While basements aren't as common in the Northwest as they are in some parts of the country (think deep-cold Midwest states where builders must dig below the frost line to pour the foundation), many older neighborhoods in Washington and Oregon do include homes with basements. If you're lucky enough to find one, make sure you know the best way to use it.
Unfinished, minimally heated basements can be prone to dampness. When it comes to storage, you'll want to head off damage before it starts, beginning with what not to keep there:
- Books, photographs, artwork or important documents. Humid, poorly ventilated environments degrade paper, leading to mold, mildew, fading and pages sticking together. An added ick factor? Insects. They're attracted to paper, including cardboard storage boxes, as a cozy home and food source. And even reliably dry basements can fall victim to burst pipes that ruin whatever lies below them.
- Electronics. Over time, moisture can damage sensitive electronic components, meaning while the outside may look fine, rust inside may ruin your stored game system, microwave, stereo, TV or small kitchen appliances.
- Musical instruments. Be especially careful with wind instruments (that you'll be putting up to your mouth) because of unseen interior mold growth.
- Upholstered furniture and mattresses. Because of the potential for mold and mildew growth, time spent in a damp basement can render upholstered items unusable. Even with no visible signs of mold or mildew, upholstered cushions can take on musty basement odors that are practically impossible to shake.
- Grains and other semi-perishable foods. That includes rice, cereal, snack foods and bags of pet food that can draw moisture and spoil. Food in paper or plastic bags also can invite insects and rodents.
INSTEAD, FOCUS ON THESE GOOD CANDIDATES FOR BASEMENT STORAGE:
- Outdoor seasonal items. Keep your patio set protected during the off season, as well as holiday displays (with batteries removed), sports equipment, lawn sprinklers and gardening tools.
- Washable off-season clothes and linens. Place clean and fully dry clothes in vacuum-sealed bags along with a silica gel desiccant pack to absorb moisture. To re-fluff, wash before you need to use them. That also will take care of any "basementy" smell they've developed.
- Canning jars. Empty glass jars take up a lot of cupboard space, so they're perfect for basement storage until canning season rolls around again.
- Buy-in-bulk supplies. Those wholesale store quantities of zipper bags, laundry soap and more all can be safely stored in the basement.
The key to success for storing basement-friendly items: Keep everything up on shelves and slightly away from walls so it won't draw moisture from the concrete or get damaged in case of minor flooding. Rely on plastic, rather than cardboard storage boxes, and periodically check rarely moved boxes to make sure they haven't become a home for insects or rodents.
HOW TO MINIMIZE BASEMENT MOISTURE
Besides leading to mold, rot and insect problems, persistent dampness can accelerate settling and cracking of your foundation. All are considered maintenance-related problems typically not covered by homeowners insurance.
Basement moisture comes from condensation, leakage or both. Generally, condensation is easiest to fix. Solutions may include eliminating sources of moisture like improperly vented clothes dryers, indoor clothes lines and plumbing leaks; adding exhaust fans and dehumidifiers and improving air flow (getting rid of clutter and moving boxes off the floor can help). If you notice moisture during warm weather, condensation may be to blame.
Leaks can be trickier to treat, but simple fixes often yield big gains. You may need a combination of steps:
CONTROL SURFACE WATER:
- Make sure downspouts channel water away from your foundation. Install extenders if your downspouts discharge next to the house. Keep gutters clean and in good repair.
- Consider adding covers to window wells and outside stairwells to deflect rainwater.
- Regrade your landscape so water flows away from your house. Standing water in the yard acts like a "reservoir" for your basement. Driveways and paths should slope away, too.
- If regrading is impractical, install French drains to direct water away from your house. Designs vary, but often, a French drain consists of a narrow gravel-filled trench, landscape fabric and a perforated pipe. It drops at a 1% grade (one inch per hundred feet), combining gravity and the porosity of the rock to draw off and redirect excess surface and ground water.
- Consider installing a dry well and sump pump to prevent flooding after storms or during rapid, heavy snowmelt.
SEAL BASEMENT WALLS:
- Patch visible cracks in basement walls.
- Consider brushing interior concrete walls with a waterproof coating. You may want to consult a specialist first. Depending on the severity of the problem, some contractors say such quick fixes can make things worse, trapping water inside the wall.
- A better but more costly solution may be waterproofing the outside of your foundation with a barrier of plastic, rubber or brushed-on sealant. That means excavation alongside your home, likely with the help of an experienced contractor. These tips can help you find the right one.
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