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posted: 5/26/2013 4:20 AM

Drainage and dryness make basement walls paintable

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Q. I have a story-and-a-half brick home built around 1940. The soils here contain a lot of clay. The basement is completely below grade. I have made sure there is positive-sloped drainage away from the house outside on the surface. The house contains a drainage system on the interior of the basement walls that the previous owner had installed. The installation included trenching around the interior perimeter, laying 4-inch drainage pipe, and installing two cisterns with sump pumps.

Where the trenching occurred, cement has been poured, so the floor is as original. Water running through the drainage system into the cisterns is very rare -- even after heavy and extended rains. But when the ground is soaked, it does run in to the cisterns via those pipes. The cement/cinder block walls do not feel wet or show any signs of wetness when water is running into the cisterns.

The amount of water coming into the cisterns is typically small enough that it drains through the base of the cisterns and does not require the sump pump to turn on. Although, once when the water main broke at the street approximately 8 years ago, our sump pumps ran continuously for a weekend.

Long ago, the previous owner painted the interior basement cement/cinder block walls. That paint is now flaking and peeling off. In some places it is merely the paint coming off the block. In other places it is the paint attached to a surface layer of the block that is coming off. There is no indication of any water or wet walls where the peeling is happening. This north wall is common to that part of our basement that was formerly the coal bin itself (now open, but used for storage), as well as the area where the now-gas-fired boiler is located. Our washer and dryer are located there, too. That north wall is about 25 feet long.

• Why would the interior surface of the block flake off with the paint in some places?

• I would like to repaint the entire wall, as well as the east and west walls, white or some light, neutral color. I have no idea what was used to paint the block wall to begin with. I was thinking of scraping and wire brushing the wall in preparation to repaint it. What would you suggest I repaint the block walls with?

A. The interior wall had coal on one side. It may be that moisture from the coal -- which is composed of carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen and nitrogen, among other elements -- eroded the block walls. Have you checked the side where the coal was stored to see if it is also damaged, crumbly or easily scratched?

You can repair the damage on the opposite side with a vinyl-reinforced product, such as Sakrete Top 'N Bond Concrete Patch, after removing all loose particles.

Considering that you do not know what type of paint is on the walls, it is difficult to decide which paint to use to ensure proper adhesion of the new coating.

Before removing any of the loose old paint, get a lead-testing kit from a hardware store, but keep in mind that these kits are not foolproof. Wear a mask and work gloves and use a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner to pick up all paint chips. Empty the vacuum cleaner into a plastic bag and dispose of the contents following your local regulations.

If you can remove all the loose paint from the blocks, a cementitious paint such as one of the Thoro products may be a good choice. I do not generally recommend such a waterproofing coating for concrete or cinder blocks because water can then accumulate within their cores and cause serious problems as it evaporates in the living spaces. But it should be OK in your case because you have a working drainage system, and you say that the walls are dry.

You can also try a quality latex primer, such as Benjamin Moore Fresh Start High-Hiding All Purpose latex interior/exterior primer (No. 04600), first applied on all bare spots, followed by an application over the entire surfaces to be painted. Then apply a quality exterior latex finish paint.

Q. I am looking for your opinion regarding a shed that is vinyl-sided and sits on a cement slab. We had insulation placed throughout the entire wall and ceiling space, but the insulation has since been removed due to mice infiltrating.

The dilemma is whether to replace the insulation or not. We are to put wood paneling up soon. So far, we have not noticed any more mice, but

A. The question is why do you need insulation in the shed? Are you planning on heating it in the winter? If so, you have two options:

• Make sure there are absolutely no openings, even as small as a pea, in the outer skin of the shed. If you find any, block them off by whatever means works depending on the size and shape -- stainless steel wool, pressure-treated wood, Xcluder Rodent & Pest Barrier (, caulking, cement patch, etc., then use fiberglass and be as diligent in the installation of the paneling.

• Insulate with rigid extruded polystyrene (XPS), layering it to meet your insulation requirements (fiberglass is R-3.5 per inch while XPS is R-5). Do not use expanded polystyrene (EPS), as mice can chew through it far more easily because of its bead-like composition.

Q. I have enjoyed your Sunday column in our Daily Herald for years. I appreciate your advice on all aspects of home maintenance.

Our home was built in 1988, and we have replaced a lot of things over the years, including our furnace, water softener, dishwasher, all of our windows, our roof shingles, etc. The one thing we have not replaced is our gas water heater. We still have our original heater.

The only maintenance I have done for it is to open the lower drain valve twice a year and let it run for about 5 minutes. Not sure if that helped, but I have not heard of other water heaters lasting as long as ours.

So basically, I am looking for a recommendation for a good replacement brand, preferably one I can replace myself (I am reasonably handy). I read somewhere that there are really only three or so manufacturers of water heaters, and they apply all sorts of brand labels to their heaters. Also, in addition to a brand recommendation, do you feel the additional tank warranty (e.g. six-, nine-, 12-year warranties) is worth the investment? (In other words, should we automatically pay for the longest-warranty model?) If your recommendation is for a brand that is not available at a local (big-box) store, can you point me to a business that will sell one to me?

A. Your water heater has lasted 25 years to some extent because you drained deposits from the bottom of the tank regularly; pat yourself on the back! And perhaps also because of the water's chemical composition and a good quality brand.

I suggest you replace your heater only when it begins to leak and that you stay with the same brand, and see how long a warranty is offered. Check the area around the heater regularly; leaks start small. If you do not have a pan under the heater now, consider installing the new heater in a plastic pan made for the purpose, and get a warning kit that will emit an alarm when water is in the pan.

Q. I've read your column for years and find your answers right on the spot! I have a general question for you as I have received various thoughts from nonexperts:

We are rebuilding our lake camp in northern Vermont (Lake Carmi). The contractor plans to pour a 6-inch slab over the existing slab to bring the grade up and put the camp on piers, so we have some storage under the camp and also for "easy" access to plumbing. The camp is used seasonally and closed during the winter months and heated only with a gas fireplace. We plan to use a combination of pine and Sheetrock for the walls and ceilings. Is it OK to use Sheetrock or would it crack or retain moisture during the cold winter months?

A. Gypsum board (Sheetrock or other brands not made in China -- there have been alarming problems with this type of gypsum board) can easily withstand winter's cold, particularly if you paint it.

Any wood paneling should also be protected with a stain or clear coating to protect it from temperature fluctuations. It is best to seal the wood on all sides before putting it up.

Q. In the spring, I had my chimney tuck-pointed and sealed. When they sealed the brick they got some on the aluminum siding. The siding is about 25 years old. What is the best method to remove the overspray from the siding?

A. You should find out from the contractor who sealed the chimney what type of sealant he or she used. Is it water-based or oil-based? This will be a starting point to know what product to use to remove it without damaging the aluminum siding.

If you cannot find out what sealant was used, start with Goof Off, which should remove any latex product. If that does not work, try denatured alcohol, and if that does not do it, move to acetone. For any of these applications, do not apply the product directly to the overspray; wet a clean, white cloth and rub the overspray gently with it. Use rubber gloves and a mask.

Be aware that it may still affect the color of the siding.

An interesting follow-up: Recently, a reader provided a solution to a mysterious sewer-like odor in a bathroom; it was the use of Irish Spring soap by his/her son.

Here is another one: "Hello from Inverness, Ill. The last item in your column today was an 'oh my goodness' moment. We had also had an awful odor from the shower drain for an extended period of time. It has since disappeared and it coincides with the last of our Irish Spring soap. We had a large box that we had gotten at Costco, and it seems when we finished the soap -- gone was the odor."

That is amazing! Strange things do happen! I would never have guessed it, especially knowing others who have and have not experienced this problem. Is it possible that one of the nine variants offered by Irish Spring has an unusually strong odor to you? Thank you both for your input.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via email at

2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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