News & Politics

Make Over: Staying Dry

Does your basement get wet when it rains? Here are fixes you can do yourself to keep water out.

It’s raining. Hard. Do you hold your breath as you descend the stairs to check on your basement?

Wet basements are a fact of life around a city that was built on a swamp. We can also blame wet basements on our soil.

“The reason we have so many problems with flooded basements in DC and its suburbs is because of the heavy clay content in the soil, which makes it difficult for water to drain,” says Michael Reiff of MER/Morrison Waterproofing. “Clay resists water, and when water has to find a small place to drain, the pressure can initiate a crack in the foundation.”

Builders need to meet certain codes to protect basements from dampness, but they are not required to waterproof basements. In more-expensive homes, contractors tend to do what it takes to waterproof, which is easier and much less costly than waterproofing a basement later.

If you are planning to put money into remodeling your basement, it’s a good idea to guard against possible moisture problems even if you’ve never had any. But before you call a contractor or basement waterproofing specialist, you can try inexpensive strategies that are easy to do yourself, such as buying domed plastic window-well covers.

Another do-it-yourself fix: caulking. The caulking that was done when your home was built—around openings such as window frames, garden faucets, and vents—does not last forever. If it looks cracked, chip it out and recaulk. Visible but minor floor or wall cracks can be sealed and coated with waterproofing material.

“There are a lot of wet finished basements out there that didn’t have to be that way,” says Mark Richardson, president of Case Design/Remodeling. He recommends doing what you can to waterproof a basement and then waiting a year, if feasible, to remodel—to make sure the basement stays dry.

Downspouts and Gutters

During a rainy-day walk around your home, you may discover that you need to redirect water from some downspouts. You can buy tubing and attach it to downspouts to guide water away from any area where it collects.

Downspout extensions come in aluminum and plastic and costs range from $7 to $15. One type rolls out when full and rolls back up when empty. Make sure any extension is securely attached; they dislodge easily.

For a more lasting solution, you can dig a shallow ditch and bury the extension. General contractors and basement waterproofing companies take that a step further and add pipe that goes all the way to the curb. If you are not going that far, make sure the water will flow out of the extension six feet or more from the house.

Because gutters are out of sight, they are often out of mind. Cleaning leaves out regularly will decrease the chances of water problems in the basement. If your home is surrounded by trees, four cleanings a year may be necessary.

Grading and Drains

Washington’s clay-rich soil does have an advantage: It makes fine grading material. Dirt should be built up all around the foundation of your home and sloped down and away from the foundation. The slope should be at least 5 percent. (If the grading is six inches high against the foundation, it should slope down gradually for at least three feet from the house.) Porous topsoil and mulch have no place in grading; water collects underneath.

Outside your basement door, you may see a hole covered with leaves and mulch. That’s a French drain, an elegant name for a utilitarian drain set in gravel with a pipe that is sloped away from the basement. Consider putting screening over it to keep out debris, and try to keep it cleaned off during rainy season.

Sump Pumps

When rainfall is heavy, the water table, or ground-water level, rises under our homes. Sump pumps, which are installed in a well dug at the lowest point in the basement, start directing water away from the house when it rises too high.

Sump pumps depend on electricity. If you decide to have one installed, request the kind with battery backup; it is all too common to lose power during a storm.

Try to test your sump pump annually. Can’t find your instruction manual? Open the lid or top, find something that floats, and lift that gently. If pumping action occurs within moments, you are all set.

For about $1,500 installed, a sump pump may be the answer to any water problems you have. It is a smart investment to make before hiring a specialist to dig a perimeter drainage system, which may cost many thousands more.

If these measures don’t keep out the water, you may need expert help. Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine, in a 2001 survey of its readers, gave B-Dry System (703-643-1671; and MER/Morrison Waterproofing (800-343-3118; the highest marks for quality among area waterproofers.