Archive for the ‘basement’ category

Insulation Near a Fireplace?

December 17th, 2013


Can I insulate the underside of my first-floor fireplace chase? I would like to put batt-insulation, and a ceiling below the fireplace. I currently use the area as a storage closet. The area is very cold, and the air seems to migrate upstairs. I also get frost above the basement wall, on the framing. The fireplace is ~20 years old, and non-gas.



You’ll need to check on the installation requirements for your specific type of pre-fabricated fireplace. They must be installed per specific installation requirements. In general, they require clearance around the metal firebox, and around the metal flue that is routed up through the boxed-in chimney chase. I don’t think your real problem is in the basement. I think the real problem is the exterior wall behind the fireplace. Insulating below the floor will be of little value.

The areas around the fireplace can be a big heat-loss, because the outside wall behind the fireplace may not be properly insulated. The exterior wall should be framed so that it can be insulated and sealed like a typical exterior wall. This does not always happen when the wall is buried behind a manufactured fireplace, and brick facing.

F007 - Metal-Framed Prefabricated FireplaceThe area below the fireplace (above the foundation wall) should be independent from the fireplace installation. Ice in this area (and around the sill/band joist) occurs because air moves through the fiberglass batts, and moisture condenses on the cold surface.

The ideal fix at the top of the foundation wall is to have the area sealed and insulated with spray foam. This will seal the air-leaks, provide a vapor-barrier, and insulate the area.

If you want to work with fiberglass, you need to remove it and caulk any gaps in the area around the sill-plate to the sub-floor. Fill the space with tight-fitting fiberglass, then seal it with drywall and plastic caulked in place on the heated side. It sounds like the foam is a much better option.

–Mr. Fix-It

Tree Roots in the Drain Line

May 6th, 2013


Our basement floor drain backs up. We had a plumber clean out the drain, and they found tree roots. What can we do?



The typical problem with a sewer drain line from a house to the street sewer is tree roots. The symptom will be water backing up into the lowest drain in your home. The tree roots are looking for moisture and can enter any little gap in the sewer drain line. Once the roots find the moisture and the gap in the line, they grow inside the pipe.

Your only realistic solution is to periodically have the line cleaned with a sewer machine by a professional. You could also consider cutting down the offending tree in the area. A final option is to have the sewer line checked with a camera, potentially replace it, or line it with a custom sewer re-lining system. The actual repair will depend on the condition and age of the line.


Insulating Hot Air Ducts – Energy Saver???

April 30th, 2013


Does it save energy to insulate hot air ducts in the basement? I have long runs of ductwork,  and work in the basement often.



Insulating the heating ducts saves very little energy in a home with a full basement, and the heat ducts in the basement space. Essentially, the basement is within the heated space of your home. The answer would be different if the ductwork was outside the heated space (e.g. the attic).

I would be concerned with any major air leaks in the ductwork – those should be sealed or caulked so the heated air moves to the correct area of your home. With most full basements, a heated space above, and some ductwork leaks or supply vents keeps the basement a few degrees below the heated space. Allowing some heated air to leak helps heat the basement, and tempers the air below the fully heated space – not a bad thing.


I026 - Foam Insulation_Seal Box Sill


For energy-saving and comfort, look at insulating/sealing the area above the basement wall, up to the sub-floor. That area is a potential for a huge heat/air loss to the outside. The best insulation and sealing here would be a spray foam, from the top of the basement wall to the sub-floor (if it is allowed by local code officials). Also, check the basement windows – are they efficient?


Smell Coming From Sump Pump

April 18th, 2013


We have urine smell (or worse) coming up from sump pump cover. I was told that we didn’t have to get the septic tank cleaned out until next year. I think air is coming up through the sump pump. Is this natural?



Failure to pump the septic system should not cause a smell. There should be no smell with a typical sump pump system. The sump pump pit collects clear rain water from the drain tile system, and ejects to the outside or an underground septic system. You could flush out the sump crock with lots of clear water if you have a smell problem. At times, there could be a smell from rodents or other debris.


P021 - Sewage Ejector Pump


Since you mentioned a septic system, I suspect the pump and crock you are referring to is a gray water or septic pump. It will look just like a sump pump and crock, but it collects water from the floor drain or basement laundry tub and pumps the water up into the septic tank line. The sewer ejector pump could be an open crock for an older system.

The ejector in all newer systems is sealed with a cover and will have a vent pipe connected. This system with an open crock can develop a smell and again you can flush it out with lots of clear water. If you have an open crock, consider changing to a sealed, vented crock. Finally, air should not enter either type of crock through the sump pump, so I don’t know what is happening there.


Vapor Barriers

February 21st, 2013


For a basement wall finish in an existing home, do I need to put a vapor barrier between the insulation and the exterior wall, or below the drywall? Is it even necessary? We are finishing a room in our basement. Any other tips for us?



When finishing a basement (in Wisconsin), the current requirement is no vapor barrier. This concept allows a wall structure to dry if water ever leaks into the basement behind the wall. The moisture can move through the wall and evaporate to the inside heated space. A vapor barrier would block the vapor/moisture.

UGL DrylokWhen finishing a basement it is very important to make sure the basement is dry. I would also caulk the joint between the wall and the floor, and seal the walls with a waterproofing paint like UGL Drylok. Moisture always moves through masonry products, and you don’t want invisible vapor moving though the wall. Even though they look dry, moisture can move through walls and evaporate into vapor that you never see.

I would also seal the floor with a clear concrete sealer and put the carpet on a product called ComfortBase from Homasote. ComfortBase will provide some insulation and cushion the floor under the carpet, while adding only ½-inch thickness.


Furnace fan, to distribute heat throughout the house?

January 31st, 2013


I have a two-story house with a basement, built in 1952. Is it a good idea to turn the furnace fan on, to distribute the heat throughout the house?

– Marian


H014 - Warm Air Furnace Fan and MotorYes and no. If you have a problem with a cool area when heating or a warm area when running the air conditioning, operating the fan continuously will even out the temperatures in your home. The downside is this will cost electrical energy to run the fan and cause some wear and tear on the fan. However, you can run a fan on a newer, high efficiency forced air furnace with an ECM or variable speed motor for little cost – about 1/10 the cost of a typical fan motor. Finally, I think your first step is to have a contractor inspect and adjust your system. At times, duct dampers can be adjusted to correct cold spots and air flow problems. Often you need to make a spring and fall damper adjustment for a two story home.

– Mr. Fix-It

Water Leaks by Basement Foundation

October 1st, 2010


My tri-level home is about 35 years old. We have water in our basement coming from the foundation between the lower level and basement common wall, and the front basement wall. The basement wall is under a 6’x23′ cement slab across the front of the house. Whom do I contact to resolve this issue?


Think about the specific symptoms you see when the leak is occurs. If it only leaks when it rains, you may have a problem with surface water, surface drainage, gutters, downspouts, sump-pump discharge, or storm sewer lines. If you have a sump pump, is it running and moving water? Does it run when the leak occurs?

A leak at the floor/wall joint is caused by too much water flow toward the area, and a possible hampered drain tile system. Water leaking higher on the wall is often caused by surface drainage issues.

I suggest you contact an independent basement inspector. In the Milwaukee area, Mike Shadid (414-379-1265) and Chuck Weber (414-536-1300) are good options.

Basement Specialists Inc. is a great basement repair company. However, be careful; some basement repair companies will send their sales folks to evaluate the problem, or say that they provide an “independent” inspector who actually works for the repair company.

Brown Water – Flushing the Water Heater

September 1st, 2010


Sometimes brown water comes out of the hot-water faucet. There must be sediment in the water heater. How do I drain the water heater and get rid of the brown water?


There could be sediment in the water heater, or maybe your home has older galvanized steel piping that is corroding on the inside. Flushing the water heater may help.

Attach a garden hose to the drain-valve on the lower edge of the water heater. Route the other end to a drain or laundry tub. Open the valve carefully, because the water will be hot. Drain about five gallons, wait a few hours, and then drain again. This procedure will remove any loose particles from the tank.

Since most drain valves are inexpensive and rarely used, you can expect a leak at the valve once you open it. A drip from the valve-stem (a round metal shaft connecting the handle to the valve) can be corrected by tightening the packing nut around the stem. A drip from the threaded spout can be handled with a hose-cap and a rubber washer.

Energy Efficiency Improvements – Where to Start?

August 21st, 2010


I have some funds to do energy efficiency improvements to my old (1950’s) home, but I don’t know where to start. The home is well maintained, but has had no energy improvements. It seems that every contractor has the best product, and there are many claims about huge energy savings. The government rebates and tax credits just seem to complicate the issue. Where do I start?


There is no simple answer. I can outline where to logically start, but I think your home deserves an evaluation and some scientific testing before you start spending.

I suggest you contact Focus on Energy. Their goal is to provide information, resources and financial incentives to help improve energy efficiency in Wisconsin. The state program is well known throughout the country.

I used the Focus on Energy program called “Wisconsin Energy Star Home Program” when I built a new home. They gave advice on construction details, and worked with the builder on energy efficiency. The results were fantastic.

For existing homes like yours, they offer a service to scientifically evaluate your home and the systems in your home at a very reasonable price. Their consultants can test for leaks, review your equipment, and use a computer model to identify the best areas to invest.

Overall, you should look at the easy energy improvements and your old equipment. If you have a furnace that is over 25 years old, put that at the top of the list. If the attic insulation has never been improved over the original three to six inches, that should be high on the list as well. Insulating the top of the basement wall, using low-flow plumbing fixtures, fluorescent lamps, and a set-back thermostat are simple changes with a great payback.

An evaluation by the Focus on Energy is the best first step. They also offer a new interactive website at Ask Focus on Energy. They will answer your questions and refer you to a large database of answers. If you have a unique question, one of the experts can respond.

Soundproofing Between the Basement and First Floor

July 30th, 2010


Can you give me any advice on soundproofing between the basement and first floor? My bedroom is directly over the furnace and water heater. I thought adding foam to the basement ceiling might work.


Most sound moves with air through openings, so you need to try and seal any air leaks. Caulk or foam-seal any openings around plumbing, electrical, and heating ducts. Also, put energy gaskets on the electrical outlets.

I am not aware of any foam that will be fire-safe and inexpensive. However, you could try to isolate the furnace using drywall hung with special clips from the framing (the clips dampen sound transmission). If you install drywall, you can also add fiberglass insulation which will absorb sound.

Finally, look at the heating and return ducts. They can be a source of air and sound movement. While you can’t eliminate these ducts, it may be possible to use some type of baffle to make air move around them (where the sound is absorbed).

Finally, consider servicing the furnace. It should not make much noise, and most water heaters are very quiet unless it’s a power-vented unit.