Column #865 09/24/11
On The Level
Q. We have a mold problem in the basement which seemed to get even worse after our recent hurricane and tropical storm.
Our house sits at the bottom of a hill so when there is a lot or rain or a big snowstorm that melts we get water continuously flowing into the sump pit. There have been a few instances where water in the basement coupled with inadequate ventilation caused some mold to form on some ceiling tiles and on a few parts of the walls. I called a basement waterproofing company and their sales rep came by and indicated it would cost approximately twenty-two thousand dollars for all mold to be removed and a proper drainage system installed. He said that everything had to be taken out of the basement, the walls torn down etc.
I want to take care of this problem but need some expert advice on what to do. I realize this sales rep wants to make money for his company but I'm not convinced that the mold problem is that serious.
A. Twenty-two thousand dollars is indeed a large sum. Quite frankly, the basement waterproofing industry is peppered with not-so-ethical practitioners who come on like gangbusters, scare the pants off you with a huge number only to back off of the big number somewhat with certain sales techniques only to have you grasp at a smaller price they’ll offer if you sign right away. The smaller number is still an inflated price for the work proposed but you feel lucky not to have to confront the initial bid. But you have to act then and there or the so-called big savings will go away. It’s a common ploy and it works more often than you’d think. There are honest contractors out there, too. Separating the good from the bad is an acquired skill.
A job is worth what someone will pay for it and if your signature winds up on a contract chances are you’ll end up shelling out the dollar amount found on that contract. You are wise to question it. Get at least three bids to compare.
I couldn’t resist a visit to this house to see for myself what could possibly cost that much to put right. As I approached the house, I could see what had been reported about site grade was indeed the case but there were County storm-water management efforts in place nearby that if maintained would intercept most run-off before it got anywhere near this foundation. I noted that gutter and downspout maintenance could be better but, all in all, not too bad.
As we descended the basement stairs I could smell trouble big time. Mildew has a distinctive odor that most can identify and it was strong here. The air in the basement felt heavy and moist. I noted the dark, circular mold blotches and whitish mildew colonies on woodwork, drywall, paneling and stored items such as books and cardboard boxes. The place had a problem-- no question. I began to look for water sources. The sump had some water in it but not much. The block foundation walls I could see weren’t water stained or weeping. The heating system and water heater were gas and properly vented. Plumbing pipes—both waste and supply—weren’t leaking.
The small basement vinyl windows were open and it was a warm, muggy day outside so I explained how warm, moist air migrates into the basement from the exterior and condenses on cooler surfaces causing a musty mildew problem but even at the worst those windows alone couldn’t account for what I was seeing. I knew if I could find the real moisture source I could solve the problem. At this point I could simply not account for this amount of dampness in this basement. All the usual suspects had been not so much ruled out but rather put in perspective as to manner and degree and doing that still left me with a big question mark.
There was one location that I was barely able to get my flashlight and half my head into that allowed me a peek behind a wall. What I saw both astounded me and gave me the clue I was looking for. There in the darkness I saw a pile of lint about 14 inches deep just below the separated vent pipe from the clothes dryer located on the floor above. It was clear to me that for probably the last decade every drop of laundry water that was removed from the clothes by the dryer went into the basement and that would account for this amount of moisture plaguing this basement. Who knew?
My recommendation was obvious. Open that wall up and reconnect the vent, remove the lint and then start drying this basement out for good. As for steps with regards to the existing mold and mildew, I referred them to the EPA’s “A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture, and Your Home” that anyone can download free at www.epa.gov/iaq/molds/moldguide.html. It’ll take money to completely straighten this basement out but not twenty-two thousand dollars. And a lot of the work they’ll do themselves.
Keep the mail coming. If you've got a question, tip, or comment let me know. Write "On The Level," c/o The Capital, P.O. Box 3407, Annapolis, MD 21403 or e-mail me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.