water sealant to the outside basement wall. [Optional additional protection.]

    [3] Put in a layer of an inch or two of coarse rock.

    [4] Put in a plastic ribbed tubing of 4-6″ diameter with many holes in it, along the trench to the lowest point by the house. Then run it along to trench dug away from the house.

    [5] Cover the tubing with more coarse rock.

    [6] Back fill the rest of the trench with soil removed from digging the trench.

    [7] Resod/reshrub.

    This should deal with most of the problems.

    Regards,

    Chuck(le)

  13. Carl in Atlanta Says:

    Will– I presume you have a block foundation and that your house is built on a lot with a significant slope?

    I am a lawyer in Atlanta and get leaky basement calls all the time (especially recently).

    My suggestion is to bifurcate your approach:
    1. Get an engineer or professional inpector to inpect and recommend the fix, then
    2. Seek bids from a number of contractors.

    I agree with Steve’s approach above. That is probably exactly what an engineer would tell you. The devilis in the details. Exactly where to do your uphill side diversion and/or underground piping? Exactly how deep do you excavate by the foundation? PVS vs. corrugated pipe? 8′ or 6″? What about tying into your gutter/down spout system? And is your gutter system contributing to the current problem? Most importantly, Who is a good contractor?

    It’s amazing how many contractors in Atlanta don’t seem to understand that water runs downhill– be careful!

  14. Francis Turner Says:

    From a similar experience I recommend that you try grading first which should reduce the amount of water but I doubt it will fix it. Once there is a crack there really isn’t much you can do other than the rubber sheet/injection trick.

  15. j.pickens Says:

    I had the same problem.
    You need a perimeter drain and a sump pump. For a retrofitted perimeter drain, companies like B-Dry systems will do the trick.
    I used them, and have absolutely no financial interest in their company. What they do is use portable jackhammers to dig a perimeter trench, lay down a perforated pipe and gravel, and a plastic perimeter flange, and concrete the whole thing in.
    They took one day to do the job, and it cost around $2500, this was 8 years ago.
    Went from having a perpetually wet basement to bone dry. Basically, the water still comes in, but below the floor level, where it runs through the drain to the sump pump.

    Now if you have a power failure, you better have a generator to keep the sump pump running.

    Best of luck.

  16. Sir Knight Says:

    the drain system described will work, i also recomend sealing the interior walls with that sealing paint they have at lowes. do both and you shuold have a dry basement, i also put a dehumidifier in my basement, …good luck

  17. j.pickens Says:

    By the way, B-Dry will guarantee their work. For 20 or 25 years, if I remeber correctly, transferrable to any new owners when you sell the house. So they have a financial incentive to get the job done right.

  18. htom Says:

    Steve pretty much outlined it. You have to catch the water OUTSIDE of the house and lead it away; downhill can be done without pumping. In general, the perferated pipes and gravel beds will have to be below the slab level, and the drainage pipes exit to a couple of feet below that. Depending on the slopes, water catchment areas, soil permiablity, … you can (well, an engineer who does this kind of thing can) calculate how big the pipes have to be and where they should be installed. (And leading the water from the roof away is part of this; an aquaintence carefully made what amounted to a swimming pool that enclosed his house, keeping the rain running down the hill away, but forgot to allow for the rain from the roof to escape from the pool!)

    Then there’s the back-aching labor, which can be helped by hiring others and proper power tools.

    Do it right once and you won’t have to do it again, or worry about a sump pump.

  19. Mythilt@gestault.com Says:

    In regards to the sump pump, the other option for emergency pump power is a brand of sump pump that will also operate using your water line. Basically, you attach your water main (If you have city water) to the sump as well as the standard power. If power fails, it uses the water pressure from the water main as the source of power for the pump.
    I’ve never used one, but a friend of mine is considering using it after her house has lost power twice in the last year during a rainstorm and had a flooded basement both times.

  20. Rob Says:

    I’ve done this, it’s within the scope of a handy person. It’s a lot of work and you may well want to hire out the labor, but don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that it’s very complicated or hard to understand.

    Here’s a pretty good article: Linear French Drains – Controlling Basement Seepage

    They sell that perforated pipe at the home improvement store, it’s not very pricey. The gravel you can have delivered. Other than that, it’s just a bunch of digging. About the only thing you want to make sure of is that it slopes down hill. I used a very sophisticated device for this: my garden hose. Fill it up with water and you can raise and lower the ends to run a “level line” over the length of the hose. You can also get one of those cool laser levels (much preferred by the geek class of home improver) for twenty bucks or so.

    It’s amazing how much water a french drain can move. When we get a big rain, water just gushes out of ours into the street out front – even though the grass has grown over it and you can’t see it at all in the back yard.

    If you do get bids, make sure they itemize out costs for materials and labor and make sure they actually do as much labor as they estimate. There are definitely contractors out there who will see you coming and give you ridiculous bids. If possible, get the name of a reputable contractor from your friends (or ask here on the internet).

  21. Spoons Says:

    I don’t know what the laws are like where you are, Will, but in most places, there are very strict disclosure requirements on sellers of houses that have had any history of flooding. The consequences for homesellers who are lying slime are typically severe.

    You may have already looked into this, but if you haven’t you should. I’d start by contacting the lawyer you used when you bought the house. Failing that, talk to the realtor, who should have a copy of the disclosure if one was made. Beyond that, you’d have to go get a lawyer if you wanted to pursue it.

  22. American Mother Says:

    Yup, Will, all of the above. The exact answer all depends on the topography of your land, what that “crack” in the wall is, and how much work you are willing and able to do yourself. The properly installed French Drain along with the “outdoor waterproofing” is the likely answer. It is not complicated, but is time-consuming and backbreaking–you just need to decide if you want to break your own back, or pay for someone else’s. At any rate, do be sure and use that waterproofing paint indoors for a little extra protection…and here today, Jeanne is raining down upon us and moving oh-so-slowly, so sorry…

  23. vlad Says:

    will:

    i have been buying/fixing/selling properties in southern california for about 30 years, and have dealt with your problem several times. the posts above describing a system with perforated pipe in gravel (“french drain” [spit]”), waterproofing the basement wall(s), grading the slope away from the house, and making sure that your roof gutters are diverting water well away from the area will fix your problem. this assumes that you have sufficient slope to divert around the house. if you don’t, then you have to consider sump pumps, but don’t do this unless its an ABSOLUTE LAST RESORT. sumps require very, very regular maintenance, and always go out between 2 and 4 am during the first or second heavy rain of the season. since you appear to be a handy fellow, i think that you could do this yourself and save considerable $$$. i would suggest that you ask one of the suppliers of the needed materials help you design a system and then hire laborers to do the grunt work. i have done this several times. keep in mind that the type of soil (sand vs. clay) will make a difference in the size of perforated pipe and the gravel area. good luck. ps: i am looking forward to the “drunkblogging” of the debate.

  24. Will Collier Says:

    Thanks to everybody for all the suggestions. To answer a couple of questioners, the roof gutters and drainage are all in good shape–I made sure of that after the last time I had to replace the carpet. I think a sump pump is probably out of the offing for right now, that’d be a pretty radical solution for an every-couple-of-years problem.

    As for the sellers, they vanished without a trace. They didn’t leave a return or forwarding address (an impressive amount of mail has shown up in their name), and I’ve had three process servers here looking for them since I bought the place. I’d love to sue them for this (and the broken air conditioner, and the broken attic fan, and the leaking roof, among other non-disclosed faults), but I suspect very much that it would be a dry hole, and get me nothing but a big lawyers’ bill.

  25. hey Says:

    good that you’re not looking at a sump.. absolute last resort, its the french way (you’re surrendering and trying to live with the occupation of the flood waters) hehehe

    don’t know what your mileage has been, but for me, whenever we have serious danger of flooding, it’s in the 90% range that we will have a power outage… and due to Newton’s fourth law of home maintenance, all sump pumps and other powered flood control systems must fail at 3:45AM during a century storm…

    landscaping, drainage and waterproofing will stop your problem.. and you don’t do this by hand.. rent a bob cat form home depot if you have to do it yourself… you have to go deep and move a lot of earth to do this right, no need to risk doing a half assed job cause you’re sooo tired… save your energy for the touchups to ensure you get the right grade, etc.

    too bad about the former owners skipping off… definitely should have gone after them

  26. Ian Wood Says:

    Pilings, Will.

    That’s the key.

    Lift that sucker up.

  27. Johnnie Dontos Says:

    Boy! Your a slow learner. Get rid of the damn rug.

  28. Easycure Says:

    Definitely get yourself a good civil engineer. They’ll design for you exactly what you need…..and I recommend over designing it a little. It will be money well spent.

  29. gb_in_ga Says:

    I know it is absolutely no help whatsoever, but my wife and I completely avoided this problem when we moved to the Atlanta area 2 years ago: We bought a house that is on a slab. No Basement = No Leaks!

  30. Kieran Lyons Says:

    If you simply must have a basement, you should follow the french drain approaches detailed above. It’s a lot of digging and measuring, but it’s not rocket science. The materials are cheap, and if you can do the labor it’s a cinch. We have a similar problem here in the NorCal foothills (we get >50 inches of rain in an average year, nearly all of it in the 4-5 cold months where evaporation isn’t helping.)

    Perhaps you can do it the way we did. On our ranch, we are surrounded by people with big jobs to do. We help them when they are tackling something major, and when we call they return the favor. If you have not tried this, you’ll be amazed at the skills and experience your neighbors have.

    If you do install french drains, you have to pay attention to where the perforated pipe is. Never, ever plant trees, shrubs, or a vegetable garden over the perforated pipe. Heavy root systems will infiltrate and ruin your drain. Grass is usually safe, and a very few other garden plants are often OK as well. Read up on it and pay attention. You should be safe if you follow the rules for a septic leach field.

    If you have any usable downslope on your property, your problem can be solved without resort to pumps or other fragile stopgaps. Just pay attention to the details.

  31. Kieran Lyons Says:

    Oh, one more other thing. I saw above a comment about a coating you could use to seal the basement on the inside.

    Think about that. In saturated soil conditions your house is essentially a very heavy boat and the basement is the bilge. If you have water outside, it’s going to try to infiltrate your cement with gravity providing the pressure.

    If you’re at all scientific, think of Archimedes’ principle. Your house probably won’t float, so instead the pressure will increase, just like in a submarine. And, just like in a submarine, the lower you are the higher the pressure.

    I have not seen any product yet that can reliably resist this from the inside of a basement. Sealing a boat properly requires lifting it and sealing the outside hull. Your house may be in a similar situation.

  32. Ric Locke Says:

    Echoing all the above. My uncle spent the last part of his career building underground and subgrade structures along the Arkansas River, and most of what the commenters are saying conforms very well to his advice.

    BUT — there is one thing you have to know before you start.

    Is there a place the water can go that you can reach with a pipe that is lower than your basement floor?

    If yes, the linear French drain will work very well, although I do recommend that you completely expose the basement wall, clean it thoroughly, and apply sealant to the outside as part of the project. Don’t waste money on inside sealing. The outer layer of the concrete wall will simply spall off, carrying the sealant with it.

    If not, bummer. Like it or not you’re gonna be stuck with a powered sump pump. In that case, the interior drying system — seal walls, put catchment around perimeter and pump — will be cheaper and involve less labor. The external French drain plus outside sealing is still better, but maybe not enough better to be worth the expense unless you intend to be carried out of the house in a box someday.

    But that was my uncle’s first question. The water is gonna go somewhere; you can lead it but you can’t pull it, and if there’s a particular place you don’t want it to go (e.g., your basement) you have to give it an alternative. And there’s absolutely nothing any human builder can do that will stop it forever if it doesn’t have somewhere else to go.

    Regards,
    Ric Locke

  33. Ric Locke Says:

    As an addendum — Kieran makes a good point, but it’s worse than he makes it.

    Concrete isn’t solid like a rock. It’s porous. When you look at a concrete wall, don’t think “artificial stone.” Think “very stiff sponge.”

    Furthermore, the individual particles of concrete don’t stick together all that well.

    So when water comes, it soaks into the wall all the way through. When it pushes it isn’t pushing against the thickness of the wall, it’s only pushing the teeny layer where the sealant sticks to the concrete.

    Result? The sealant comes off in patches and strips, with little particles of concrete clinging to what was the wall side.

    The twelve rules for a dry underground structure are, in order of priority and therefore in the order you should be applying money, time, and effort:

    1..10 avoidance; don’t let the water get there in the first place.
    11 diversion; give the water somewhere else to go.
    12 blocking; try to stop it.

    Regards,
    Ric Locke

  34. ed Says:

    I have to point out from my experience of a slab on grade house with expansive soils: you are not immune to the effects of water intrusion under your footings and slab.
    In my house in San Diego county, I installed gutters and a french drain system (quite a bit simpler than for a basement). Two neighbors did not. Both of them had failed foundations and beau coup expenses to have their slabs removed and replaced.

    Ed

  35. Great Auk Says:

    For years the toilet in my grandperents home made a loud noise of well it sounded like running water it was finaly solved when the tank plug and float were replaced but it was quite a place and it still stands although greatly remodeled

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