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VOL. 43 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 15, 2019

Soggy basement? Solution might be in your back yard

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With the abundance of rainfall that has tormented the area during the past several weeks, thousands of residents have experienced flooding or water intrusion in their basements.

A common solution for wet basements is the use of a sump pump, which senses gathering water and pumps it outside.

Contractors install channels along the interior walls of the basement and fills these newly formed moats with gravel and pipes. Those plastic lines then take the water into a hole that is deeper than the channels. The pump in that hole then sends the water out of the basement and away from the house.

That system has worked for millions of homeowners over the years, and the companies that install them provide lifetime warranties.

Case closed on flooding, right? Not so fast.

Enter Tony Locke, a structural engineer with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Middle Tennessee and a wit that rivals Mark Twain. Known in real estate circles as the House Whisperer, Locke enters a home and begins a dialogue with the structure.

Since, as some say in this area, “it come a flood” almost weekly for the past six to eight weeks, home inspectors have detected water in nearly every basement built before 1945. When the general home inspectors find water intrusion, they realize that it could cause erosion and threaten the structural integrity of the building.

Locke, whose chosen form of reporting is oral rather than written, provides a narrative that is equal parts informative, enlightening and entertaining.

As he entered a home on Sunset Place in Hillsboro Village, he asked the buyer’s agent when the house was constructed. Checking a printout she had obtained from Metro, she responded that the house was built in 1943.

“That cannot be right,” Locke chided, “We didn’t build houses here in the middle of World War II.”

At that point, he descended into the basement and allowed the house to tell him its birthday. The house explained it had been built in the late 1930s and apologized for the water intrusion. But Locke needed no apologies or excuses, and informed the buyer’s agent of why there was moisture there.

He began by detailing the purpose of the cellar, explaining that it was not a basement and was not built for storage. The ground was excavated to allow a space for a coal furnace.

The coal was dumped through chutes that over the years have been converted to windows adding further confusion to modern-day homeowners who feel that the area below the house should be free of moisture.

The windows give the area a basement feel.

Locke says the moisture is more a result of water that has accumulated in the ground over time rather than that of a one-day shower. He is of the opinion that too much emphasis is placed on the number of inches of rainfall on a particular day rather than the rainfall during previous days.

He uses a sponge analogy, demonstrating an empty sponge with several ounces of water poured onto it versus a sponge that has been saturated with water being doused with a similar amount of water.

The saturated sponge has no more capacity to retain water. That condition is the situation most of Nashville is facing.

Locke then points to pipe carrying Metro water through the foundation and into the home’s plumbing. The water comes from the water main, through a meter and into to the individual home.

“In order to get the line from the meter, the plumber builds what he calls a trench,” Locke explains, taking a breath as a smile creases his face. “I call it a creek.”

When the water table fills, he adds, the only recourse is to follow the path of least resistance. In many instances, that is the water line from the street.

That water, once it gets into the basement, can then cause mold, fungus, erosion and damage to personal items.

Which brings us back to sump pumps, which Locke says should not be in our basements.

Instead, Locke says sump pumps should be placed outside the house, buried in the yard in order to capture the water and divert it before it has an opportunity to harm the interior of the house.

The channels and gravel and pipes could serve the same purpose on the outside of the house as that they serve on the inside. With this system in place, there should be no water intrusion.

And in the “for what it’s worth” department, Locke says all the fiberglass insulation under houses, especially in cellars, has no positive effect on energy savings and acts as a sponge absorbing moisture and holding it, thereby giving fungus a nice spawning ground.

That insulation should be removed and not replaced, he says.

Richard Courtney is a licensed real estate broker with Fridrich and Clark Realty and can be reached at

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