Solutions for leaky basements

Wettening climate requires homeowners to take action

Basement water intrusion
Basement water intrusion is unpleasant, unsanitary, unsightly — and costly, if left untreated. Illustration courtesy of Shutterstock

Before buying a vintage home near Lake Nokomis, California transplant Jen Schneider had as much experience with wet basements as lifelong Minnesotans have with earthquakes.

By 2017, she’d seen enough. Schneider hired SafeBasements of Minnesota, a Litchfield-based outfit that does basement waterproofing and water mitigation work throughout the Twin Cities Metro, to install drain tile and a sump pump in her circa-1905 home’s partially finished basement.

The SafeBasements crew cut a narrow sand-and-rock-lined trench along her foundation walls, tunneling under an interior staircase and mortar wall and then added a drain pipe and laid concrete over the cover. The apparatus “works like a rain gutter inside the house,” said Schneider — diverting foundation seepage toward a powerful pump that blasts water away from the foundation during heavy rains and melts.

Today, Schneider’s basement isn’t truly waterproof. Water still seeps down the walls at times. But SafeBasements’ solution virtually eliminated the water-related threats that many Southwest Minneapolis residents know all too well: mold, mildew, wet flooring, foundation damage.

Schneider was ahead of the curve. Earlier this year, below-grade water mitigation took on new urgency amid record late-winter snowfall followed by a rapid, early thaw and an unusually cold, wet spring. March brought serious drainage woes in normally dry neighborhoods, leading to widespread basement water intrusion and garage flooding.

Sam Rosch, co-owner of Ace Nicollet Hardware in Kingfield, said the year’s first half brought a crush of customers who’d never before dealt with water in the basement.

“This is a bad year for water intrusion,” he said.

As Minnesota’s climate warms and wettens, sodden springs could become the norm. That’s bad news not only for homeowners like Schneider, whose leaky basement is the price of admission to the vintage home club, but for owners of newer, ostensibly sound houses, too. And it portends busy seasons ahead for water mitigation outfits like SafeBasements of Minnesota.

A freshly dug trench awaits drain tile and a concrete cap. Submitted photo

Digging the trench

Schneider is happy with her basement’s water mitigation system, but things very easily could have gone differently. Of her four pre-project quotes, only SafeBasements’ omitted a costly, unnecessary new wall. One contractor went so far as to ask Schneider, patronizingly, “what color I wanted my new wall to be,” she recalled.

Prospective water mitigation customers can avoid succumbing to overselling by learning about the work ahead of time, said Schneider. Homeowners with a basic understanding of their options are better placed to politely say “no” to work they don’t need.

Drain tile customers should also think ahead to post-project cosmetics, said Schneider. Sump pumps generally sit in the concrete slab, with only a pole and some wiring visible above grade, so they’re easy to conceal. Because it’s usually a different color than the rest of the slab, the concrete trench covering is more of a challenge. In the unfinished portion of Schneider’s basement, hers is plain as day. Carpeting or water-resistant hard flooring does the job in finished areas; solid-color basement paint ties unfinished floors together.

Anatomy of a drain tile system

Drain tile isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to basement water intrusion. System configurations vary depending on the severity of the problem and basement function, among other variables. For instance, lower-profile wall edging is appropriate in finished areas, where minimizing the system’s visual impact is important. In unfinished, little-used basements, heavier-duty edging may be appropriate.

Still, high-volume installers have the process down to a science. The team begins by jackhammering out the trench and draining all adjacent block cores, said Randy Kragenbring, production manager for SafeBasements of Minnesota. Next, they install the edging, trench lining and drain tile. They then place the sump pump, usually in an unfinished area near a power source. Finally, they cover the trench with a smooth layer of concrete.

Most residential projects take a day or two. Schneider’s 2017 job took a day and a half, she said, with a 2019 follow-up taking less than a full day. Although cost per linear foot drops as the system grows, the all-in cost is still highly dependent on the length of tile needed, said Kragenbring.

Installing a sump pump without drain tile typically costs less than $2,000, according to HomeAdvisor, but a full-perimeter drain tile system like Schneider’s runs $10,000 or more. At approximately $6,000, Schneider’s was a relative bargain. Few homeowners’ insurance policies cover basement water intrusion; homeowners without flood insurance may need to pay out of pocket or tap their home equity to defray project costs.

Properly installed drain tile systems don’t just mitigate standing water. They also hinder another subterranean threat: radon, the bane of many a finished basement.

“Our product is radon-ready, if needed,” said Kragenbring. SafeBasements’ solution is semi-sealed, meaning it “allows water to pass through while keeping gases out of the home,” he said.

Drain tile isn’t an alternative to a professionally installed radon mitigation system, of course — it just doesn’t exacerbate any existing radon issues. Kragenbring advises homeowners who notice foundation cracks to check their basement radon levels, even if their neighbors have no known issues.

A worker drills small “weep holes” that funnel water from the foundation exterior into the drainage system. Submitted photos

Cleaning up the mess

What happens when water mitigation comes too late?

For serious water intrusion events during heavy rains and melts, Rosch said, homeowners should use a Quick Dam flood barrier, a relatively inexpensive sandbag-like product that sops up exterior water before it seeps into the foundation. Once the exterior is dry, apply outdoor caulking or polyurethane sealant to cracks between the foundation and concrete aprons or flush sidewalks — common features in many older Southwest Minneapolis homes.

Inside a finished space, time is of the essence, Rosch said. Use towels to soak up excess water on carpet or hardwood, and then thoroughly clean dried carpet with carpet cleaner. Mold spray shouldn’t be necessary after short soaks, Rosch said, but may be a good idea for homeowners who’ve returned home from vacation to still-soaked basement carpet. In either case, run a fan and dehumidifier through the space until everything is dry to the touch.

Drying an unfinished basement is easier. Squeegee excess water into an open floor drain, if one is available, said Rosch. If not, rent or buy a wet-dry vacuum to transfer water from the floor to your utility sink.

Attacking the root causes of wet basements

Of course, without professional mitigation, it’s only a matter of time before you’re back where you started. Even Kragenbring, who makes his living selling professional basement water mitigation solutions, stresses the importance of prevention.

“Exterior grading, insulation and cleaning gutters [are all] very important,” he said.

Homeowners should also patch cracked or crumbling foundation walls with wet-set mortar, Rosch said. Wet-set mortar is common, inexpensive and easy to use, typically drying in less than five minutes.

Just don’t expect that to permanently solve the problem, Rosch said.

“A lot of people thinking patching or applying DryLok [a waterproof paint] inside is all they need to do, but that’s really a temporary solution,” said Rosch. “It’s really important to take care of the problem on the outside.”

Often, that’s as simple as cleaning your gutters or extending their downspouts away from your foundation. SafeBasements’ Kragenbring recommends at least 6 feet of clearance.

Confident DIYers can mitigate minor grading issues on their own by adding soil around the foundation walls and leveling to a slight, uniform positive grade away from the structure. More serious grading issues generally require professional mitigation, which can be costly.

“We don’t see many homeowners trying to build their own exterior French drains,” said Rosch.

Carpet conceals a leaky corner in  Jen Schneider’s basement.
Carpet conceals a leaky corner in
Jen Schneider’s basement.

When you need a pro

In Jen Schneider, Kragenbring and SafeBasements of Minnesota have at least one satisfied customer near Southwest Minneapolis. As snowy late winters and soggy springs become more common, they’ll no doubt add more.

With all the work they can handle, Kragenbring asks Southwest Minneapolis homeowners not to call SafeBasements until after they’ve attempted to treat the root cause of the intrusion.

“If, after you got the property professionally graded, you still get water in your basement, call a foundation professional to look it over,” he said.

They’ll be waiting.