The Easiest Fix for Leaking Basements

Discovering water getting into your basement is not one of life’s more pleasant moments. The first concerns are where, why, and how to stop it. Of course the dollar signs flashing through one’s mind doesn’t make the situation any better. Foundation repairs don’t come cheap.

However, one of the more common causes of leakage is a relatively simple and inexpensive fix. It’s called a rod hole leak, and it’s not at all unusual for poured concrete foundation walls to experience some. Several may be a more accurate word.

Rod hole leaks are easy to spot, even before they become active. Take a look around the inside of your basement walls. Telltale signs of rod hole leaks are circular damp spots on the wall, similar to the ones shown in the photos. Other signs are stain streaks coming from a point on the wall. If you see any of these, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is they’ll most likely leak eventually. The good news is they’re a quick fix and it will barely put a dent in your budget.

Unfortunately, if your basement walls have been finished, the rod hole repair is going to be more involved. First of all, the wet spots won’t be visible. The only sign of rod hole leaks will be wet floors near the walls. Yep, that nice drywall and paneling is going to have to come down, at least where the leaks are. Drywall is much easier to deal with, since you can remove a section of it and patch it later. With paneling, however, the entire sheet(s) will have to be carefully removed to avoid damage.

If the leaks happen to be behind wall studs, they’ll have to be removed. Chances are at least one leak will be directly behind a stud. Murphy’s Law in action. But don’t despair. It could be worse. I was once faced with a rod hole leak behind the house’s fuse box. That one had to be taken care of from the outside. Not much fun in cold, rainy weather.

Before we get into how to patch rod holes, let’s talk a bit about what they are and why they appear. When a concrete foundation is being poured, large forms are placed to pour the concrete in. Rods are placed around the perimeter of the foundation forms to keep them the proper distance apart. Concrete is then poured between the forms and allowed to cure.

Once the concrete cures, the forms are removed. The rods remain, however. The ends of them are removed, which leaves small holes in the wall a few inches deep. Those holes are patched.

Trouble is, all too often the patchwork doesn’t last very long. Water will eventually seep into the rod holes and work its way through the thick wall to the inside. If the patch holds well, nothing gets in. When it starts to fail, the wall gets damp, causing the circular damp spots that are visible. When the patch fails completely, water starts seeping in. Sometimes it’s barely a trickle, other times it runs down the foundation wall. When things get bad, it runs onto the floor, and can actually spray if the leak’s severe enough.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s get down to permanently patching them. The ideal patching material is hydraulic cement, and you can find it at any hardware or home improvement store. You’ll also need a cheap mixing container, a small plastic putty knife, a hammer, a screwdriver, and protective work gloves. If you happen to have a metal rod the approximate size of the hole, so much the better, but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Before starting, it should be mentioned that rod hole leaks can be repaired any time. If you see damp spots, it’s not urgent. But circle them with a crayon or other marker. That way you’ll find them easily when the wall dries and you get around to patching them. For emergency jobs, the hydraulic cement also works if the leak is active, and water is actually entering through the wall.

If the wall is actively leaking, move everything away from the area. Once you start the repair, the leak is going to get worse before it gets better. If it’s not leaking, it’s a good idea to move items anyway. A little water may still seep through.

Don’t mix the hydraulic cement yet. There is one important thing you need to know about that stuff. It sets amazingly fast. Only mix a small amount – approximately as much as you can use in two or three minutes. This is normally one rod hole, a couple more once you become adept at it. But for now, concentrate on just the first patch. Trust me on this one. The first time I did this many years ago, I found out the hard way, and mixed the entire container of cement. One patch later, I owned a large, useless pail of rock. Not a huge issue, since all that was involved was a few more bucks and a return trip to the store. Definitely not one of my better moves, but I learned from it.

Find the center of the damp spot and very lightly tap the wall with a hammer. As you tap, be ready for the water, if it’s raining and/or the wall is actively leaking. The tapping will cause some of the outer coating to come off, but don’t worry about it. When you reach the rod hole, the coating will come off much faster, and eventually leave a dent in the wall. At that point, take your screwdriver and work it into the hole, twisting and removing all the loose material. As mentioned earlier, the hole will only be a few inches deep.

Now you can put on your gloves and mix the hydraulic cement according to the directions. Don’t use too much water! Work it to the proper consistency. It should resemble a thick paste. You’ll need to work rather quickly, since you don’t have much time before it will become too hard to use.

Once you get a small amount mixed, make a carrot-shaped plug in the palm of your hand. Then shove the small end of the plug into the rod hole. Use the metal rod if you have one, and your thumb, finger, or other suitable tool to jam the plug into the hole. It should be packed as tightly as possible. Once the hole is filled, smooth it as best as you can with the putty knife.

You won’t be able to get it very smooth, unfortunately. By the time you get to that phase, it will have cured so much it will probably be difficult to work with. However, concrete walls are far from perfect anyway, so it’s not a major issue. But your patch is not going to look good no matter what you do. That dark gray blob doesn’t blend in well with the foundation, especially if it’s a lighter color. Painting the wall is about your only option. You may have stains on it anyway from the leaking rod holes.

That’s all there is to it! Now you can tackle the rest. You may want to take care of the worst ones first, then go back when it’s convenient to get the others.

One more little item. This is a messy procedure. Gobs of hydraulic cement will be lying around everywhere when you’re finished. But hey, I’d rather deal with that than a wet basement.

If you removed drywall or paneling to make the repair, hold off on replacing it for the time being. You’ll want to keep an eye on your patch to make sure there are no more leaks. Once you’re satisfied that all’s well, you can replace the paneling and/or repair the drywall.

Keep a container of hydraulic cement handy. Chances are you’ll need it down the road eventually. Rod hole leaks can appear any time.

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