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The reader who wrote to ask us about a water problem in her basement came to the right place. For several months after Karol moved into her current house, she thought the only hope for the basement was to install a diving board at the top of the stairs.

Where was the water coming from? Why was there so much of it? Was fixing it going to cost a fortune? There are few household problems as frustrating as water in the basement.

"Not always, but on several occasions, water has seeped in the back part of my basement," the reader says. "I have considered having waterproofing done with drain tiles and sump pump. However, I have some reservations as to whether or not I really need it. My basement does not smell 'mildewy' and is basically dry. However, it seems that how the rain comes down will determine whether or not some comes in. It is never

flooded -- just enough to wet the floors in a certain area. From the estimates I've had, [drain tiles and sump pump are] quite expensive."

The reader is right to express reservations about installing a sump pump and drain tile -- it's definitely the treatment of last resort. Not only is it expensive -- about $20 a lineal foot for the tile, plus a few hundred for the pump -- it's not the best solution if the water is coming from anyplace other than underneath the floor.

While the sump-pump-and-drain-tile system will take away any water that gets into the basement, it's not a solution if the problem is in the walls. You do not want water coming through the walls, especially if they're old masonry. Even if you drain it right away, it will damage the mortar and may even crack the bricks or blocks.

So the first thing to do is to find out where the water is coming from.

In most cases, it's quietly finding its way into the basement from somewhere at ground level -- the yard, or a concrete area next to the house.

Check all the gutters and downspouts to determine if they're really channeling water away from the house. Make sure all the connectors are still connected and that the water isn't being poured out at the bottom into a spot that doesn't drain.

Sometimes downspouts drain into a pipe. If that pipe fails, the water will pour into the ground instead and may find its way from there into the basement. If you suspect this is what's happening, try to channel the water someplace else (use a length of 4-inch plastic pipe) and see if that helps. If you can't rechannel the water, the only solution may be to dig up the pipe and examine it.

If the gutters and downspouts are OK and there's no pipe to worry about, check the ground or concrete next to the house to make sure it slopes away. If you can't determine the slope just by looking at it, use a level.

Look at neighbors' yards as well -- if a neighbor's yard is higher, you may be getting all of his water as well as your own.

If there's a spot that slopes in the wrong direction, have it corrected. If it's just part of the lawn, you may be able to correct it yourself with a little creative shoveling. If the problem is old concrete, you may have to pour new concrete with a trough that will carry runoff to someplace where it will drain.

If the water is coming from a neighbor's yard, try to enlist his help in solving the problem. You may need to regrade both yards to create a low area, or swale, at the property line that will capture the water and carry it away.

When you check the slopes, check the foundation. There may be obvious signs of water entry -- cracks, a place where a concrete sidewalk may have settled and pulled away from the foundation or where water may be undercutting a sidewalk.

If your house is landscaped, probe around in the leaves and look for a low spot that may be collecting water. (A buildup of leaves around the foundation will collect a lot of water.) Removing a bush could leave a depression where water gathers and eventually seeps into the basement. If you find any landscape problems, you may solve them inexpensively with a bag of top soil and some grass seed.

Basement windows are often spots where water gets inside. If the windows have wells, make sure they drain properly, or cover them to keep water out. If there aren't any wells, make sure the sills are above ground level. Sometimes successive generations of landscapers have obscured a sill. Make sure the sills themselves are in good condition. Check for cracks or gaps. If the sills are wood, they may be rotten and need replacement with brick or concrete.

Two other structures may be sources of water leakage: porches and exterior basement stairs. Sometimes rain can go through a porch and hit the soil underneath, which may not be graded to slope away from the foundation. If water sits around the foundation (at least on an old house), it will most likely find a way into the basement. Outside basement stairways should have drainage, into a sump pump or some other kind of drain. If they get clogged, water may collect. If the stairway doesn't have a drain, it should either get one or be covered so water won't get in.

If the house has none of the above problems, or none of the simpler solutions work, the problem could be underneath the basement floor -- maybe a spring or the result of the water table rising after a storm.

But before you throw in the heavy artillery of a sump pump and drain tiles, however, try putting in a sump pump alone.

Sump pumps are usually installed in a plastic pit about 30 inches deep. Sometimes that pit is deep enough to collect sub-surface water without drain tile. Be sure the outlet from the sump pump is installed so the water is pumped away from the house. Don't laugh -- we've seen sump pumps installed so the water pumped out simply runs back into the basement, where it falls into the sump pump pit, where it gets pumped out . . . you get the picture. If the sump pump by itself isn't enough to keep the basement dry, then it's time to bring in the drain tile.

Sometimes, of course, the source of the water is completely mysterious. Consider the case of Karol's basement, where water problems were caused by the failure of an elaborate but stupid set of old terra-cotta drain pipes.

For reasons known only to the circa-1912 builders, the pipes ran from the exterior downspouts back into the house and under the basement floor to a rear corner, where they were supposed to drain into another pipe that ran under the back yard and came out in a natural drainage swale. The backyard pipe got clogged (probably with tree roots), the pipes under the basement's floor leaked (making it look like a pervasive ground-water problem) and every time it rained a couple hundred of gallons of water poured in. Someone had tried to fix the problem by rechanneling the downspouts into plastic pipe, but they had failed to fill the holes at the mouths of the old pipes.

The water source might have remained a mystery, but the sump-pump installer, in breaking up concrete to place the drainage pit, struck terra cotta.

While it had taken months to figure out what was wrong, the solution then became fairly simple: Fill the old drain-pipe entry holes with concrete, install the sump pump. It wasn't as expensive as a full perimeter drainage system -- and it is considerably better than bailing!

Next: The anatomy of a window.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.

If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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