By Matt Menke
We’ve all seen it — those stains, trickles, puddles and outright floods in our basements after a heavy rain. Ruined finishes, dead appliances and mold aren’t far behind. As frustrating as the damage can be, homeowners can also face a dizzying range of opinions about possible fixes, too. And the advice you may receive? Whoever owns a backhoe thinks you should waterproof your foundation. The sledge hammer guy is happy to sell you a french drain. The drywall dude is eager to rip everything out and refinish your entire basement — again. What to do?
At first glance, waterproofing your foundation might seem like a silver bullet. Improving grading and drainage in your yard may be a better bet, though. Effectively managing stormwater outside can often dry things inside, and at a much lower cost.
Trying to find the source of the problem water is the first step. In the next hard rain, outside and watch exactly where water is coming from — and going. If water has already found a path below grade, you may never see a puddle outside afterward. Try to capture photos of how stormwater moves through your yard so you don’t have to rely on your potentially frazzled memory once the sun’s out again. Getting a sure feel for how water moves across your yard can be key to figuring out how to manage the flow.
French drains typically address one problem: water running down your wall and across your floor — but they can create other problems, at the same time. Outdoor water suddenly has a direct path in, and that same path eventually will fill up with soil. Your sump pump might fail in a heavy thunderstorm, right when you need it most. All that water is still leaching minerals out of your masonry, and installing a French drain is no walk in the park. It also requires removing your basement finishes before it can be installed.
Remember that gravity is your friend. (And It’s free and never has a power outage)! The first rule of stormwater is that it falls from the sky. The second rule of stormwater is that it always flows to the lowest point — think of it as gravity in motion. Those mossy patio spots on your patio, those muddy spots where dirt and small debris wash up — all good clues about low spots.
Many of College Park’s older homes have had time for soil around the foundations to settle; builders didn’t systematically grade new neighborhoods until relatively recently. Time, and established foundation plants, that lift the grade, often cause soil to slope towards, rather than away from foundation walls. And hardscaping — walkways, patios and driveways — can also settle over time and end up channeling water directly to your home. All of these issues, along with the increasingly strong storms we’re experiencing, add up to a sizable problem for many of us.
Sizeable stormwater problems call for creative solutions. Once you have a good sense of how water flows through your yard, it’s time to think about grading soil away from your foundation. Grading is not rocket science, but it can be physically demanding, and the right degree of incline (a 6-inch drop across the first 10 feet from your foundation) is critical to achieving optimal results. Once you’ve considered the grading improvements you may benefit from, think about working with a landscaper who specializes in grading and drainage if you’re not up to all that work yourself. An experienced landscaper can often work around existing plants and trees, reset sunken hardscaping and create swales and culverts to direct water in a more constructive way. Imagine a stone in a stream, diverting the flow of water around itself. And they may incorporate clay in their plans — in many instances, it’s a bit of a miracle worker — Clay is dense, so water tends to run off rather than sink into it, and it also wicks moisture from below that then can evaporate. Best not to place tarps or plastic sheeting below grade; while they may divert surface water, they also trap and hold moisture underneath. Drying the ground around your foundation between storms is a critical part of keeping your basement dry.
Window wells let light in, and they also allow ground water to evaporate before permeating your foundation. The metal wall of a window well should extend 4-6 inches above the grade to keep standing water and snowmelt out. You can top a window well with a rainproof cover so long as there is a sizable opening for air circulation, which is critical to that evaporation. Gravel in the well should ideally be 18 to 24 inches deep; this increases the surface area to evaporate moisture. Keeping the well clear of leaves and debris is essential. Ditto with floor drains in exterior stairwells.
If your property has major challenges that are beyond your skillset — a steep hill directing water your way, for example, or a finished basement that’s critical to your household — you may need to turn to not only a landscaper, but a contractor experienced in waterproofings. Be careful, be thoughtful, and ask questions. Get referrals from satisfied (or unsatisfied) friends in the neighborhood. Check listings in Washington Consumers’ Checkbook; their independent research is unbiased and their customer reviews can’t be gamed as with some other lists.
The Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Rain Check Rebate Program may be a resource, offering both solutions and savings. The program provides rebates on qualifying landscape projects that specifically reduce stormwater runoff. Rain gardens, rain barrels and installation of permeable surfaces (think driveways, walkways, patios) may qualify. The program offers a roster of approved contractors who’ve gone through their training program and will know how to tackle stormwater management on your property.
Knowledge brings power, and I hope that reading this column has been informative for you. So, what are you going to do? I hope you can’t wait for the first big rain after the project, so you can go outside and watch your new systems work wonders. Let me know how your water works by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.