Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Basements

Arone Silverman of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? hauls water-damaged furniture and other items from the Arlington basement of Alan and Melanie Gilbert into the back yard, below.
Arone Silverman of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? hauls water-damaged furniture and other items from the Arlington basement of Alan and Melanie Gilbert into the back yard, below. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Jura Koncius and Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 29, 2006

The rains came. The gutters backed up. The drains clogged. So the basement flooded. Yuck. Now what?

If your basement took a hit, speed is of the essence in minimizing damage and saving possessions. We sought the counsel of experts, from home inspectors to Smithsonian conservators to public health specialists. Here is their collective wisdom.

-- Electrical risk: Before you enter a basement that has been flooded to several inches or more or above the outlet line, you need to turn off the power. If the circuit breaker box is out of reach in the basement, call an electrician.

-- Remove possessions from the flooded space as quickly as possible. Mold and mildew start to work their way in within hours. Rescue things in order of importance, financial or sentimental: family photos, tax records, artwork, computers, documents. Putting valuable or cherished papers in the freezer will stop mildew growth and deterioration until you can attend to them.

-- If you have less than a couple of inches of standing water, a wet vac usually can handle the job. For basements with deep water and no drains, you may need to call in a professional. Look in the Yellow Pages under Fire and Water Damage Restoration. Major companies include ServiceMaster ( http://www.servicemaster.com/ ) and Servpro ( http://www.servpro.com/ ).

-- As soon as possible, get air circulating. Turn on fans and a dehumidifier or two. Open doors, windows and closets. Keep the air conditioner running at a low temperature to pull additional moisture out of the room.

-- Deal with soaked flooring. Large rugs or wall-to-wall carpeting may have to be pulled up entirely; some can be wet vac-ed, then dried on a driveway or other outdoor area. Or get them cleaned as soon as possible to get rid of mold and odor. Wet padding should be discarded because it will start to rot and mildew and cannot be cleaned.

-- Vinyl tile, linoleum and other hard surfaces can be scrubbed with a solution of no more than one cup of chlorine bleach to one gallon of water (a ratio of 1 to 16). Never mix bleach with ammonia. Keep windows and doors open, and wear gloves and protective eyewear.

-- Examine indoor and outdoor basement drains for debris buildup. You may be able to unclog them with your hands (wear rubber gloves), a plunger or a plumber's snake. Also check for blocked downspouts and gutters.

-- Inspect damage to walls. Those made of cinder block or brick can be scrubbed with the bleach solution. Damp or wet drywall, baseboard molding and the insulation behind the wall are ideal breeding grounds for mold. You may have to remove the wet drywall and insulation up to the water line and discard it. Let the inside of the wall dry out before replacing the damaged materials.

-- If the water has snuffed out the gas water heater's pilot light, call a plumber or your gas utility to ask about relighting it or replacing submerged parts to avoid disaster. Depending on the damage, the entire heater may have to be replaced.

-- Separate what can be salvaged from what is now trash. Put the trash in plastic bags closed tightly to contain mold. Put salvaged items somewhere safe to dry out. Do not stack dry boxes on top of wet ones because the moisture will wick upward.

-- If there is a large amount of soggy trash, you (or friends with a van or truck) can haul it to a dump; or call or check out the Web site of your local jurisdiction to ask about bulk trash pickup. You can also call a bulk trash company such as 1-800-GOT JUNK?, which will show up with a truck and two haulers starting at $129.

-- How did the water get in? If you can't tell, call a roofer or a home inspector (one source is the American Society of Home Inspectors Web site at http://www.ashi.org/ ).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company