Basement Mistakes pt 1– Thinking that a smelly basement is okay.

moisture and odors can find their way upstairs from the basement
One of the most common misconceptions about the basement, and this even reaches into my childhood, is that the basement has a “smell” and that all basements have that same “smell.”

Seeing as many of your neighbors’ basements smell similar, it’s turned into a social norm that all basements have a musty or damp odor to them. Not only is this considered normal it is now also considered “expected.” This however, is not the reality, and many homeowners, new and old, have had a hard time recently getting their heads around why this shouldn’t be considered acceptable.

Odors and smells originate from processes, in this case the damp or musty odors are originating from moisture in the air. When moisture in the air is at a normal level, you typically don’t smell anything, heck, there’s moisture in the air all the time and you can’t smell it.

So why do you smell it in the basement and not some other part of your home?

You smell it all the time in your bathroom after a shower, or in the kitchen after cooking a pasta dish; extra moisture in the air is the cause of the musty smell in the basement air. One problem with the basement is that this moisture can collect and linger, which makes these smells worse. The other is that the basement is constantly subjected to inward migration of moisture through the foundation walls and floors. The basement will never stop getting moisture and airflow from the soil around your foundation.

By not addressing these smells you are basically letting moisture sit in your basement or you're allowing for the cause of the moisture in the basement go unchecked. This can lead to a few things that are much larger problems:

1.) Mold and Mildew – they both need a cool, dark, and damp place to live. Excess moisture makes it easier for mold to grow and spread in the basement. Even in small amounts mold and mildew can cause serious health problems and can potentially damage property (finished walls, carpets, clothes, etc.).

2.) Ruined Insulation – Even if a small amount of moisture accumulates in your insulation, up to 95% of it’s R-Value can be rendered useless.

3.) Damp Finished walls – Sagging ceilings, warped floors and other damage can drastically affect the mood and feel of a finished space.

4.) Unusable space – High enough moisture and humidity levels in a basement can really make the space unpleasant to be in.

5.) Damaged property – TVs, Electronics, and leather couches are all very temperature and moisture sensitive. If you’re placing any of these things in the finished space of your basement, and you still have a smell/odor caused by a moisture issue, you could be throwing money out the window.

6.) Unaddressed leak or flooding potential – Sometimes the moisture is a key indicator that there is an active leak or history with flooding and water. Repairing cracks, addressing leaks, and installing moisture control can help to solve these issues.

Thinking that the smell in the basement is “okay” or “normal” is one of the Top 6 Most Common Basement Mistakes that homeowners and builders make. The good news is that the mind set is changing in homeowners and many are becoming more home health conscious which is forcing them to look at their basement for potential problems.

picture thanks to http://www.arborteas.com/


The 6 most common basement mistakes...

Over the next few weeks I'll be discussing in detail why this list should be paid attention too. Many homeowners disregard the basement as an "extra" part of the home, and because of this, many times becomes neglected.

The top 6 most common Basement Mistakes are:

*Thinking that a smelly basement is okay
*Not having a dehumidifier or not emptying it regularly
*Thinking that a basement is not part of the house
*Having an open sump pit or an open drainage system
*Finishing a basement using wood or other organic material
*Not testing for Radon every 2 years


Reader Question & Answer: Why is my basement wall discolored?

stained brick wallThere can be a few reasons why your basement walls might look discolored.

The first major reason would be that the basement wall has gotten into direct contact with a high concentration of moisture. Water build up, rain, flooding, or just the depth of your basement relative to your water table can cause this darkening of your basement wall. This typically doesn’t go away, but it will change with seasons (sometimes).

Second reason this could be happening is that you have Mold growth on your foundation walls. The combination of factors that could be adding to this would be a plaster coating on your foundation wall (skim coating) and moisture contact with that surface. Mold won’t grow unless there are spores present to germinate on the organic material and water to drink. Mold tends to also enjoy darker areas, so this might happen more behind solid objects like a bookshelf or appear in the furthest corners away from major light sources.

Third reason this could happen would be Mildew. Like mold it will need moisture and organic material found in the skim coating covering your foundation walls. It is slick and if forming on your basement floor can be extremely hazardous.

Forth reason is a staining caused by an oil-based product. Heating oil, lubrication oil, paint thinner or gasoline are all things that can cause staining on concrete. These stains are extremely hard, if not impossible, to remove from the surface of concrete. Other things can color your basement walls like paint or wood stains. Whenever working with materials such as this make sure to use a drop cloth to protect from spills.

Other Observations

If you see that the stain is rust colored this could be a sign that your rod ties are leaking/seeping water.

If there are white efflorescent patterns (normally look like ocean waves) on your wall, this is a tell tail sign that water has, in fact, evaporated from that surface. This also means that water is finding its way through your foundation wall, however slowly it might be.

Photo thanks to Mayang.com

Related Reading and Links

Read about the Top 6 Basement Mistakes that contractors and homeowners make.

Ask Jacob A question Directly on Pioneer Basement's Help Forums!


Reader Question: Are Vapor Barriers Safe?

This was an interesting question that someone asked me the other day. Every application that I’ve ever used Vapor Barriers in have been safe but I was still startled that I didn’t have a more detailed answer as to “Why they are safe.” I decided to look into it further.
Vapor barriers are inherently safe. There are however, ways of using them and installing them improperly that make them unsafe. The good news is that there are things to look into and look out for when researching a vapor barrier for your basement or construction project.

Vapor Barriers are typically a thin sheet of plastic (composition varies from brand to brand), normally polyethylene, that are placed on basement walls, or on new home walls to minimize the amount of moisture, water, and or air from penetrating into the home.

Being that vapor barriers and diffusers are now considered normal parts of most construction projects (residential and commercial) there are things that have to be considered. Introducing a vapor barrier on the 1st and 2nd floor requires a different list of considerations than those installed on the foundation itself. With the two areas being drastically different in how moisture and liquid water attempt to enter the spaces, the grade of vapor barrier and the way that it’s installed has to be different.

To make sure that you’re using the right Vapor Barrier for your basement moisture control and installing it the right way follow these simple tips:

1.) Find a Vapor Barrier (Not a diffuser) with a PERM rating of .001 or lower. The lower the number the better it can stop moisture from coming through.

2.) Don’t install it on the front of your studs before placing dry wall on top of it. This is the wrong way to do things. Vapor barriers should always be installed directly on the foundation wall.

3.) Make sure the vapor barrier is smooth and that all openings are sealed, taped or caulked closed. This will limit air transfer and will help to make sure that your vapor barrier isn’t allowing any bad things to come with the air from underneath your basement floor.

4.) Run your vapor barrier to an interior drain system like the GrateDrain. If you don’t you’ll end up with pools of water, moisture and condensation along your bottom edge. Connecting your vapor barrier to a drain controls where the moisture/water end up. Channeling it to a drain system fully protects your wall.

And here are a few “common sense” safety tips:

*Keep out of the mouths of children
*Don’t let a child or a person wrap a vapor barrier around their nose or mouth
*Don’t stab pointy, sharp or jagged objects into the vapor barrier, you can puncture it and render it useless.
*Use a Basement Health Contractor to properly install this vapor barrier.
*Don’t install it on the outside of finished studs in the basement.


Sump pumps aren’t the only things that solve wet basements

Having blogged about basement waterproofing for well over 2 years now, I’ve come across plenty of misunderstandings about sump pumps and their place in the waterproofing “solution bag.”

Many customers call, thinking that all they need is a sump pump, when the majority of the cases, it couldn’t be further from the actual solution.

The sump pump is a mechanical device that sits on the front lines of any moisture issue in the basement. It is designed to be the easiest, quickest, and most volume displacing method of getting water out from underneath your basement floor. Sump pumps are a great answer if all you have is ground water coming in contact with your basement floor. However, it’s very rare that this would be the ONLY way that water was trying to get into your basement.

There are two other ways that water typically comes into the basement (and I’ve talked at length about these): inward migration of moisture through the foundation walls and water coming in through the gap between the footing and foundation wall.

Unless the moisture and liquid water somehow only get diverted to underneath the basement floor, and you experience absolutely not seepage around the floor/wall joint, then it’s possible that the sump pump might be the only solution you need. But 99% of the time, the sump pump is only part of the solution.

Other solutions to consider:

Interior Drainage

A subfloor drainage system can help to capture most of the water coming through the footing / wall joint that a sump pump alone would miss. Interior drainage is connected to the sump location and can in fact help the sump pump to deal with more volume then just the sump alone. Drainage at the other end of the basement can help to ferry water through it’s channels to the pump, where as in the pump would have to work twice as hard to reach the same water.

Water, a natural level, will always seek its own level. As a sump pump works it lowers the level of water near it, however, the water further away is still at a slightly higher level. This creates a shift and the water will rock to level itself out naturally. If drainage was present, the water could uniformly be removed faster and with less resistance.

Foundation Wall Vapor Barrier

Vapor Barriers have had people confused for years now. Correctly attaching a vapor barrier directly to the foundation wall will drastically limit humidity and the level of moisture that can break into the basement via the foundation walls. Vapor barrier can be directly connected to interior drainage and any moisture or liquid water that is trapped by it, will find its way to the drain and be directed to the sump pump basin.

One of the most common questions that I’ve received about Vapor Barrier is “Do I need it?”

The answer as I’ve stated before, is a strongly suggestive YES. It will help to completely address all the possible entry points of moisture into the basement, provide long term protection against wall leaks and wicking.

If you don’t use a vapor barrier, I wouldn’t suggest finishing off the basement until you did.


WHO concludes that excess home moisture can lead to increased levels of illness in homes.

Over the past two months Indoor Environment Connections (ieconnections.com) has reported directly on a release by the World Health Organization of conclusive data relating to a direct correlation between increased levels of home moisture and illness in the occupants of the home.

Both in August and September, the newsletter of ieconnections.com has made direct quotes from this release of the WHO, which finally concludes on a theory that many indoor air quality experts, basement waterproofing, and HVAC companies have had for the better part of 30 years.

The publication states that occupants of buildings with high moisture content are 75% likelier to become ill then the occupants of buildings with better indoor air quality. This figure isn’t astonishing to the companies and professionals in the field, however, for many home and building owners it’s helping to motivate them to change their Indoor Air Quality conditions.

In September the WHO announced it’s official guide lines to help building owners and homeowners get a better handle on the ways they can better their individual air quality.


The next logical step.
Many basement waterproofing companies, including the entire contractor network of Grate Products, has believed that the upward migration of air from the basement to the rest of the home plays a huge part in this. More than 40-50% of the air you breathe on the first floor has been linked directly to the basement or crawl space holding up the home, so one would think that if to completely control the moisture levels of the home, one would have to also control them in the basement.

“I’ve been saying this for the better part of the last 20 years,” says Steve Andras, President of Grate Products LLC, “If people want to truly control the moisture content in their homes, get control of the odors, must, and dampness in their air, then they need to look at the basement.”

Multiple methods of basement waterproofing and moisture control have been installed over the past hundred years, but it’s only with the most recent technology that homeowners have a better chance of actually getting close to 100% control over the moisture in their basements.

The WHO hasn’t made a distinctive point about the best methods to repair, but have made arguments for why a household should manage the moisture content of their home. On page 36 section 3.2 of their guide they also discuss the various methods that water does infiltrate the space.

On page 61 the WHO makes some basic recommendations about how to limit the amount of moisture with basic instructions.

Having some distinctive differences between this list and some of the Building Science’s findings, it will be interesting to see how the guide evolves in the future.