Set in Concrete

The Coliseum

The Coliseum.  Ancient Roman aqueducts.  The Baths of Caracalla.  Your basement.  What do they have in common?  They would be impossible without concrete.

Concrete is a “composite construction material”; it is composed of aggregate, water and cement.  Through hydration, a chemical process in which the water reacts with the cement, the various materials are bonded together, producing a building material that can last thousands of years.

And yet, while concrete has insured that even today we can visit ancient sites such as the Pantheon, it is not impervious.  The substance that makes concrete strong can also weaken it: water.

The Pantheon

When constructed perfectly and under perfect conditions, the concrete slab in your basement will perform, well, perfectly.  But most of the time, we end up with moisture in our basements, either from broken or leaking pipes under the concrete, condensation or moisture coming through the concrete from the earth underneath it.  When these things happen your basement can be host to many problems:

 Health Issues – Moist areas are perfect breeding grounds for bacteria, fungus, mold and mildew.  As I have posted about before, these can lead to many problems such as headaches and nausea and they can irritate allergies.

 Rotting – All that mold and mildew will eat away at papers, fabrics, wood and anything else organic.  And then there’s the smell that will be accompanying your new funky fungi.

Wet Insulation

 Insect Infestation

 Cracking – this tends to happen when the concrete slab was not cured properly.  If there was too much moisture during the curing process, small cracks could form, quite possibly even inside the concrete where they will remain hidden until they grow enough to make their way to the surface leading to…

 Spalling – When a piece of concrete breaks off from a crack, you’ve got spalling.

Darkening – Moisture should be able to evaporate out of the concrete freely, but when carpeting is installed, it can’t escape as easily and will cause the concrete to darken.

Roman Aqueduct
Photo Courtesy of freddie boy

While moisture is the worst problem most basement floors will face, age must also be contended with.  Cracking, breaking and flaking can occur as a concrete slab ages and it can be especially common in cold climates because the concrete endures many severe temperature fluctuations.  If you are careful and diligent, you can catch most of these problems before they get out of control.  For flaking and chips, you can use a patch compound.  For holes or cracks, it’s best to use expansive cement so the open space gets entirely filled, then use a patching compound to cover the area.

Another common problem with concrete slab is the surface is often not flat.  That can create issues when flooring materials are installed over it.

So if you are looking for flooring to put over the concrete in your basement, what are some of the best choices?  Let’s look at the pros and cons of a few:

– Vinyl Floor Tiles – These are very unsuitable for a basement because the vinyl does not allow the slab to dry.  And while the vinyl itself may remain unaffected, the adhesive used will fail and your tiles will peel up.

– Hardwood – Generally discouraged for basement floors because any moisture will cause the hardwood to buckle or twist and possibly rot; again, if adhesive is used, it will probably fail.  And if the slab is uneven, you will have difficulty installing the hardwood.  If you are absolutely dead set on hardwood floors in your basement and your slab is above grade, you will want to hire someone for the installation as the floor will need to be leveled, a moisture barrier must be laid over the slab and a subfloor made from exterior grade plywood will have to be installed.  Furring strips will have to be used to raise the floor by at least 2”; this can be an issue since many basements have low ceilings already and you will be losing more headspace.  I also suggest using engineered wood flooring as it has higher tolerance to moisture.

– Ceramic Tiles –If your slab is flat, ceramic can be a good option; it’s low maintenance and unaffected by moisture.  If the floor is not flat, however, the tiles will crack and break.  Installation can be difficult and you may want to hire a professional.  Another downside for some people is the discomfort of such a hard material, as well as the coldness of ceramic.

– Carpeting – Definitely a no-go.  Carpeting uses adhesive and as we know, the adhesive can fail if there is moisture in the slab.  In addition, carpeting can get moldy and rot when exposed to moisture.

– Laminate Tiles – Easy to install, low maintenance, durable and available in many different finishes.  You’ll want to use a floating type of laminate in order to avoid using adhesive.  Again, you need to make sure your slab is flat and use a moisture barrier because most laminates are not water-proof.

– Water-proof Interlocking Vinyl Tiles – Probably the best choice as these tiles are unaffected by moisture, there is no adhesive to fail, and they are flexible enough to be forgiving on an uneven floor.  They are durable and available in several attractive finishes.  Installation is easy enough that most homeowners do it themselves.


Place N’ Go to the Rescue!

Place N' Go Travertine Beige

When the ceramic tile in my basement kitchen started cracking due to an imperfect sub floor, I always knew I was going to replace it with Place N’ Go interlocking, free-floating floor tiles.  Due to their flexible nature, they are a great solution for problematic basement floors.  I did keep putting it off but when our plumbing recently sprung a leak and water seeped under the tiles, I couldn’t procrastinate any longer.  I got my hands on Selectech’s new Place N’ Go flooring – now available online at the Home Depot – and dedicated the weekend to my new floor.

Of course, it didn’t actually take the whole weekend, just one Saturday.  The tiles were much easier to install than ceramic, they look fantastic and we could walk on them as soon as they were down because there’s no waiting for grout or adhesive to dry.  In fact, the kids were scampering all over the floor before the installation was even complete!

The floor looks beautiful and we’ve gotten many compliments on it already.  And while we hope we won’t have any more leaky pipes, even if we do, we can just pull up the tiles, dry the area and the tiles, and then put them back down.  Place N’ Go tiles also added a bit of warmth to the floor; while the rest of the basement has icy cold floors, the kitchen is quite comfortable to walk on barefoot, and here in New England that’s wicked awesome.

Indoor Climate Control – An Easy Way to be Eco-Friendly and Keep Warm

Image Courtesy of Evgeni Dinev

If our visit this year from the Four Snowmen of the Apocalypse leaves you wanting nothing more than to crank up the thermostat, curl up and keep the cold at bay, you’re not alone.

According to Earth 911, “For each 1 degree you turn down the thermostat in the winter, you’ll save up to 5% on your heating costs.”  That may be a hard sell when you’ve just come inside after digging yourself out of yet another blizzard, but there are other things you can do to get your wintertime energy usage lower.

Insulation – The most important thing you can do is make sure you have adequate insulation.  If you suspect your home is losing heat, you can hire an energy auditor who will inspect your home, room by room, look at your past utility bills and perform tests to show where your home is losing heat.  Your state or local government energy office or your gas or electric utility company should be able to help you find a professional energy auditor.  The U.S Department of Energy suggests you…”Make sure the energy auditor uses a calibrated blower door. Make sure they do thermographic inspections or contract another company to conduct one.”

Programmable Thermostats – If your family is out of the house for 8 to 10 hours a day, why bother heating it?  With a programmable thermostat, you don’t have to remember to lower it before you leave in the morning or go to bed at night.  And you know that when you get home your house will be nice and toasty!

Furnace Filters Clean monthly and replace as needed.

Floors – Ceramic or stone floors can feel like ice during the winter and make a room seem much colder than it is.  So if you’re planning on re-doing your floors, you may want to consider some options:

  1. Radiant Floor HeatingThe U.S. Department of Energy defines radiant heating as, “involv[ing] supplying heat directly to the floor …The systems depend largely on radiant heat transfer: the delivery of heat directly from the hot surface to the people and objects in the room via the radiation of heat.” It may sound very decadent to heat your floors, but hydronic radiant heat actually uses little electricity and heats rooms more efficiently than baseboard or forced air heating because no heat is lost in the ducts. According to the Healthy House Institute, “…comfortable conditions and heating energy efficiency can be maintained with radiant heating systems with lowered ambient air temperatures.”
  2. Type of flooring – Ceramic, stone and even wood can make for very cold floors.  Warmer alternatives include carpet and laminate flooring.

Carpet is very warm, but it’s hard to keep clean.  And if you’re installing it in a basement (usually the worst offender of cold floors), you have to be sure you don’t have any moisture seeping through the concrete as it may result in mold growth.

Laminate flooring has a decorative top sheet with a wear layer over it and a plastic backing.  It is easy to keep clean, it’s durable and it’s flexible enough that you don’t have to worry about uneven substrates. Place N’ Go™ flooring is water-proof, making it suitable for basement applications and it’s available in many decorative finishes so you can have the look of wood or stone without the cold.  And because it’s free-floating, you don’t have to worry about moisture causing any adhesive failure.

Windows – You may think I’m going to tell you to replace your windows with Energy Star approved windows, but I’m not.  Replacing all your windows is expensive and there are things you can do to improve your current windows.

  1. Always make sure your exterior storm windows are down and if you don’t have exterior storm windows, get some!  They add extra insulation, cut down on drafts and are less of an investment than new windows.
  2. If you can feel cold air coming in at window joint, simply run a bead of latex caulk where the window and siding meet.  You can also use caulk on the interior window joints.
  3. Plastic window film can keep a lot of that cold out and is incredibly inexpensive.
  4. Open the blinds or shades on your windows that get a lot of sun (and keep those windows clean); the greenhouse effect can really warm up a room.  And as soon as the sun starts to dip, close those blinds or shades to help keep the heat in.

Take these steps and you can sip your hot chocolate knowing that not only are you keeping warm, you’re saving energy, too!