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An Ounce Of Prevention | Spring 2008 Out Here Magazine

Check your home's drainage to avert damage

By Andrea Estrada

Damp walls or puddles in the basement may seem like minor inconveniences, but in reality they could represent a homeowner's worst nightmare. Water seeping into a basement or foundation can result in a host of structural problems from unsightly — and unhealthy — mold and mildew to dry rot or worse. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the saying goes, and taking the time to check your home and surrounding area for adequate drainage is the key to avoiding costly repairs.

"Remediation is always expensive," says Dan Rogers, an extension agricultural engineer at Kansas State University. "There are a few things homeowners can do to keep problems from developing." The goal, he notes, is to keep water from meeting up with the foundation.

A home's first line of protection against water damage is its rain gutter system, Rogers says. Rain gutters collect water as it runs off the roof and carry it to strategically placed downspouts that direct it away from the house.

"Check rain gutters periodically and make sure they aren't clogged with leaves or other debris that would prevent water from moving to the downspout," he says. "Otherwise, the gutter will overflow and water will collect where you don't want it."

Also, check downspouts to make sure they're functioning properly and sending water in the right direction.

The second line of protection against water damage is the slope of the yard. "Make sure it's graded such that water doesn't gather against the foundation," Rogers says.

To check the grade, lay a 2-by-4 board on the ground with one end touching the foundation and the other extending into the yard. Place a level on the wood, and the bubble will let you know whether the ground slopes toward the foundation or away from it. A slope toward the foundation spells potential disaster.

Any landscaping you do to spruce up your yard also can affect water drainage because it can change the directional flow of surface water.

"If you suddenly have water in your basement, go outside and see where it's collecting," Rogers says. "Look and see what's been done in that area outside. Maybe you moved a kiddie pool or a big flower pot that left a depression."

As you check for potential problem areas, don't forget to examine your home's basic construction. Locate, fill, and seal any cracks in the foundation (or call a professional to do it for you), and check for grading in window wells. If water has collected beneath the foundation, a drain tile system may be necessary. Like rain gutters, a drain tile system directs water away from the house, but does so beneath the structure. And, like rain gutters, a drain tile system must be cleaned out occasionally to prevent clogging.

Not every instance of water or dampness in a basement indicates a structural or landscaping problem, Rogers notes.

"It can be a condensation problem from the inside," he says "In that case, a dehumidifier will do the trick. Sometimes you have to do some diagnostics and determine whether the problem is inside or outside."

Andrea Estrada is a writer in Santa Barbara, CA.