Welcome to this month’s installment of Dear Urbaneer, where I take on real estate questions from my inquisitive clients. This month, I am talking with a client who has set up a home office in her basement and is wondering about the wisdom of spending a great deal of time on her lower level.
I’ve been working from home throughout the pandemic. With usable space at a premium on the upper floors, I set up a home office for myself in my basement. However, I’ve been hearing a lot about air quality and other problems in basements. What do I need to know and how can I continue to use this space comfortably and in good health? Looking for peace of mind!
Dear Basement Blues:
Having to work, live, learn, and play all at home over the past year, homeowners have been forced to squeeze usability out of every last inch of their square footage. Now, more than ever, with most spaces in our home doing double and triple duty, those areas need to be equipped for both comfort AND practicality.
The basement is one such space.
Generations ago, basements were primarily used for utilitarian purposes: furniture storage, stock rooms, cold cellars, etc. Even the very word “basement” still has certain connotations that we just can’t seem to shake: ‘dark’, ‘damp’, ‘spooky’. For a long time movies and TV taught us that basements were mysterious and dangerous places to be avoided as much as possible!
Today, in addition to housing mechanical systems, laundry, and the like, we are commonly using our basements as an extension of our living spaces. This is even more true in urban centres that are plagued by a space squeeze, and every inch comes at a premium. Now, “lower levels” are where you’ll commonly find a recreation room, bedrooms, a media room, or, as in your case, a home office!
And you are right to consider air quality in a basement. The nature, construction, and design of basements means there are risk factors here that don’t don’t exist elsewhere in your home. It’s in constant contact with the ground, and it traditionally houses mechanical systems, long-term storage, and some appliances, all of which may present unique health risks. These factors are often overlooked and I applaud you for being proactive and reaching out. It’s important to ensure your family is dwelling in a happy AND healthy space.
After all, living your best life at home includes having your living space support your mental and physical health. That’s why I’ve written an entire series about creating a Healthy Home. Check it out!
Here are some common issues found in basements (more often than you’d think!) as well tips on how to protect yourself and make your lower level safe, comfortable, and a desirable space in which to spend your time.
Many years back, I wrote about the dangers of Radon in this post Healthy Home: A Guide to Radon Exposure; it was one of my first health-related posts and got a lot of traction. More people than I expected reached out with horror stories of their own, which spurred me to create and continue building our Heathy Home series.
Radon is a radioactive gas that is produced when uranium in soil, rocks and water in the earth breaks down. The gas is colourless, odourless and tasteless. When it is released into the atmosphere from the earth, it is diluted, so it becomes less toxic. However, it all comes down to what levels are present of this naturally occurring gas in your home. If radon levels are too high, it’s quite toxic and can cause cancer. How much radon might be in your home has much to do with where and upon what, your home is built.
The thing with basements is that they are in constant contact with the ground, and therefore are the first point of entry into a home from radon being released from the earth surrounding the foundation. Things like sump well, cracks in the foundation, porous concrete and drains all make for easy access points for the gas.
The level of these gases can actually be made worse by a variance in air pressure. Rising warm air can draw air more forcefully, starting in the basement.
It’s advisable to test your home for radon, which you can do with a home (like this one), buy a radon detector (here’s the top selling one on Amazon), or you can just hire a certified professional to do it for you!
To mitigate radon access into your home, ensure that your sump well cover is intact- and replace and/or repair as needed. Open windows as much as possible to allow for fresh air. You can install special filters in basement drains to let water drain, but keep radon from entering. If you’ve got exposed soil, say in a crawl space, cover it tightly with a plastic membrane.
For more radon tips check out this resource “Radon-Reduction Guide for Canadians“.
Mold and Mildew
With the damp and dark environment of basements, mold and mildew can thrive. Inhaling mold spores can be dangerous and impacting to your health. You could experience nose, eye and throat irritation, breathing difficulties.
Mold and mildew need organic material, darkness and moisture to grow. So basements that are prone to leakage are more likely to experience mould growth. Check your basement regularly for signs of water damage, like around pipes and windows and walls. Seal any leaks in the foundation.
Mold loves to grow on drywall, wood, ceiling tiles and carpets, so pay attention particularly to those areas.
You can help regulate the moisture in your basement by running a dehumidifier. Even if you aren’t experiencing water damage, the nature of basements being in contact with the ground makes them damper than other areas of your home.
Also, if you have bathroom in your basement, make sure that it vents properly. Bathrooms produce a great deal of additional moisture, so you don’t want to direct more into the basement area.
Ideally, you should have vinyl, laminate or tile instead of carpeting in the basement.
Check out this past post where I offer more advice on how to keep mold away and what to do if you discover that you’ve got mold growing in your basement: Healthy Home: What You Need To Know About Household Mold
Given the age of the housing stock in Toronto, encountering asbestos is not uncommon. Prior to 1990, it was used largely used in buildings for fireproofing, weatherproofing and noise reduction. Although its use has greatly reduced, it’s still occasionally used commercially for insulation, siding, industrial heating systems and in car construction (i.e. brake pads and transmission components).
Exposure to asbestos is serious business; if you are improperly protected, inhaling asbestos fibres can contribute to asbestosis, as well as lung cancer and mesothelioma (which is cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity). But before you hit the panic button, simply being near asbestos is not going to pose a health risk. If you’ve got asbestos in your home and it is sealed (i.e. behind walls), bound and sealed inside of products, sealed in the attic (i.e. insulation) or if it is otherwise left undisturbed, then you are okay.
It’s when you disturb asbestos, shaking up its fibres, letting it particles begin to permeate the air that potential problems emerge. This can happen during renovations. And unlike fibreglass fibres, which can easily be exhaled if they are inhaled, asbestos fibres almost literally have little “hooks” that let them linger in your respiratory system.
Threats in your basement? Pay particular attention to insulation around hot water tanks. Another hot spot is underneath linoleum floors. Linoleum floors sometimes had an asbestos paper layer beneath them. And if your house dates from the 1950s to 70s, it may be in your floor and ceiling tiles or siding, stucco or plaster. Also be wary of steam pipes and ducts, cement sheets, millboards and paper around wood stoves, door gaskets, in soundproofing materials and textured paints.
To be safe, before you undertake renovations, it’s a good idea to have a qualified professional in to test for asbestos, so that you can take the appropriate precautions.
Here’s our blog about protecting your health from this little-discussed threat. Healthy Home: What You Need To Know About Asbestos.
It’s common to have laundry located in the basement, but as handy and space-saving as this is, it is important to make sure that dryer vents are directed to the outdoors.
Sometimes homeowners vent their dryers back into the space, blowing warm air. While this may seem like an efficient way to aid with heating cooler spaces, that exhaust coming from the dryer contains chemicals from detergent and other laundry products that can cause you respiratory issues.
There, of course, a great risk of dryer fires if the dryer exhaust is not cleaned regularly. Dryers produce and accumulate highly flammable lint. Failing to regularly clean the lint out of the system in the leading cause of dryer fires, and it can also make your dryer work much harder, reducing its life span. A good rule of thumb is to have your dryer exhaust cleaned by a professional once a year.
While you are vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning anywhere in your home, you may be more likely to encounter carbon monoxide in your basement, simply because of poor ventilation and the fact that things like furnaces, wood-burning stoves, and fireplaces are commonly in basements; these are major culprits in creating carbon monoxide. Auto exhaust is also a big risk factor, and if your garage is connected to your basement, you could be at risk as well.
Oil and gas furnaces should be inspected annually to identify problems and fix them proactively. Install carbon monoxide detectors on each level of your home, preferably close to the HVAC and fireplaces.
Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, headache, dizziness and confusion. It can even lead to death. It’s important to stay vigilant to this, as carbon monoxide is a colourless and odorless gas- and can be deadly in higher concentrations.
Basements can feel notoriously stuffy, and that is because of reduced airflow and ventilation in that area. With poor ventilation, it is harder for the air to move toxic particles out and away from you and your family.
Connecting your basement with your HVAC system can help with ventilation, as can an air purifier, or even putting a few plants in place to naturally improve your air. The best low-tech trick? Open the windows often, even when it is chilly outside.
Sewer gases can creep into your home through a dry floor drain. Sewer gases can emit methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and fumes from solvents or chemicals that are in the sewer system. These are all highly toxic and certainly not something you’d want to be breathing in while spending time in your basement.
Your drains are built with a trap that works to prevent gases from entering into your home. However, when the trap runs dry, it doesn’t work. This one is an easy fix. Make a point of flushing your basement drains regularly with water to ensure the trap stays wet.
Basements are usually the spot for storage in a home, and it isn’t uncommon for homeowners to store half-used cans of paint, varnish or adhesives.
Once these types of products are opened, they emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. These are toxic and can cause anything from allergies to more serious respiratory illnesses to illnesses involving the nervous system.
Try to dispose of unused products promptly. Make sure cans are well-sealed if you are storing them, and inspect often for cracks or leaks. Purchase low VOC products to start with, and you’ll be at lower risk.
Dust Mites, Bacteria & Viruses
Dust mites are the nemesis of those with allergies and asthma, and typically the more humid your home is, the more dust mites you’ll have.
Basements tend to be dustier than other areas of your home, perhaps because of under use, or because they aren’t commonly part of the regularly cleaning schedule. Make sure to dust your basement regularly and to vacuum using a HEPA filter to eliminate dust mites.
Bacteria and viruses proliferate in moist places, and your basement certainly provides that environment. Many bacteria and viruses are airborne (we are still learning exactly how COVID-19 works, for example), but to keep your family safe it is wise to use an air purifier in your basement.
Again, it is imperative that you ensure your HVAC is fitted with a proper air filter and that you change it regularly; it’s the only way to to make sure it is effectively removing unwanted particles (and pathogens if it has a MERV-13 rating or higher) from the air. *While the research is still inconclusive, it’s been widely reported that most residential grade filters do not screen COVID-19.
The damp and darkness of a basement is paradise for pests. Of course, pest infestation isn’t just limited to basements, but again, the nature of basements and their contact with the ground make it a great entry point for those uninvited guests.
Not only can pests damage your property and belongings, they also pose a health risk through their droppings and waste material. Some common pests that love basements are centipedes, spiders, earwigs, rodents, wasps and bees.
As a rule of thumb, keep your basement clean and sanitary at all times. Don’t leave food or garbage lying around. Rodents in particularly will be lured by that.
Seal access from the outdoors. Make sure that vents are covered with grates. Make sure that any cracks in your foundation are sealed in. Repair broken windows or screens. Remove mulch, leaf piles, composting, and any decaying vegetation away from your home’s exterior. In the case of wasps, if you think there is a wasp nest in your home (or if you see one outside nearby), leave a light on in the basement area. They prefer to set up home base in the dark.
Are you aware of Toronto’s serious termite problem? There pockets of Toronto where termites are so prevalent that they’re called hot spots and can be circles on map!
Termites are wood destroying insects that feed on the cellulose of wood. Understandably, thousands of Toronto homes have wood components, and, if left unprotected and in proximity to soil, can fall prey to termite infestation. The ideal condition for termites? Wood that is in contact with soil and moisture. This combination is like a banquet feast for them!
Once they have access to your residence, they construct and travel through ‘shelter tubes’, and seek out other areas of damp wood. Once they start, it is more difficult to stop them. A home inspector will be able to find evidence of termites in your basement. If he does find damage or shelter tubes, that does not necessarily mean you have active termites – it might be old damage. A closer look by a termite inspector – like those from Aetna Pest Control – will be able to tell you more.
I wrote about pest challenges in Termites for Our Anniversary.
Basements can certainly be dark, especially if windows are small or poorly placed. This is important if you are spending a great deal of time in your basement- which many are, with home offices, play rooms, workout areas and media rooms taking centre stage on the lower level.
There are a number of studies that show that a lack of natural sunlight can negatively affect your mental health. It can result in seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is already a problem with many in Canada, given our long, dark winters.
If you are spending lot of time in your basement, make sure to take breaks and go outside-or at least to an area where you can access abundant natural light.
Make sure what windows you do have in the basement permit the free flow of light (i.e. don’t have anything blocking them). Hang mirrors to catch and redistribute light. Consider painting walls white, as that will contribute to a sense of light and space.
Don’t forget that your mental health is an important component to your overall health and wellbeing.
And Given you’re setting up a professional work space, at home, you may find this Dear Urbaneer post valuable as well: Dear Urbaneer: How To Resolve Your Work From Home Dilemma During The COVID-19 Pandemic.
Basement Blues: I wish you much success in your new office space. (And I applaud you for wanting to create a safer sanctuary for you and your family! )
In addition to our Healthy Home posts noted throughout this post, you can find many more here: Healthy Home Series
Many of the basement dangers and deficiencies outlined in this post can be caught by a Home Inspector. Here are two excellent post that I highly recommend; one explores what is and isn’t covered in a typical homes inspection, and the other outlines the benefits of a pre-sale home inspection when it come time to sell your property.
Your dream home isn’t just about flowing floorplans and fancy finishes. You’ve got to be happy, safe and comfortable while at home too! I provide comprehensive support and can guide you through all the facets of life at home – including safety! Armed with knowledge drawn from decades of experience, my team and I are here to help!
Thanks for reading!
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-8000
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