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Basement Water Leakage Problems

I am sure everyone has been experiencing our historic amounts of rain for this April.  As a consequence of all this water, we have been getting numerous inquiries about water in basements.  I thought I would dedicate my discussion in this newsletter about this topic.

Most people see water in their basement and immediately blame the foundation construction.  This sometimes is justified, but in many cases it is not.  Here are some helpful hints to stop and analyze what problem you actually have and how to go about solving the problem. 

First, identify where exactly the water is coming from.  This can be very difficult sometimes.  You may look and see water on the floor and immediately assume that is where it came in when in fact it may have been a number of system failures.  Here are some possible candidates you can use as a check list:

  1. The roof gutters:  If you have gutters that are stopped up due to leaves or other things, this could be where the water in the basement originates.  Clean your gutters so they are free flowing to the downspouts.
  2. The gutter downspouts:  The downspouts channel water to a particular pipe in the ground that is supposed to channel the storm water away from the building.  If this downspout is split or cracked it could leak excessive water into the ground that eventually finds a way into the basement. 
  3. The downspout storm drain line:  This is a tricky one because many houses just have the wall downspout dump water directly on to the ground without channeling it away from the house.  If there is no positive drainage away from the house (the dirt or grass or concrete sloped away from the house) then this is a likely culprit to allow excessive amounts of water to puddle at your foundation wall and eventually get into the house.  If the downspout does go into a storm pipe in the ground, then make sure that line is clear and channels the water to a safe place away from the house.  Make sure that this line is not cracked or in any way leaking water into the ground at the house foundation.
  4. The surrounding landscape:  Believe it or not this is one of the primary issues I find that causes leaks in basements.  If the ground surface is sloped back to the house then water just puddles around the foundation and finds the easiest path to enter the path.  Landscapers are notorious for building up mulch against a house.  Over time, this mulch raises the level of the ground.  There is actually a building code issue that the level of the outside grade must be lower than the top of the foundation wall.  If let’s say you have a brick veneer house, then it has what are referred to as weep holes at the base course of brick.  They are designed to allow moisture behind the brick to escape out from the wall behind, but if water is allowed to flow into the weep hole from the exterior, then you have water showing up in the basement.  Bushes, vegetation and mulch are excellent for water retention during rain storms and gradually release the water back into the ground so they are a good thing.  Just watch out that you don’t overdo it with the mulch or create drainage with the ground that allows water to go back to the foundation.
  5. The yard drains:  Make sure that any yard drains are clear and free flowing.  This also goes for French drains which are trenches that are filled with stones and generally have perforated pipes at the bottom to filter water away.
  6. The window wells:  It is nice to have natural light come into a dark basement from a window.  The problem with basements that are totally below the outside grade is that the only way to achieve this is to create a window with a well on the outside.  These wells when first installed by the original contractor generally are not drained properly and especially over time can clog and fill the well with water.  I have seen this condition to a point that it looked like there was a fish tank on the outside of the basement window.  Once the well has been created, then it is hard to undo the damage without major surgery.
  7. The block foundation walls:  Unfortunately I come across block foundations many times in older structures.  I believe it was mainly a cost factor when the home was originally built.  These foundations almost always have structural problems and leakage problems.  If you have a block foundation and are experiencing water problems in your basement, you really have only two choices.  The first is to move.  The second is to have a professional perform major work to stabilize the wall and secure it from leakage.
  8. The concrete foundation walls:  Concrete, when designed and poured correctly is your best bet in foundation walls.  The trouble with this is that in a lot of cases the design and/or the original pouring was no done properly.  There is a subdivision near my home that had their foundations poured in sub zero weather.  The concrete did not have the proper safeguards to cure and as a result, the concrete walls of the basement are perpetually leaking.  Other cases involve the design deficiency and have resulted in cracking which has allowed the water to enter the basement.  Another is improper pouring techniques.  I just had a case with this problem.  This happened to be a new home.  The contractor was pouring the foundation on a warm day and got half way up the forms to create the wall.  One of the concrete trucks broke down and the concrete company could not get another truck there for 4 hours.  The contractor, not really knowing any better, just finished the pour.  The problem arose when they removed the forms and found that the first pour had cured before the second pour had a chance to intermix with the first, thus creating a visible horizontal crack half way up the entire basement foundation wall.  This is called a cold pour. Since the owners never visited the site or had a professional oversee the construction, the contractor finished the house, and by the way, finished the basement.  A year after the house was finished the Owners experienced water in their basement every time it rained. 
  9. The waterproofing:  There many versions of what waterproofing means.  Unfortunately, the older waterproofed homes, in many cases, have foundations that have waterproofed areas that over time have failed.  There are a number of reasons for this.  It could be that the foundation moved and cracked and the waterproofing had become brittle and not elastic.  It could be that improper techniques or inferior products were used.  There are a host of issues.  These need to be reviewed on a case by case basis.  I will tell you that even today, there are “waterproofing” applications that are extremely minimal and invite problems down the road.  One thing to check on, if you can find the information,  is what guarantee to do have?  I just read a waterproofing guarantee on a million dollar home that, to me, sounded totally useless.  The guarantee was that after the house was built, if it was determined that the basement leakage was the fault of the waterproofing, the company would pay to reapply the waterproof coating a no cost.  Think about that for a moment.  You house is built, you have a fortune in landscaping, the entire yard is picture perfect, and now you are responsible for digging it all up to expose the foundation so that the waterproofing company can reapply their product which failed the first time.  After that, you are responsible for filling the foundation back in, and replacing any landscaping, walkways, driveways, etc.. that were affected.  Not only that, there is an exclusion clause in the waterproofing warranty that protects them from being sued by you for all items in the interior.  So if you have a finished basement, you are responsible for all damages caused by the faulty waterproofing.
  10. The floor slabs:  In some cases water does not come from any of the above items, but rather from the ground below the basement slab.  Most water during a rainstorm is retained by the surface ground and eventually makes it way down into the earth.  That is why we have wells below the surface.  Some of these wells can be hundreds of feet down.  Some pockets of water can lie just below our basement slab.  We generally use the term “underground spring” to describe these pockets.  Some are small and do no harm to the house because there is a plastic barrier required in all construction directly below concrete slab basement floors as well as gravel that will allow water to stay there for a while before going further into the earth below.  Over time, these pockets of water can build up to where they do manage to come through the basement floor slab.  They may come up in a control joint in the concrete or along the perimeter of the foundation walls, or maybe in a crack that has developed over time.  Fortunately there is a relatively easy solution which I will discuss in part two.

 This part one blog will be followed by Basement Water Leakage Solutions (part two).  For now, please feel free to use this as a check list to help you determine if any of these items help you discover possible areas that may be linked to your problem.  Remember, there could easily be more than just one item listed that can cause water leakage in basements as well as other factors I have not listed.