Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Old House: A Damp, Moldy Basement

This is what the basement looked like when we moved in. That half wall in the background holds back some good old Georgian red clay soil. We think the basement was originally dirt and when they finished it they simply compacted some of the soil on the below grade front wall and slapped up that retaining wall. You can see it's not in such hot shape. The pink and gray smears on it are efflorescence from rain water soaking into the soil and evaporating through the concrete. In another part of the basement there was also a GE refrigerator older than time that had condensation all over it.

The other problem was that 20 minutes of doing laundry down there was enough to send me for my rescue inhaler. You see, I'm a human mold detector; I'm severely allergic. For about 2 weeks Jeremy and I wore respirators every time we went into the basement. Big surprise that the humidity was close to 80% down there and there was mold growing on the dirt and the walls.

And here's what it looks like after a few improvements:
The first order of business was to get the humidity down to a reasonable level. I recycled the refrigerator through Georgia Power's Earth Cents program, which is totally awesome. They pick up your old energy-guzzling second refrigerator for free and mail you a rebate check. It was $35 when I did it, but for a limited time it looks like they're offering $50. They also have all kinds of other energy rebates. (Eventually, we plan to take advantage of some for programmable thermostats and energy efficient freezers.)

I also replaced an old dial-operated dehumidifier with this baby. So far it has done awesome. You can see it has the humidity down to 50% and it takes less than a day to return the basement to that level even after heavy rain. We also bought some tubing and hooked it up to the a/c pump so we don't have to empty the water manually; it's emptied through the same channel as the a/c condensation. The only downside is that with all the rain we've been having lately it ran almost continuously the month we installed it, adding about $50 to our electric bill. Ah well, it's a small price to pay to be able to breathe.

Then we cleaned the mold off the walls. Contrary to popular belief, you do NOT need bleach to do this. Bleach only kills a couple of varieties of mold on non-porous surfaces only. So, while it may be fine for a bathtub or sink it won't do jack on concrete or wood. Correcting the moisture problem and then cleaning up with soapy water (while wearing appropriate mold protection) does just as well, without the possibility of you passing out from the fumes.

Jeremy breaking out the debris in a settlement crack.

Then it was time to make the below grade wall water resistant. This is still an ongoing process. First we patched up 3 big settlement cracks in the foundation and retaining wall. We used hydraulic cement since there is sometimes water penetration in this area, but also because it sets up in minutes and doesn't need to be cured in any special way.

I found out minutes actually means about 30 seconds once you get the cement to the right consistency, which is sort of like soft cookie dough. Once it's to that point you can roll it into a ball and really smoosh it into the crack. The water/cement ratio on the package was pretty useless though, especially after a couple of batches have made the provided scoop all gunky. I also highly recommend wearing normally-I-wouldn't-be-caught-dead-wearing-these clothes. A dust mask and gloves are also required.

The proper "cookie dough" consistency.
Smooshing the hydraulic cement into the crack.
After the cracks were patched we had to deal with the retaining wall itself. Eventually I would like to pour a cement slab over it and completely seal off the dirt from the basement, but a cement slab needs support and a level surface. I didn't want to deal with drilling into the granite walls or the pricetag associated with such a big project.

So we decided to use a paint-on waterproofer on the wall and a vapor barrier over the dirt to keep mold from growing and water from evaporating into the basement air. Unfortunately, the dirt was not level and once we started digging we found out that portions of the dirt had been directly cemented over. That's actually a cement surface I'm sitting on to patch the wall. We decided the best thing to do was to build a smaller wall, perpendicular to the retaining wall to separate the dirt and concrete portions. That way we could level the dirt:
We simply hammered a few stakes in near the division and wrapped a piece of plywood in 6 mm plastic to form the wall. Then we shoveled and raked the dirt until it was level and all the mold had been turned under.

The bad part of using waterproofer is prepping the surface. For waterproofer to adhere well you have to remove as much grime and water deposits as possible from the surface your going to paint. Jeremy and I scrubbed the wall and then used masonry etcher, which is similar to muriatic acid and will eat through galvanized metals, to get rid of the deposits. The kicker is you have to flush it off the wall once it's done working, which bumped the humidity up substantially. We tried to move quick and vacuumed up the water with our shop vac.

I touched up the existing waterproofer on the foundation wall and added it to the retaining wall. The waterproofer itself is not that bad if you go with a latex base, which are a lot less smelly than oil bases and have fewer volatile organic compounds too. The waterproofer is really thick so it has to be mixed repeatedly throughout the painting process. It also has to be worked into pores and cracks, so I hand brushed the whole wall, twice.
We still have some water seepage, but the air in the basement is breathable now. In a few weeks, I'll add the vapor barrier, after Jeremy has finished rewiring. Otherwise he would just rip it up trying to get to the outside edge of the foundation wall.

All of the basement mold and moisture problems stem from the fact that way too much water makes it close to the foundation because our lot slopes toward the house. But I am a woman with a plan! Stay tuned for more on correcting drainage issues.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Smoked Corn Chowder

I'm sorry. Renovations have eaten my life. I've learned more about hydraulic cement, masonry, and drainage than I ever cared to know. More on that later.
Today, I wanted to share an awesome recipe that makes use of the bountiful amount of corn available this time of year. The best way to make this recipe is to smoke the corn on the grill before you make the soup. But if you don't want to go through the trouble, you can just cook the corn with the soup. It's really good with regular corn, but smoking the corn puts this soup in my top 3 favorite soups.

This is a thick, hearty chowder. Meaning it's thickened with flour and cream. If you want to lighten it up you could sub half and half or milk for the cream and use a more waist-friendly thickener like arrowroot. It doesn't take too long to make, freezes and reheats really well, and basically tastes like grilled summer in a bowl. 
If you decide to grill the corn. Shuck the corn so that only 1 layer of husk remains to protect the kernels from blackening too much. Then soak the corn in the sink for a few minutes before putting them on the grill. I like to put them on the cooler outer edge of the grill, so they take longer to cook and absorb more of the smoky flavor. For the wood chips, we've used hickory and mesquite successfully, but anything would probably be good.

There are lots of ways to test whether the corn is done. Being a visual person, I judge by color. Corn turns a slightly more golden version of it's original color when it's cooked. The husk should also be pretty brown and wilted and charred around the edge if you cook them low and slow.  I prefer a couple of blackened spots to half raw corn.
Since I am enormous klutz, I stink at cutting corn off the cob. When I try, it ends badly. I curse like a sailor and corn ends up on the ceiling. I usually call in my husband to do the dirty work and he claims all it takes is a very sharp a knife and a stable cutting surface. 
There's really not too many ingredients to this recipe either: a few pantry staples, corn, onion, potato, and fresh thyme and you're ready to go.
Smoked Corn Chowder
Serves 6-8
Cooking Time: Approx. 55 minutes (excluding smoking the corn)

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 Idaho potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 6 ears corn, smoked on the grill
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish

1. Ahead of time, smoke the corn as described above or just use raw ears. Using a sharp knife cut off the whole kernels and set kernels aside.

2. In a large pot, melt the butter and olive oil together over medium heat. Add the onions and thyme and saute about 5 to 10 minutes until the onions are softened.

3. Add the garlic and saute 1 more minute.

4. Add the flour and stir to combine.

5. Add the vegetable stock, cream, and potatoes and bring to a hard boil. Boil for 7 minutes. (This step helps break down the potatoes so they'll give the soup a good texture.)

6.  Reduce the heat to a simmer. At this point, you can fish out the sprigs of thyme with a pair of tongs. The boiling will have removed most of the leaves and you can scrape off any leaves still clinging to the stem into the soup.

7. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add the corn kernels. Simmer for 10-12 minutes if using raw corn and a few minutes less if using smoked.

8. Ladle into bowls and garnish with parsley.