The bottom line on keeping your foundation solid

04/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Though water isn’t the chief cause of foundation damage, one sure way to keep your basement dry is to pitch the land around it, and be sure gutters and leaders are doing their jobs. Certified structural engineer Joseph Fischetti of Southold shows how a drip pan placed under the gutter down spout helps direct water away from a foundation.

The recent heavy flooding across the North Fork has forced many home¬­owners to spend lots of time bailing out their basements. And while standing knee-deep in chilly water, some people may have been alarmed by the specter of permanent damage to the foundation.

But is it likely that this unprecedented deluge has caused serious structural problems in the bowels of your house? Probably not, according to the experts.

According to Kathy Gleason, coordinator with Woodford Bros., an East Coast company that tackles damaged foundations, a one-time flooding event would not cause harm, absent the presence of some other compromising issue, like an improperly constructed foundation.

Southold structural engineer and building inspector Joseph Fischetti agrees that a sudden influx of water generally does not harm a foundation. “Trees are much more of a problem in terms of foundation damage. They will put lateral pressure on concrete block foundations. Remember, a house load is vertical, so foundations generally hold up well,” he said.

Mr. Fischetti also says that settling and cracking of foundations feared by many homeowners does not occur if a house is properly built. “Once you get past the first year in a new home, you won’t develop a problem.”

Older homes in our area tend to have foundations composed of stacked stones “which are very stable. And our soil is fairly good and we don’t have earthquakes, so foundations out here are mostly solid and stable,” he says.

But water can lead to other problems within the home, as local residents know only too well — especially because many of a home’s essential components are housed in the basement. And anyone who has stored surplus items in a damp basement has likely dealt with mold.

Riverhead architect Gary Jacquemin says most homeowners already know if their basements are prone to flooding. Because of the unusual ferocity of this winter’s storms, though, many people in our area will have experienced extensive flooding for the first time.

“The high waters are unusual. These were the kind of storms you might experience once every hundred years,” Mr. Jacquemin said.

He advises that if you believe your basement is vulnerable to flooding you should take a close look at how the foundation is waterproofed. “A lot also may depend on how high the foundation is. Much of the time, too, water comes in through basement window wells if they’re not high enough,” he said. “If you do have a water problem, then install a sump pump to take care of it. As a preventive measure, you should also raise the water heater and air conditioning components off the floor.”

Mr. Fischetti suggests taking steps to redirect water. “You have to control the flow of water. When I design foundations for hurricane tidal areas, we put in flood vents to relieve the pressure,” he commented. He also says flooding is almost always the result of improper grading. “It’s usually surface water,” he said. “We don’t often find that groundwater is causing a flooding issue. If does happen to be groundwater, then French drains and sump pumps may be the answer.”

Mr. Fischetti recently installed two sump pumps in a Greenport basement for an owner who wanted to store items beneath the house. “The building inspector said it was the only house in Greenport without a flooded basement in that last big storm,” he chuckled.

Craig Rosenberg of North Shore Exterminating says he sees the consequences of too much moisture in the basement all the time — and it’s not just termites that reap the benefit.

“You should try and keep mulch away from the foundation because, as a wood product, it’s the perfect harbor for ants, earwigs and crickets,” says Mr. Rosenberg. “Trees and bushes that are too close to the foundation may attract carpenter ants. There should be no puddling near the foundation at all.”

Mr. Rosenberg recommends keeping an eye out for damp spots and trying to waterproof the foundation, gutters and leaders. “If the gutters are filled with debris, you’ll attract pests,” he says. “Ditto a damp basement.”

He advises checking on a regular basis for cracks that may allow insects to breach the foundation. “Termites can also run through the hollows in hollow block foundations,” he cautions.

On a final note, Mr. Fischetti observes that, while water generally will not directly cause foundation problems, if moisture does attract pests, some unlucky homeowners may find the basement supports eventually weakened by termite infestation. “Keep the water out at all costs,” he said.