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posted: 1/3/2016 1:00 AM

Find source of water intrusion before re-finishing basement

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Q. Our basement has flooded in the past with as much as 3 inches of water. The original finished basement (done by the previous owner) was ruined. After we cleaned up the mess, we installed an interior French drain around the perimeter that feeds into a sump pump with a battery backup system.

Now we are ready to remodel and put down new flooring. Because of the history of the basement flooding, do you recommend us installing a vapor barrier (6-mil poly) over the concrete before the half-inch pad and carpet? I wonder if this is necessary or not.

The large box stores have said their Stainmaster elite pads are supposed to have a built-in vapor barrier on the bottom. I wonder if this is sufficient or if we should include the poly for added protection.

A. Has the source of the basement leakage been taken care of? It's nice to have the sump pump with a battery backup, but the best way to prevent a recurrence is to take care of the cause.

Basement and crawl space leakage is mostly due to grading problems around the house. In my 60 years of experience in the construction field, very few cases of foundation leakage are caused by underground springs or a seasonal high water table brought about by snow melting in the spring or heavy rain events.

Grading problems include flat or negative grade areas that collect or allow water to pond near the foundation walls and percolate, or run down along the walls, until a weak spot in the foundation is found. Negative slopes on walks, patios, porches, driveways, etc., are also factors.

If you have had several strong rain events, as well as significant snowmelt recently and have not experienced leakage, and the drain and pump system is doing its job, it should be OK to use the elite pad, if it does contain a vapor retarder. Then, you need not bother with a poly film, although there is no reason why you can't use a 6-mil plastic sheet if it would make you feel better.

Q. I have read your column religiously for years. One time you went into great detail about how to clean grease from wooden kitchen cabinets. I could kick myself for not cutting that specific column out to save.

I've tried lemon oil and even 409. The spots disappear briefly only to reappear in minutes. Would you please consider printing that information once again?

A. The best furniture polish I have found is Milsek. You can buy it in quite a number of hardware stores nowadays or you can buy it online at www.milsek.com.

We have used it for many years. I have recommended it in this column for what seems like forever, and I repeatedly get the most favorable comments from readers who have used it.

I must give credit to a Pennsylvania reader who told me about it years ago, when Milsek Furniture Polish was not yet well-known, and concentrated in Pennsylvania only. I called Milsek, and they sent me a sample to try.

It was so good that I not only recommend it whenever the occasion presents itself, but we buy it regularly in our local Ace hardware store, which, at times, has had a hard time keeping it in stock.

Milsek has one of the best websites. As soon as you open it, you'll see a Store Locator bar.

Q: I have a wood-burning fireplace, but only use gas logs -- no wood. How often do I need to have the chimney cleaned, if at all?

A. Even though you should not need to have the chimney cleaned, the American Gas Association recommends having gas inserts and furnaces checked for safety yearly. Part of the safety check should also include any needed cleaning.

Q. I am very discouraged. The water coming from the kitchen sink in my house occasionally has a very strong odor that smells like sewer gas.

The water does not taste bad, but this is very frustrating. We have had our local water authority, PWSA (Pittsburgh Water & Sanitary Authority), come to test the water. The water did not smell when the technician was here. The PWSA did test, but they said there was nothing wrong with it.

This situation still occurs. It is not constant, but occasional. I need your help. What should we do next and where should we go with this?

A. You didn't say, but does the odor come only when you use hot water or sometime after?

If you smell the sewer odor for a short while when drawing cold water, it may be the remnants of the last draw of hot water that has cooled and is still in the line.

If so, the magnesium sacrificial rod in your water heater is being eaten away. It can be replaced with an aluminum rod, which will eliminate the problem, but which has some other deleterious effects.

A power rod is best. It will solve the problem for good. A licensed plumber can install it for you.

That is the only thing I can think of with the little information you have given me.

Q. I want to remodel a half-bathroom, which has a shower stall that has not been used for many years. I am concerned about Legionnaires' disease but don't know if I need to be. I seem to recall a serious case some time ago that was traced to old plumbing in a renovated hotel.

I had my master bath remodeled a few years ago and a hairline crack appeared in the ceramic tile floor soon after. Now another crack has appeared near the toilet and there is seepage when the toilet is flushed. I can't recall if the installer put in an underlayment. The original floor was linoleum or something similar. Is there any solution other than ripping out the floor?

A. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Legionnaires' disease is caused by "a type of bacterium found naturally in fresh water. When people are exposed to the bacterium, it can cause illness (Legionnaires' disease and Pontiac fever). This bacterium grows best in warm water, like the kind found in hot tubs, cooling towers (air-conditioning units for large buildings), hot water tanks, large plumbing systems and decorative fountains. … Legionella are NOT spread from one person to another person."

So it would seem that, according to the CDC, you should not have anything to worry about.

Did the hairline cracks occur in the grout between tiles or are the tiles themselves cracked? Grout can be repaired, but if the tiles are cracked, it points to an unstable subfloor. In that case, more cracking is likely to take place over time. The ceramic floor may have to be taken up and some strengthening of the substrate done, which may not be easy to do if you do not have access from below. You might also consider using a different, less heavy and more flexible floor finish.

The seepage when the toilet is flushed may need to be addressed by replacing the wax seal. This should be done with a waxless kit, which your plumber can take care of.

Q. Every fall we have patches of mushrooms pop up in our lawn. Is there something we can use to get rid of these?

A. Mushrooms are the result of the decomposition of old mulch, other organic matter, and rotting tree stumps and roots. They are a valuable recycling mechanism for these organisms, and should be appreciated. But they also can present a danger to children and pets who might be curious enough to ingest them.

Mushroom growth can be reduced with less irrigation, the removal of thatch, and the aeration of the lawn in order to allow deep water penetration in poor soils. The application of a nitrogen fertilizer can also help, as it speeds up the decomposition of organic matter.

The growth of mushrooms also can be reduced by removing them as soon as they appear to prevent them from fruiting and spreading their spores. But that does not remove the organic matter from which they feed.

Interesting comments from readers: Another one in response to a mysterious sewer clogging:

• "You might have asked what kind of toilet paper they use. Years ago, we had a similar situation. The plumber we called in could only say there was 'some kind of gel' stuck in the lines.

"We were using Charmin at the time and he said that could be what caused the blockage. Those 'soft' TPs turn into a gelatinous blob as they go down the drain. If you do have any kind of cold snap, they could cause temporary blockages before they warm up.

"We've been using Scott (not the softest of TPs) and have never had an issue since."

It's an interesting coincidence, but it is only speculation. According to a recent release from sanitary authorities, some of the sanitary wipes have caused problems in sewage treatment systems. Only Cottonelle was deemed safe, as it fully disintegrated.

• In response to a water pipe singing problem:

"The (Pittsburgh) area has very high water pressure. If a pressure regulator is purchased and is not a higher-end unit, it will make the pipes sing. This is a problem on the southwest side of Pittsburgh."

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. His book, "About the House," is available at www.upperaccess.com. His website is www.henridemarne.com. Email questions to henridemarne@gmavt.net, or mail First Aid for the Ailing House, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

© 2015, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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