How do you deal with damp, dirt-floor basements?

alisandeSeptember 26, 2006

I've been in this house 30 years, and only in the past few has the basement been a problem. I had to have a section of the living room floor replaced because it had buckled from moisture. The dirt basement floor seems permanently damp and gets slick in spots.

Some areas have big slabs of rock on top of the dirt, but they can get a little slick, too. It just seems like a very unhealthy environment down there, and I'm wondering if there is something I could do about it.



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When you figure it out, let me know, I have the same problem! I am thiking of removing dirt, and either a vapor barrier over dirt and a slab, or gravel over dirt then vapor barrier. I think a vapor barrier will go a long way in solving your problem, at least, that is the advice I have recieved here.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 2:28PM
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Yes, a vapour barrier, as someone here also advised me. I've got an older brick floor and it is mostly damp/moldy. I covered it with plastic which is a great short term solution. For me, I should dig out the bricks, put down plastic and cover it with cement eventually. The problem with just putting plastic over your damp floor is that it will get very moldy under the plastic. You should cover the plastic with sand or something else and should also look at correcting what is causing the floor to be damp - drainage, eavestroughs, etc.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 2:59PM
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Ventillation should always be the first route.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 4:00PM
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We had springs in our basement.We put lots of stone in for drainage ran pipes outside to get rid of excess water.We poured concrete,put a sump pump in,we have a dehumidifier in and havent had any water in 15 years.No dampness.We ran the dehumidifier tube in sump pit,The humidifier is on a timer.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 4:24PM
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If you can find a drain down there I would install a dehumidifier. If no drain then I would still add a dehumidifier but you have to be disciplined enough to go down there every now and then to check the drip pan.

Adding a moisture barrier should be on top on your list, as well as ventilation. You should worry about moisture problems turning into mold problems, and don't forget about Radon.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 4:29PM
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I have had similar problems to what you have described, and I suggest you consider installing a vapor barrier on the floor of your cellar or crawl space.

I recently posted a number of links on this subject on another post over in the Buying and Selling forum. Although the orginal question was from a slightly different angle than your issue it covers crawl space ventilation and vapor barriers. My last post on that thread was a long list of the links I have in my vapor barrier file. It's a very long list, so grab a cup of coffee...

As you will read, there are a number of competing ideas about drying out wet basements, and you have to rememebr that it's different in old houses like ours than with modern construction.

The biggest problem with installing a vapor barrier in older houses is finding a proper surface to attach it to the walls. Without proper attachment you really have only redirected the moisture vapor rising from the soil; it would still be dumped into your basement.

The second problem is what to cover the VB with, as you can't walk on it very much without the risk of damaging it with tiny punctures.

And finally, although it's commonly used I believe that if you're going to go to the trouble of having a VB installed, with all the hassle of securing it to the walls, it would be better to use on of the specialty products (even though they are somewhat more expensive) rather than even heavy-duty regular poly film.

Another solution, which I have not studied in depth, but am thinking about, is to install fancier dehus than I currently rely on. My current ones came from Big Orange, but there are better ones that work in slightly different ways, but they are (naturally) much more expensive!



    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 11:03PM
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Oh, well better late than never.

Here is a link that might be useful: Link to post on vapor barrier and ventilation issues

    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 11:11PM
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alisande: You said that "only in the past few has the basement been a problem."

What changed about your house before the problem started? For example: Have you done landscaping that would affect the grading and drainage outside your house? Have you changed the downspouts or gutters? Have you neglected maintenance of something outside so that draining rainwater now runs down your walls below ground? Have you closed off a doorway or vent in the basement that would have allowed moisture to escape? Have you made the upstairs more draftproof? Did you change the heating system?

When something that has been functioning well for many years suddenly does not work, it is usually better to look for the source of the problem rather than to begin a series of "fixes" that may or may not adress the root cause.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2006 at 6:37AM
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I have a very damp basement.... 1850's house with a stone foundation and dirt floor (indluding a cistern).

For us the main concern in to insulate/vapour barrier the ceiling to keep the moisture from rising to the main floor and above.... can we do that? I can't see any way of insulating or vapour barriering the basement. The entire foundation is below grade so we can't even install 'windows' in order to get better airflow.

Any suggestions?

    Bookmark   September 27, 2006 at 12:13PM
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Sure you could do that.

You'd still have some problems with moisture, though, given that I'm assuming you have a basement door from the main floor of the house.

There are some ventilation solutions you might be able to pursue, as well.

For example, do you have an exterior door to the basement? Leaving that open with a fan blowing in could help as long as it's not a security issue.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2006 at 2:04PM
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Thanks, everyone, for the good information. Sharon, your line of thinking is the way I approach any physical problem that might need medical attention. (I wish the doctors did this instead of whipping out the prescription pad, but that's another story.)

There definitely have been changes, the most suspect being the loss of the gutters. The house was resided and the porch remodeled, and the job was supposed to include new gutters. But I couldn't get commitment on the gutters right away, and the house was gutterless for at least a couple of years. New ones were installed this year.

Also, after my late husband took sick the dischage from the basement sump pump and the washing machine were running into the ground too close to the houseƂsomething I didn't realize right away. I recently had both piped directly into the septic tank.

So I'm guessing it's possible that these two things alone could have caused or contributed substantially to the problem. Perhaps I should do the ventilation thing, at least for starters, and put a window fan in next spring. At the moment I can't afford to even think about something more costly, as the septic work (which included a new tank) rocked my budget.

Does this sound like a plan?

Thanks again,

    Bookmark   September 27, 2006 at 2:54PM
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I would rethink the sump pump into the septic.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2006 at 3:32PM
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I would rethink the sump pump into the septic.


It's a little late for me to rethink it, as it's a done deal as of a few days ago. It was the recommendation of the excavator, who came highly recommended. I hope this isn't going to come back to haunt me later...

    Bookmark   September 27, 2006 at 3:37PM
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The water from your sump pump is clean water. No need to push it through your leach field. It shoud be your last option, but I do not know your property. If its low or drains poolry than it might be your best (not ideal) solution.

That is the problem with collected water, it is hard to "remove". If there is too much, a french drain or dry well will be overwhelmed.

Don't panic, people do it all the time.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2006 at 7:35AM
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We do have a door from the main floor to the basement. The stairwell has JUST been insulated, and I'm thinking we need to vapour barrier. Not a 100% solution but it may help.

We have a basement door (think old hatch on the side of the house.... down some rock stairs) I have asked DH to make a 'screen' door for the bottom of the stairs so we can at least leave the hatch open during the summer/dry periods to help keep some moisure out.

Our biggest concern, if we insulate the ceiling... will it be cold enough for the basement pipes to freeze?

    Bookmark   September 28, 2006 at 11:00AM
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I had an old house (built c1850) with one half of the basement being poured concrete and the front half being half dougout dirt. The problem I had was a previous owner took it upon hmself to put down some wood planks in part of the crawspace to step on and built retaining walls out of non preasure treated wood. The wood was rotting and the whole house would smell like soil when the humidity was up.

Solution was to romove all of the wood ( I also found half a car motor down there) and lay 6 mil poly. The poly would be attached to the walls with accoustical sealant/caulking. BTW there was probably 80 years worth of cobwebs under there too that I cleaned off with an old broom (yuck).

There was sort of a partition between the two but nothing air tight. That meant that the half dougout crawlsapce was somewhat air conditioned. Remember that the vapour barrier should be on the warm side when insulating. If I were to have put the poly on the joists it would not have helped at all. The floor was the only choice. If I had of decided to insulate as well I would have used extruded poly on the walls and on top of the dirt then vapour barrier on top of that. I could have poured conrete over top of that but it wasn't really useable space.

The end result was a much healthier house with no dirt smell. I could see some condensation on the poly film but it wasn't too bad. I could use teh space for storage of stuff in rubbermaid totes now with no worries.

    Bookmark   October 30, 2006 at 10:53AM
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Sounds like your basement was dry when the ground around your house was dry, and you only have water in your basement now because you have water saturating the earth around your basement from the lack of gutters and the washing machine discharge and all the rest. So it makes sense that if you fix these reasons for the ground to be so wet, your basement will dry out. In addition, if you slope the dirt away from your foundation (and possibly cover it with something that will shed water, like concrete or brick), that will help keep your basement dry too.

It doesn't make sense to me to spend money on fixing up your basement with vapor barriers and concrete floors and such when fixing your gutters and the drainage from your household appliances would fix the problem, and those are things you're eventually going to have to do anyway.

I've always had dirt basements, and they've always been dry as long as I kept excess water away from the foundation from the outside. Hope this helps!

    Bookmark   November 9, 2006 at 10:41AM
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we took care of ours because we wanted to use the basement ,didnt want ground floor.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2006 at 2:22PM
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I figured if I had a dehumidifier in my basement I'd be down there ten times a day, emptying it and hauling the water upstairs.

But I think that's a moot point because it appears that a couple of people joined GardenWeb recently, immediately looked up old threads about dampness, and posted links to Reeks of spam to me...

    Bookmark   October 24, 2007 at 8:56AM
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Alisande, we have a damp basement, too, and, like you said it's a pain to empty it. We have to empty it about twice a day in the wet season. As you might imagine, we're really tired of doing this! We wish we had a floor drain to have it empty into, but we don't since it's an old house. What we're going to try to do--and maybe you can do this, too--is figure out how to get the dehumidifier drain into the laundry sink. In our case, we need to rig some sort of hose for it and figure out a way to raise the dehumidifier to the proper height. But maybe you don't have a sink in your basement... :(

Even so, a dehumidifier is worth having. We got ours at Lowes for about $120 and it has been money very well spent. Our basement smells clean and nice, and the items we store down there don't get damp like they did before we were running the dehumidifier.

Of course, a dehumidifier can't solve all moisture problems. It definitely sounds like your gutters/etc were causing the problems. You might want to take a look at some books on basement moisture problems. Right now, I have two books out of the library on this subject that are really helping us figure out how to make some simple fixes without calling in the professionals.

Home Water and Moisture Problems: Prevention and Solutions by Gary Branson (this one is so good that I'm planning on buying it for friends and family for Christmas!)

5 Steps to a Dry Basement or Crawl Space by Ronald K. Gay

I sure hope some of this info is useful. I know how annoying it is to have a wet basement. Good luck!

    Bookmark   October 24, 2007 at 1:14PM
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Interesting thread. I still think that those of you that put down a vapor barrier should be worrying about mold on the underside? And if you have a dirt floor and put down a dehumidifier - aren't you continually sucking moisture up through the earth? But maybe that's just the way it has to be.
I think my dad just put down in a sump pump and poured cement. But each situatin varies and I don't think it was a particularly wet area. Wish he was still around. He really knew things, practical things, you know?

    Bookmark   October 24, 2007 at 7:22PM
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"I figured if I had a dehumidifier in my basement I'd be down there ten times a day, emptying it and hauling the water upstairs."

That is what condensate pumps are for.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2007 at 8:52AM
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If you get a dehumidifier, consider the cost of use, not just the purchase price. We decided this past summer that we'd like a dehumidifier to run during rainy spells, and I went back and forth with my husband on whether to get a cheap $100 or so unit from a big box store, or a $1000 energy-efficient unit. He said that the basic dehumidifiers are huge energy hogs, and that from a life-cycle cost standpoint, the "expensive" energy-efficient models are actually a better buy. I argued that with only about 4 weeks of use per year, we might not be good candidates for the expensive type. But if you have a perennially damp basement and you plan to run a dehumidifier 24/7, it may actually be a better deal to buy an energy efficient model.

Our compromise was to get an inexpensive dehumidifier second-hand, track our usage, and then do the math to decide if our usage level would justify the expense of an energy-efficient model. I think we may well land in the same category of a homeowner in Hawaii trying to justify shelling out for a super-high-efficiency furnace. However, many dehumidifier users may be in a higher usage category, so I wanted to point out this consideration. I'm a HUGE fan of life-cycle costing.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2008 at 11:07AM
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