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Attack basement moisture with simplest fixes first
By Henri DeMarne | Columnist
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Published: 9/25/2010 11:05 PM

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Q. I have a question regarding moisture in the basement of the home we just bought, which was built in 1985. The home has a baseboard perimeter system in the basement that shunts water to a sump pump in the laundry-room area. The sump pump is in a hole beneath a utility sink that's covered by a wooden lid. There is a backup generator that will kick on to feed electricity to several circuits, including the sump pump, in case of power outage.

The cement floor and perimeter baseboard system is painted with some type of cement gray paint. There is a dehumidifier in this laundry room. The basement was dry when we did the home inspection, and for several weeks. I was just about to build some storage closets in the basement when I noticed some moisture on the floor. It was not standing water, just very damp to the touch with beads of water and small bubbles in the floor.

The section of the floor affected is about 2-by-8 feet and is along the back exterior wall. Looks as if the moisture is either the result of water vapor permeating up through the cement slab or a failure in the perimeter system at one spot or both.

The water table is high in this area. When you lift the wooden lid, you can see water down in the hole beneath the sump pump. I have contacted a number of companies to come and give advice and estimates, but also wanted to get your insight.

A. It is possible the moisture you see is due to condensation from a very humid July. This is often the case along exterior walls, especially if they are deeply underground, as the soil temperature remains constant throughout the year, keeping the base of the foundation walls and the concrete floor cool, encouraging condensation when hot, humid air is allowed in the basement. If the moisture has dried and not recurred after the recent August rains, this may be the problem.

Before you go to the expense of having a contractor perform some expensive and perhaps unnecessary corrective measures, do your own checks. If you have a dehumidifier, put it in that area and see if it takes care of the problem. If it does not, the sealant attaching the fiberglass gutter may be failing where you noticed the moisture. In that case, polyurethane caulking may take care of it, but wait until you have thoroughly investigated the cause.

Who would have thought that replacing my brick steps would necessitate a plumbing question? My house is over 100 years old, and I am replacing the brick steps in the front. In the basement, a riser from the sewer line exits the front wall of the house at the front steps. But the cast-iron "vent" from the basement sewer line is half outside the line of the wall of the existing stairs and half behind the course of brick. What is the purpose of this vent? I do not find it in newer houses?

Can this vent be cut back and capped in the house so the new stairs can be built without this obstruction? Or do I have to reroute the pipe to the basement's sidewall to maintain the pipe's functionality? I would appreciate a quick reply, because my mason is starting in a week and I need to know which course of action to take.

A. Before you do any rerouting or removal of this pipe, consult a licensed master plumber to see what its purpose is. It may be connected to the sewer in the street or it may be an exterior house vent, as was common in old houses. But don't assume anything. Another way to deal with it is to have the mason repeat what's already there: build the steps, leaving a chase for the pipe. Or build the base of the wall inside the line of the pipe and corbel the bricks above the pipe.

My 30-year-old concrete basement wall has a problem. Some mortar joints are crumbly/flaky, obviously from moisture. However, I've never had enough moisture where water appears on the floor. The joints have been scraped and repainted, but the problem recurs. Is there a way to fix this problem with some new high-tech paint or coating that would prevent the moisture from permeating the inside walls? Contractors want to push their solution whether it's wall anchors, internal sump drains, external French drains or whatever. But since the moisture problem is not extensive enough to allow water seepage onto the floor, do you have any suggestions for me?

A. Poured-concrete walls do not have mortar joints; you must have block walls. The crumbling and flaking is due to moisture from outside. No non-cementitious paint is going to survive any inside repair to the joints.

You need to address the problem from the outside first. Look for any low spot in the grade against the foundation or negative pitch on any appendages to it. These must be taken care of to prevent moisture from percolating deeply in the backfill and causing the walls to get damp. When this has been taken care of, repair the joints.

I am concerned with your statement that the walls have been painted. Block walls must not be waterproofed from the inside. Fortunately, the fact that the paint is peeling from the joints tells me that the paint may not be waterproof. You don't want water to build up within the cores of block walls and evaporate throughout the house, which would cause serious problems.

I have just finished a renovation project that took over a year. During the remodel, a Dumpster was parked on the asphalt driveway. The Dumpster was old and rusty, and it left rust residue on the asphalt. I would like to seal-coat the driveway now. What preparations must I make to remove this rust? Or may I just apply the sealant over the asphalt without worry?

A. You should be able to remove the rust with automotive rust remover. If the driveway has been in place for a while and is not part of the renovation project, it's OK to apply a sealer on it. But if the asphalt is less than 2 years old, do not apply a sealer for another year or two until the asphalt grays. Be sure to use an asphalt-base emulsion or acrylic sealer. Do not use cutback asphalt, also known as Gilsonite - a shiny sealer. The end product should be dull and deep black.

In a recent article, you mentioned that reducing hot-water-heater temperature to 120 degrees could save energy. Several years ago, I was told that 130 degrees should be the water temperature because bacteria could grow in temperatures below 130 degrees. What is the answer?

A. The plumbing code in Vermont, which is not supported by facts, for some reason requires the temperature in water heaters to be set at 140 degrees on the grounds that bacteria will grow in lower temperatures. Yet there are no recorded cases of this. And the code further requires that a mixing valve, at a cost of around $225, be added to the line to prevent scalding. Does that make sense? The National Association of Home Builders Research Foundation, now the NAHB Research Center, was recommending 120 degrees to conserve energy as early as the mid-1970s, and they are not prone to recommending things that are not well researched.

We had a home visit by Illinois Energy yesterday and received a quote from them. We are somewhat leery of this after reading your column. What can you tell me about these vinyl windows that Illinois Energy showed us? We are replacing 17 windows in our 26-year-old home. He quoted double-hung windows at a total price of $21,300. They are two-toned, one color outside and another color inside. We would appreciate any help you can provide. These windows were not individually priced, just a total quote.

A. Worthington Windows are manufactured in partnership between Lindsay Windows and Illinois Energy Windows & Siding. We would have to assume that Illinois Energy would not have chosen these windows unless they were of good quality and meeting their standard of efficiency.

But something seems to be wrong. You have been quoted a price of $21,300 for 17 windows? That's $1,253 per window! Unless these windows are gold-plated or there are considerable difficulties in their installation, this price is awfully high. A reasonable price would be about half or less per window, including installation.

Is anything else included in this price? Are there trim problems inside or out that require considerable repairs and painting of entire inside walls? Replacement windows are sized to fit into existing openings without major changes. Please look into this and ask some questions. You may also want to get quotes from different contractors for high-efficiency windows from other manufacturers that qualify for the federal energy credit. You do not have to deal exclusively with Illinois Energy. Marvin Ultrex Windows meet these standards and are reasonably priced. They are fiberglass outside and wood inside. We just installed several of them in two additions to our house, and they are top quality and easy to operate. Let me know how this is resolved.

My wife Linda and I are faithful readers of your column and have come to rely on it for helpful information. We have a septic system for the first time, and we have two questions: 1) We read in your column that certain drain cleaners are harmful to septic systems. Could you please recommend a brand that is safe and effective for us to use? 2) When we moved into our home a year ago, we found an unopened box of RID-X that the former owner had left behind. On the box, it said to dump an entire box into the toilet twice a month and flush. Is that necessary? Is RID-X a brand that you would recommend?

A. All harsh chemical drain cleaners are harmful to the bacteria in septic tanks. The safest drain cleaner is Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda. Follow the instructions on the side of the box carefully, as failure to do so may cause the washing soda to solidify, clogging the pipe and requiring an expensive fix. You should find it in the detergent aisle of your supermarket. We use it regularly, and it works as claimed.

There is no need to add any chemicals or enzymes to a septic system. This question comes up whenever there is a flurry of TV ads from a purported septic contractor claiming it is a lot cheaper to use the advertised product than to have your septic leaching system replaced. So here is my standard answer to similar questions: In all of my considerable research along with all of the conferences I have attended, not a single report and not a single person I have consulted recommends adding anything to a septic system. In fact, some studies have found that adding enzymes can be harmful. All the bacteria needed for proper performance of a septic system are found in the human intestinal tract.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via e-mail at henridemarne@gmavt.net.

© 2010, United Feature Syndicate Inc.