Basement Moisture Problems

An Overview of Solutions to
Basement Moisture Problems

The best way to approach any building problem is to first do the
things that are easy and low cost. Then proceed in a logical order doing
the next least costly technique with the most positive likely result.
With moisture problems, the best approach is almost always to remove or
control the source of the moisture, not to try to stop it at the last
line of defense.

First, the simplest and least costly techniques are to remove
excessive internal moisture sources in the basement (humidifiers,
cooking) and ventilate other sources (clothes dryer, bathroom). Second,
if condensation in the summer is the problem, do not ventilate the
basement directly with warm, humid air. Ventilation through an air
conditioning system or with a dessicant-type heat exchanger is

Dehumidification can be used as a means of reducing the symptoms of
humidity and odor in a basement, but it is not a permanent or complete
solution. In fact, if a dehumidifier is used in a basement with moisture
problems, it may cause greater damage. By drying out the basement air,
moisture is drawn into the basement more rapidly causing efflorescence
and spalling of concrete and further damage to interior finishes.

It is appealing to solve a basement moisture problem with a membrane
or coating on the inside. It is less expensive than a drainage system
and seems to work for a time in some cases. The water is still there,
however, and eventually these systems deteriorate or simply move the
water to another pathway into the basement.

The recommended approach after removing interior moisture sources is
to evaluate the gutters, downspouts, and surface grading around the
house. These should be corrected first and may solve the problem. Then,
if a moisture problem persists, proceed with an interior or exterior
drainage system. All of these techniques are described in the remainder
of this publication. If your goal is to finish a basement that has water
problems, it is recommended to first deal with the water problem.

An active sub-slab depressurization system including a washed-rock
layer below the slab is recommended. This draws moist air from beneath
the slab and may help to reduce the amount of moisture vapor that enters
the home through openings in the slab. It also assists in controlling
radon and other soil gases. Sumps and other open connections to the
soil outside the foundation and below the slab should be blocked and

More information on soil gas management can be found in “Building Radon Out,” a booklet available in electronic format (PDF) from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Step by Step Process

1. Control interior moisture sources.

2. If summertime, don’t ventilate with outside air.

3. Correct grading, gutter and downspout system.

4. Provide an interior or exterior drainage system.


  • A dehumidifier can help reduce the symptoms of humidity and odor, but does not solve the problem.

  • A membrane or coating on the interior without providing drainage generally will not solve the problem in the long term.

  • Walls must be dry before insulating. Slabs must be warm and dry before carpeting.

Gutter installation diagramAPPROACH 1:
Install Proper Gutters and Downspouts and Correct Grading

A great number of basement water problems can be solved by
handling rainwater and surface drainage properly using gutters and
downspouts with extenders or splashblocks to carry the water away from
the foundation. Sloping the grade away from the house, which may require
hauling fill to the site, is very important. This should be done before
any below-grade drainage system is installed, since the above-grade
corrections may solve the problem. Even if a drainage system is
required, removing water at the source as much as possible is necessary.

Exterior drainage system diagramAPPROACH 2:
Exterior Drainage System

Installing an exterior drainage system at an existing building
is the most costly, but also the most effective water control approach.
This requires digging up the area around the foundation and rebuilding
it similar to a new house installation. It also requires digging up
shrubs and other obstacles around the house.

Usually, waterproofing and insulation are installed at the same
time, in addition to making any repairs to the structure. The
traditional exterior drainage systems use free-draining sand in the
backfill. Drain tile can be placed beside or on top of the footing.
Level drain pipe installations are satisfactory. A minimum of 12 inches
of coarse aggregate should be placed around the drain tile.

Free-draining Membrane or Board

It can be expensive to haul pea rock or sand to a site for
backfilling purposes. Instead, a drainage mat can be placed against the
foundation wall and then backfilled with any soil on site. The drainage
must have a free-flowing path to the perforated drain pipe below.

Draining to a Sump
All exterior drainage systems must drain to a sump that can be
pumped out. The sump must have an airtight, childproof cover.

Interior drainage channel: above slab diagramAPPROACH 3:
Interior Drainage Channel above the Concrete Slab

In most cases when water is entering the basement, an interior
drainage system is installed. The simplest and least costly approach is a
drainage channel adhered at the base of the wall and the floor slab.
Water is collected and drained into a sump using another channel placed
on top of the slab, then through a trap to the sump basin. The sump
should have an airtight, childproof cover. This system is best suited to
a concrete wall with cracks. It does not solve the problem in masonry
walls because water remains in the block cores at floor level and the
water level is only lowered to the top of the slab. With this approach,
the water is not completely removed from the space. The result is that
humidity, mold, and mildew can still be a problem. This system cannot
drain groundwater from under the floor slab.

Interior drainage channel: within slab diagramAPPROACH 4:
Interior Drainage Channel within the Slab Edge

Another technique is to place a drainage channel at the base of
the wall on top of the footing. This requires removing and then
replacing the concrete along the slab edge. The drainage channel is
connected to a drain pipe leading to the sump. The sump should have an
airtight, childproof cover. This approach is effective for concrete
masonry walls with water problems because it drains the block cores
completely. Holes must be drilled at the base of every block core to
permit drainage. This may require removing more than the minimum amount
of concrete, as shown, to fit the drill in. These systems have different
shapes and prices depending on the product installed. Because moisture
is allowed to penetrate the block cores, it is essential to cap the tops
and place a vapor-retarder coating on the interior basement walls.

Interior drainage channel: beneath slab diagramAPPROACH 5:
Interior Drainage System Beneath the Slab

The most effective of the interior drainage systems is a
perforated drain pipe installed inside the perimeter of the footing.
This requires removing and replacing concrete at the slab edge. By
placing the drain pipe beneath the slab, it drains the area to a lower
level. Similar to an exterior system, the drainage pipe connects to a
sump. The sump should have an airtight, childproof cover. A critical
component of this approach is the dimpled plastic sheeting placed at the
base of the wall and beneath the slab edge. Dimpled sheeting is similar
to a small egg crate and permits free drainage of the wall into the
drain pipe. It is less expensive than many specialized drainage channel
systems. In low permeability soils, this system cannot accept rising
groundwater unless there is an aggregate layer under the slab.

It is recommended that this approach be combined with an active
soil gas management system that connects with the sump and perimeter
drain pipe.