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Newsletter #229

Crawlspaces Basements

New House Building: Money Saving, Convenience and Healthy House Tips

James Todd
September, 2004

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  1. Crawlspaces vs Basements
  2. Auxiliary air circulation
  3. Skylights in cold climates (beware)
  4. Thought for the Day
  5. Subscription Information
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1. Crawlspaces vs Basements

Three factors help determine whether your new home will have a crawl space or basement or a combination: your need, feasibility/practicality, and common practice in your area.

Basements are great if you need the storage space or feel that down the road you may want to expand your living space, or if you live in an area, which is very cold in winter. Basements are weatherproof and insect resistant; they tend to be cooler all year round and provide a good heat sink in the summer; but it is sometimes difficult to get the dampness out of a basement. Basements impact the type and size of heating system that you have and where you put the furnace, water heater, water treatment equipment, etc. Workshops often get relegated to the basement or to a back area of the garage. If you need a big workshop, a basement may be mandatory.

Basement excavation is more complex, footings are needed on "undisturbed earth" usually well below the frost line (depth to which the ground freezes). Basements may have poured concrete walls, concrete block walls, or possibly treated wood walls, and normally have a poured concrete floor. A home with a 2,500 square foot basement requires about 100 cubic yards of concrete. The outside walls of a basement require waterproofing and careful backfilling. Drainage and water removal from around the basement walls and floor, becomes very important, especially in areas where the ground water level may occasionally rise above the level of the basement floor. Basements can be built almost anywhere, but surrounding rock and the ground water level may present some specific difficulties and could mean that a basement just isn't practical.

Crawl spaces are the corollary of basements. If you do not have a basement, you pretty well have to have a crawl space to provide access to services. Crawl spaces must be left open with circulating air (see local building codes), and so they tend to provide easier access into your home for pests, and unwanted animals like rodents and reptiles. Crawl spaces are most common in warmer climes, and northern cottage areas. In far north areas of perma-frost, basements are very rare.

What have others done in your area? If most homes in your area have a basement, your home will be tougher to sell if it does not have one. If almost all homes have a crawl space but you decide to have a basement, your home may be worth more or may sell more easily, if you have a basement.

A basement adds 10% to 20% (or even more) to the cost of your new home, but this usually translates to at least some added value at sale time.


If you choose to have a basement, ask your builder to install a vapour barrier below the concrete of the basement floor, and consider a good quality material covering the outside concrete or block wall which lets the wall drain and breath. The classic tar coating which has been used for the last hundred years, usually deteriorates within 18 months of construction.

Be sure that good drainage is installed around the footings, all the way around the building, and that the drainage ties into the city sewer or some other area, which is lower than the drained area.

If you use a crawl space, be sure to research some of the excellent techniques for sealing your home against pests and unwanted creatures.

Some Useful Links

ReUse Concrete Specialists

Life Cycle Analysis

Custom Home Design And Residential Construction Advice

2. Auxiliary air circulation

As homes get larger and become better sealed against the environment, air circulation becomes an increasing problem. Air circulation helps to maintain constant temperature and humidity throughout your home. And it also helps to minimize the potential for mould, rot, and mildew. In winter, air circulation helps prevent condensation on windows.

If you live in an area where serious heating is a necessity, air circulating systems as well as air conditioning (cooling) are often directly associated with the furnace. In these homes, the furnace fan may run continuously. In addition, most homes will benefit from ceiling fans, which are inexpensive, attractive, and very effective at moving the air in your home.

Fully sealed homes, which in the past were sometimes referred to as R2000 homes, also have a continuously running air exchanger. To be effective, most air exchangers require monthly service. Be sure to include this in your list of house maintenance duties. When your air exchanger is first set up, ensure that the technician sets the system for a slightly positive house pressure. This minimizes dust being drawn into your house and will also minimize back drawing smoke or creosote odours into your home, if you have a fireplace.

If the heating/cooling ducts in your home are excessively long runs, be sure that the blower system is adequate. While auxiliary blowers in some of the ducts in your home may be beneficial, these introduce maintenance issues and additional noise and it is preferable to avoid them, if at all possible. However, if you must have these installed in your home, make sure that they are easily accessible and high quality systems.

If you have a damp basement, you may try using one or more auxiliary dehumidifiers. These units have a fan, a condensation coil, and either a drain hose or a water collection tank.

Attic air circulation is very important to avoid excessive heating in the summer and minimal moisture build-up. Several simple roof vents or possibly power vents are something that you should explore with your builder.


Keep your air exchanger unit operational and in good repair. Lubricate all motors and keep all filters clean. Sometimes this servicing is included with the furnace maintenance contract.

If your home is equipped with central heating and central air conditioning, you may consider keeping your furnace blower fan operational at all times (mine never stops). You can ask the contractor to wire the motor so that it runs continuously but speeds up for cooling.

Consider using a premium air filtration system as part of your furnace air circulation. Be sure to clean or replace the filter media at recommended intervals.

Be sure to have a furnace maintenance contract.

If you have auxiliary blowers in some ducts, be sure to include them in your maintenance contract, or service them yourself regularly.

Some useful links to check out

Department of Environmental Protection

Air Circulators...The Cure For Homes With Sluggish Circulation

Lennox Aircleaners

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3. Skylights in cold climates (beware)

Skylights can be a very attractive addition to your home. They come in all shapes and sizes and have been installed in homes in all types of climates. This article will primarily discuss skylights in cold climates, however first we will briefly review some of the advantages of skylights.

Skylights add light and brighten up otherwise dark and dreary rooms, or hallways and can make your house very cheery and bright. If you are considering a skylight, there are a number of factors to take into account. Location is important especially if you are trying maximize the amount of light that comes in, heating or cooling effects in winter, aesthetic impacts, construction changes to your roof and the and overall light improvement in the home.

This article will focus on skylights in cold climates and two of the difficulties a homeowner can have with skylights. Skylights will leak or cause water damage from at least two main sources and both can be avoided with proper maintenance and care. We are assuming that the skylight has been properly installed.

Many skylights appear to be leaking when the actual cause is condensation on the inside of the glass or plastic window. During the winter on very cold days, frost may form on the inside of the glass. This can be caused by high humidity in the home and cold weather. As the sun warms the roof during the day and in particular the frost on the skylight window, the frost will thaw and run down the sides of the walls inside the well of the skylight. Over time this can cause discolouration and even damage to the walls and even the floor below if there is very high humidity in the home. A simple solution is to control the humidity level In the home, remembering that you need to ensure that there is a minimum level in the home to prevent dry skin, furniture drying out and general discomfort from dry air. By doing this you can reduce the amount of condensation on the glass.

A more serious concern is the build up of ice on the roof or better known as “ice dams”. An ice dams can be formed on a roof below a skylight when snow builds up, on or around the skylight. Since the skylight has a lower insulation factor that the surrounding roof, snow on the skylight can be melted from the heat transfer through the glass and/or the sun. As the snow melts, the water will begin to flow down the skylight onto the colder roof, at which point it freezes due to the colder temperature of the roof. If sufficient ice builds up, and ice dam has formed and prevents the dissipation of the water causing it to seek other paths as it follows gravity. Water can back up under shingles and into the attic causing a great deal of unseen damage in the attic before it is finally exposed in the lived in portion of the home. If a spring thaw occurs, the homeowner can experience significant leakage into the home caused by the ice dam and the subsequent damage.

The solution can be relatively simple. Constant vigilance and removal of any snow build up on or just below the skylight will usually prevent ice dams and the subsequent leakage. Homeowners who do not want to get up on a slippery roof can purchase a “roof rake” attached to a long flexible pole and rake the snow off the roof while remaining at ground level. A few minutes work may eliminate significant damage and inconvenience from a serious roof leak.

Some useful links to check out

Install Skylights or Light Pipes

How To Repair a Leaking Skylight

Ice Dams

4. Thought For The Day
Men do less than they ought, unless they do all that they can. – Thomas Carlyle.

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