Tales from The Money Pit: House versus Water, Round One

It all began with a slightly odd smell inside a cabinet.

When I moved into The Money Pit in 2014 one of the first things I did was to clean the kitchen cabinets inside and out. There’s a bottom corner cabinet at one end with the electric induction range adjacent to it at a right angle. I noticed an odor inside this cabinet even after a thorough cleaning and so left it empty with the door open for a few days to air it out. However, after the door was closed I noticed the smell was still there: a definite musty/damp bouquet with a slight undertone of something sharp and almost but not quite ‘chemical.’ No visible damage to the cabinet itself, just the odd smell that – even more oddly – seemed to vary in intensity. Some days it was moderate, other days strong; on the strong days it was also detectable in the smaller lower cabinet next to it. On very strong days I could even smell it without opening the cabinet door. What was causing it?

The possibility of Something Dead in the wall behind the cabinet was ruled out because I’d smelled that once before (squirrel) and this wasn’t it; that smell also wouldn’t wax and wane.

Every other kitchen cabinet, both upper and lower, smelled fine. No evidence of leaks anywhere. The oil heating system is located in that general area in the unfinished basement below, but there is no detectable fuel smell there and in any case the cabinet odor was more noticeable during the warm months (when the system runs far less often) than the winter when it’s on all the time. I spent months trying to correlate the fluctuating odor level to every environmental factor imaginable: temperature, humidity, sun or shade on that outer wall, precipitation, time of day, you name it. Nothing matched. Containers of Damp-Rid placed inside the cabinet seemed to help a little bit but not much. Neither did putting a dehumidifier in the basement area beneath the kitchen, although it did lower the humidity in the basement itself to 40%. Replacing the cabinetry was/is absolutely NOT in the budget, and so that lower cabinet remained empty (and still highly annoying) except for a couple of rarely-used pans until, as the movie caption says, “Four years later….”

In the spring of 2018, while interviewing contractors for some heavyduty landscape work connected with the upcoming Big Dig, I was lucky enough to be referred to a veritable wizard when it comes to masonry, structural engineering and waterproofing: Ed Costanzo of General Brick Designs. A random comment led to an infrared scan of my unfinished basement which revealed a large pool of standing water under the footing in the area below my kitchen.

Those vertical streaks of white on the poured concrete basement wall are ‘efflorescence’. Efflorescence appears when water or moisture is present in a porous masonry material such as concrete, cement, brick, etc. It’s white because it’s a salt that’s left behind on the surface as the water inside (which carries the salt) slowly evaporates, moving from wet toward dry via capillary action. External water intrusion into concrete is never a good thing. In a battle of House versus Water, unfortunately the water has lots of ways to cause damage. One of the ways is to cause cracks. See that darker area between the parallel white streaks? That’s a crack. Scans of the basement showed that this wettest area of the foundation wall was directly beneath – you guessed it—the wall behind that one smelly lower kitchen cabinet.

The nearby corner of the same wall was, thankfully, bone dry even though there is a wall penetration there for the fuel oil pipe line.

An additional although less obvious area of water intrusion was part of the wall at the opposite (south) end of the house. The worst was beneath the window and a few areas to the left. The black ‘paint’ on part of the wall is tar, something that should never be put onto interior foundation walls but was used in past decades and even later by people who didn’t know any better. The Money Pit was built in the early 1960s and later owners had (illegally) made part of the basement into an apartment – now gone, a long story best left for another day.  I was not too surprised at there being a problem here because I knew that the grading on the outside of that same area was not optimal; it was one of the things I had been getting estimates to address.

Let me insert a few words here about pumps and French drains which are usually the first things that contractors propose when homeowners have a problem with dampness or water in a basement. While those measures may help somewhat (or not) it’s the wrong way to address the issue because the only REAL solution is to keep the water from getting in, rather than figuring out how to remove it once it’s there. And when it’s coming from the ground, where are you going to be disposing of any “removed” water? Right back into the nearby ground where it came from, which means you’re just perpetuating an endless cycle (unless you’re discharging it into a public sewer system which is illegal in most places.) So the only real cure for water intrusion into a structure is to either (a) block it on the exterior or (b) re-route it to go somewhere other than toward your house. This is why in many cases sump pumps and French drains in basements turn out to be a waste of time, money, and electricity.

Ed’s plan was to dig down all the way to the footing at both ends of the house and seal those basement areas from the outside while at the same time using rebar to repair and reinforce the footing which was being eroded by the presence of all that groundwater.

This is how the area immediately outside the south end (not the kitchen) of the house looked: Done wrong on SO many levels. The outer grade sloped toward the house rather than away and the DIY “window well” made of now-rotting pressure treated lumber was nothing but a depression covered by some rocks. I’d added the downspout extension because originally there wasn’t one. There were also originally some hostas and a conifer that shaded this area and prevented it from drying out much if at all. I did leave the hydrangeas which were farther out. This photo was taken in early 2018 and shows the original wood siding.


Ed and his crew had to dig down more than six feet to expose the outside foundation wall and footing for repair and sealing. All the work was done by hand, and we have clay soil; these guys must have spines made of titanium!


That end hydrangea didn’t get totally buried, but almost. This took place in late December so other than a few bruised incipient buds it should be fine.

The same area after rough grading and the installation of an actual window well. I will be adding a clear polycarbonate cover to the top of it later. This same area is slated for partial paving-over when the weather allows, so that the entire space will always be dry.  I’ll post an update photo after that’s done. 🙂

On the inside, the compromised wall areas were repaired and coated with Super Thoroseal (a much superior product to the too-often-recommended DryLock which is nothing but a paint.)

Unfortunately a surprise was in store for us regarding the major problem area under the kitchen. Running along that entire wall section and extending outward about 15 feet is a large paved patio. It should have been a simple matter to remove as many pavers as necessary in order to do the same dig here as on the south end of the house. But surprise, surprise!! Those pavers had been set on top of a layer of sand spread atop a concrete base. And not just any old concrete base: a 14” thick (almost 36 cm) concrete base! That is twice as thick as a typical house footing (but why?!?!??) and presented a huge problem. The vibration resulting from jackhammering up that much concrete would very likely compromise the adjacent house foundation and cause new structural problems where none currently exist. There was no “safe” way to seal that wall from the outside as planned, so Ed had to move to Plan B.

The infrared scans showed the water being concentrated heavily in one area of the footing, directly under and adjacent to the compromised wall, so that footing section now had to be exposed, removed, sealed from the inside, and then rebuilt. If the water could be kept from permeating the footing it would no longer be able to wick upward through that wall section below the cabinet (which also had to be repaired and sealed.)

These photos show the wall section after sealing with Thoroseal but before the crack and footing repairs were finished…

…and after but while still curing. Cutting into concrete creates a staggering amount of dust, which is why I covered the dehumidifier and the shut-down heating system equipment before they began. One thing I forgot to cover was the basement fire alarm sensor which at one point read the thick cloud of concrete dust as “smoke” and nearly gave everyone a heart attack when the siren went off! In a way it was a good thing because it ended up being a test run of response times: a police car showed up in five minutes and the local fire department chief in eight! Profuse and abject apologies on my part for the false alarm but it was reassuring to know that should it have been an actual fire, help would have arrived in the proverbial blink of an eye.


Even the dry/far end of that wall now looks good.

You are probably wondering whether all this work took care of the weird cabinet smell, and the answer is…….so far, so good. That said, it is true that the waterproofing work coincided with the exact time of year (midwinter) where the odor was always at its lowest (very faint) level anyhow. Combine that with the typical 6-8 week dry-out timeframe for previously-wet concrete, and I would not have expected to notice an immediate improvement anyhow. Right now (March 2nd) the cabinet smell appears to be gone but the real test will come in April and May when the weather starts warming up and the humidity rises. The infrared and moisture content scans in that part of the basement are already within normal range as of about a week ago.

UPDATE, LATE JUNE 2019: My suspicion about the cabinet smell returning with the arrival of warmer and more humid weather proved sadly correct. I will say that most days it is not quite as strong as it had been previously, at least this far into the summer, but our two worst months of heat and humidity (July and August) have yet to arrive. I tweaked the setting on the dehumidifier to 35% and although it can’t keep the entire basement at that level it does at least do so for that immediate area. A recent follow-up scan showed spates of high water content that comes and goes in one very concentrated spot which is the area of strongest cabinet smell. So there may or may not be some additional work needed or performed. (Much will depend on the cost of same.) It’s clear that the absence of the typical metal shield between the top of the basement walls and the house framing during the house’s original construction is allowing the upward transfer of moisture and attendant odors, a situation impossible to correct after the fact.

Unfortunately it would turn out that the seemingly-defeated opponent (Water) wasn’t going to concede this championship bout quite that easily. House may have won Round One, but we were about to discover that Water had some very fancy footwork in store for us in Round Two!

More Tales from The Money Pit

  6 comments for “Tales from The Money Pit: House versus Water, Round One

  1. Adine
    March 3, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    Hurrah for Ed Costanzo and his crew at General Brick Design! He definitely is a keeper. So rare do we find a keeper for future reference. What a project. You explained it clearly step by step which is appreciated. And the pictures…..as they say…are worth a thousand words. Thank you!

  2. March 4, 2019 at 8:12 am

    Oh I don’t know what to say. What a mess, but it’s such a relief to have it repaired and to have it repaired in such a way which gives you confidence for the next 50 years. I hope you have time for the garden some day soon, but I suspect you have other project ideas and hopefully they’re more fun… or at least more rewarding than cesspools and foundation repairs…

  3. March 4, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    Wow. This is quite the project. You’re so right about house vs water: water always wins unless the right protection is in place to avert the water. I’m glad you had the problem checked out and repaired.

  4. March 4, 2019 at 9:50 pm

    We had to excavate along one basement wall because of seepage. Not as enormous a project as yours, but still. It gave me a chance to get rid of some Forsythias I didn’t like any more.

  5. March 10, 2019 at 3:49 am

    What a nightmare, we have our own “water” problems here, that seem to be unsolvable. Oh to live in a desert and grow cacti and be happy.

  6. January 12, 2021 at 5:00 pm

    Sounds like you got a great waterproofing contractor. I’d love to connect with him. Good luck with the project

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