For the past two weeks, every customer I’ve ever known has called and asked for a wet-basement cure. My first objective: Identify the source of the problem. So I asked each troubled party, “Can you see a Bradford pear tree from your house?” We work a lot down in Williamson County, so the answer was inevitably, “Yes, I can.”
Y’see, Bradford pear trees have a preternatural ability to soak up water all winter long. Then, to make room for the rising sap, they inject all this water back into the soil in one giant springtime flush. A mature Bradford pear tree, in just the right location, can shoot enough water into the soil to blow a middle-size house right off the side of a hill.
If you don’t know what a Bradford pear looks like, just drive along Old Hickory Boulevard in Brentwood. Every tree you can see is a Bradford pear. Can’t get down to Brentwood? Check the landscaping at any Middle Tennessee strip mall, condo complex, or chiropractor’s office. If they’ve got trees, they’re Bradford pears.
Here’s why: What Barbie is to dolls, what paintings of big-eyed, happy clowns are to art, Bradford pears are to trees. If a person walks into a nursery and doesn’t really know what kind of tree he wants, a Bradford pear is what he gets.
I told the wet-basement people that the best curemaybe the only curefor their problem was to take a chain saw and whack those Bradford pear trees to the ground, then apply Round-Up™ liberally to any stump sprouts.
OK, I confess: I might be exaggerating just a tiny bit about Bradford pear trees. Still, cutting ’em down by the trainload couldn’t hurt. We could use a little horticultural diversity around here.
But I do know this about wet basements: Just as all boats leak, all roofs leak, and all dams leak, all basements leak. This is where we home inspector boys run into some weird psychology. Folks wants us to say, “This basement will never leak. Go ahead, put down expensive carpet and deploy fancy furniture. Rest assured that no drop of water shall ever breach these mighty basement walls.”
But it just ain’t so. Water flows downhill, and basements are so downhill, they’re underground. There’s water out there with your basement’s name on it.
Most of the time, the water comes from the house’s own roof. It’s a rare homeowner who takes scrupulous care of his gutters, downspouts, and drains. When gutters or downspouts get clogged, water falls right at the edge of the foundation walls, and it works its way into the basement. If you don’t clean your gutters twice a year, every spring and fall, you’re asking for a wet basement.
At most houses we see, the downspouts either empty right at the foundation wall, or they empty into concrete splash blocks. At best, splash blocks take water about two feet away from the house. At worst, they settle so that they pitch back toward the house. This turns them into actual basement-wetting devices.
Forget splash blocks, go get some black plastic drainpipe. The stuff’s available at any decent hardware store, and it’s so cheap, it’s almost freeabout four bucks for a 10-foot section. If you keep your gutters and downspouts clean, and run the downspouts into 10-foot drainpipes, chances are your basement will only get wet during a 50-year flood.
Beyond these low-tech cures, there are two options. First, there’s letting the water come in, then pumping it out. That’s what basement “de-watering” services do. This is a popular approach (think Bradford pears, Barbie, and big-eyed clowns), and it’s better than having a wet basement. But it’s not the best approach.
The right way to keep water out of a basement is to catch the water before it gets to the house. This involves excavation, which can get expensive. The simplest solution is to dig a swale (a fancy word for a pretty ditch) that directs water away from the house. The extreme solution is to install perimeter drains (what locals call “French drains”) uphill from the house. This involves digging deep and putting pipes and gravel underground.
As a general rule, I say stay with the low-tech, no-digging cures, and don’t put fancy carpet or furniture in the basement.
Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at http://www.nashscene.com/~housesense .