In Irene’s wake: Time for a waterproofing?

Consumer Reports News: August 30, 2011 04:21 PM

If you live on the East coast, chances are you’re still at least talking about Hurricane Irene. But for people whose basements remain wet from the storm, the talking is over—with the decision to waterproof reached unanimously. Sound familiar? If so, your next step is research. Besides looking into contractors friends and neighbors might recommend, what’s involved? Here’s a rundown, from personal experience:

In our home in upper Westchester, NY, water had been seeping through our cinder-block foundation, in increasing amounts, every spring when Nor’easters drenched a yard already saturated from melted ice. The three contractors we spoke with described a similar process for installing a French-drain system. We’d move everything in the basement (except the boiler and oil tank) forward about four feet from the wall and cover everything possible.

Workers would come in and, over a day or two, jackhammer a trench along the foundation’s inner perimeter. They’d install a sump pump or two in one or more corners, lay perforated piping in the trench, and cement it back up with a barrier in place in the bottom six inches of the wall. The theory was that any water that leaked in would hit the barrier and spill into the perforated pipe. Water would then be channeled to the sump pump, which would remove the water once it hit a certain level beneath the floor.

While it looked too easy to work, we’ve not gotten a drop of water in the house through several subsequent storms, including Irene. Some advice:

Getting by without. If you haven’t yet reached the point that waterproofing is vital, there’s plenty you can do. Roll up any area rugs. Move any boxes, electronic gear, and other items that can be damaged to higher points. If you have any extension cords and other live electrical wires on the floor, raise them also. And if the water coming in fills your basement more than a couple of inches, a sump pump can get the level down to where you can attack the rest with a wet vac. On our Ridgid wet vac, I’ve installed a pump so that we don’t have to carry several gallons of water upstairs after each time the vac is full.

Expect a sales pitch. One company we spoke with described an external excavation/waterproofing job ($45,000 not counting replacing our stoop, deck, driveway and most landscaping) before detailing what they do instead. Their interior French-drain system looked like a bargain after hearing about external work, but the estimate for that system still came in at twice the price of the other companies we consulted.

Watch the extras. One company whose price came close to that of the contractor we chose also tried to sell us an air-exchange system. The reason, it turned out, was that the workers would have left a ¾-inch gap between the wall and the floor along most of the foundation. Fearing greater humidity levels than our current dehumidifier could handle, we decided against that company.

Hammer out the details. How many feet in from the wall would you have to move items? With a huge workbench to take apart and lots of boxes and bins around, even a foot mattered to us. Would they do the job in a day? Ours did. The company we hired also gave us manuals for the installed pumps, gave instructions to pass along to the electrician, and left us with numerous numbers to call if a pump stopped working.

Protect important gear. Even though everything in your basement should be covered by the time workers fire up the jackhammer, expect dust to get into every opening possible. Take computer and consumer-electronic products away, and keep it there till you’ve cleared the air downstairs.

Consider a generator. Whatever you spend on waterproofing is a waste if your power tends to go out and your pumps can’t turn on. Check out our buying advice for generators.

It’s easy, when your home is dry, to think about the waterproofing you need to do “sometime.” Our decision came this past spring, when my wife and I spent round-the-clock days of soaking and vacuuming up water. Never again, we said. If we didn’t do it now, in another 10 or 15 years we might never get to it. And today, we feel more than lucky that it came through for us.

Ed Perratore

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