Leaky basement: How do I start to approach this springtime problem?

Living in the Prairie Provinces means that we live in a frost environment. And the frost goes deeper than what most people realize….five to six feet on any given winter. Eventually, the warming weather of spring brings a sense of relief from the constant sub-zero temperatures.

Spring also gives us melting snow, or what many call “the thaw.” It is the rapid release of melting water that wreaks havoc on house foundations and initiates the start of another season…..the leaky basement season. Since the ground outside still remains frozen for at least a month after the snow disappears, most surface water either moves across the properly graded landscape, or towards the foundation of our homes. When the ground is incapable of absorbing this water, water will always take the path of least resistance along the foundation, and then into a crack, hole, leaky tie-mark, or any other pathway through the foundation wall. The end result of this water accumulation is often damage to the flooring and interior walls, not to mention the risk of mold development.

So where does a person go from here? The most common mistake is to address the problem as a minor issue, thinking that it will dry up until you re-live the experience next spring. This thought process is what gives birth to mold development behind the affected walls of a leaky basement.

Another common mistake is to approach the leaky basement problem from strictly a landscape perspective. A properly graded yard is extremely important in the overall protection and maintenance of a home, but it is by no means the solution to a leaky basement. Even the best landscaping (grading) will still allow water into a known leaky basement if the moisture conditions are favourable, especially in the spring when we experience a fast thaw. Melting water will always take the path of least resistance, and the melting ice and snow can become the temporary surface grade that will direct water towards a foundation.

When diagnosing a leaky basement in 2019, I first remind my customer of a few facts:

  • Your basement took on water during the 4th consecutive drought-like winter in the Saskatoon area. Imagine what you would have experienced if it was a normal winter (with heavier snow fall)?
  • Ask yourself, “How did an 8” thick concrete wall allow water in so easily?” If you have cinderblock, wood, or a concrete ICF foundation, further questions need to be addressed.
  • Is the grade or slope of your yard contributing to the water being directed to your foundation? If you have a flat or negative sloping yard, then you will eventually have to address this for the future maintenance of the house.
  • And the most important question gets re-asked… ”How did the water get through the foundation wall?” This can be a repeatable event each spring. Regardless of how poor the water moves across your yard, it only represents the “water source” and not the main problem. Water accumulating in a poorly draining yard is not that indifferent to someone turning on your outside garden tap, which causes water to accumulate against the foundation and on the ground until it enters through that same leaky area of your basement wall.
  • I then remind my customers to first focus on how the water entered into the basement, then secondly, deal with ways to prevent the water source from accumulating near the foundation walls. So to put it bluntly….fix the leak, then the landscape…and not the other way around!
  • Diagnose the interior walls in order to get a picture of what is happening on the outside wall. Since there is no x-ray equipment available to paint such a picture through the frozen ground of the exterior wall, the interior foundation wall must be exposed in the affected area. At times, thermal imaging technology can assist in determining which area of the interior wall needs to be exposed. Thermal imaging is also known as a “non-destructive investigative tool.
  • Reasons why a customer will want to remove the drywall and insulation for such an inspection:
    • It is the only way to clean and dry the wall in order to prevent further mold development.
    • It is more economical than random exploratory excavation along the outside of the basement wall.
    • It determines where the water came in, or where it didn’t (i.e. interior water accumulation in the absence of a crack). Not all walls leak because of a cracks. Saskatoon and area used to experience incidences of high water tables, but the past 3 drought years (4 drought winters) have drastically altered our water tables.
    • If there is a crack, you will want to determine what kind of crack it is (i.e. vertical, diagonal, horizontal, or combinations). You will also want to determine if there is any structural damage. A well informed homeowner and a competent contractor will want to know that the foundation wall is safe to excavate when the time comes to repair it. (See the tab “Start Troubleshooting the Problem” on the Basement Crack Repair and Waterproofing page). 
    • Finally, regardless of what repair method someone subscribes too (exterior vs. interior), you still need to see the interior foundation wall in order to determine what the cause is and what the repair will be. There simply is no other way to tell. All water ends up on the floor of a leaky basement…..it’s a gravity thing!

Repair method(s)

Both exterior and interior repair methods are legitimate ways to repair a leaky basement. Interior repair methods are often more economical and have the least impact on a developed yard, plus the repair can often be completed in a shorter time frame. The interior repair method(s) are sometimes the only method possible when exterior space restrictions affect completing the repair from the outside.  

But every homeowner should educate themselves on these repair methods. If you research “what is the best method to repair a leaky basement” and exclude getting caught up on product brand names and sparkly advertising, and then focus your attention on the actual method of repair, most global information will suggest that an exterior repair is the best overall method.

This becomes especially true in the Prairie Provinces. We live in a frost environment, and with it, our homes are subject to ground movement from frost, thawing, and accumulated moisture (environmental influences). Most exterior basement repairs handle movement very well. Very few interior repair products can guard against the movement that our homes experience.

Grounds Master Inc. has had many customers seek out an exterior repair of a leaky basement wall after an historical interior repair failed to keep the water out. It all comes down to how well the repair method guards against future wall movement.

For more information on your leaky basement project, please contact Grounds Master Inc., Ph: (306) 229-9964, or website:  www.groundsmasterinc.ca