Get rid of cold-stor­age room in base­ment

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - ARI MARANTZ

QUES­TION: We re­cently bought a home with a cold-stor­age room in the base­ment. There is a vent on one wall near the ceil­ing. Should this vent be closed in the sum­mer sea­son? If so, any sug­ges­tions would be ap­pre­ci­ated. John Mar­tel

AN­SWER: Cold­stor­age rooms in base­ments are one of the things on my “bad idea” list for homes in our area. I will in­di­rectly an­swer your ques­tion by pro­vid­ing ad­vice on how to warm up this room and elim­i­nate it from your home to pre­vent some com­mon prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with un­heated spa­ces in mod­ern build­ings.

Be­fore I be­gin my rant on why you should elim­i­nate this type of room from your home, I will say that you should per­ma­nently cover and seal the wall vent to the ex­te­rior to pre­vent warm air loss in the win­ter from your base­ment. This is best done on the in­te­rior with mois­ture-re­sis­tant in­su­la­tion, such as rigid ex­truded poly­styrene or polyurethane blown-in foam. The in­su­la­tion should be in­stalled and caulked or sealed at the in­te­rior with a proper air/vapour bar­rier to pre­vent con­den­sa­tion from any small air leaks that may let warm air pen­e­trate be­hind the in­su­la­tion. Once this area is sealed, you should patch the ex­te­rior foun­da­tion or sid­ing and go about the process of warm­ing up the rest of the room for the rea­sons that will be pro­vided later in this ar­ti­cle.

Cold-stor­age rooms in base­ments, us­ing cold air from the ex­te­rior, may seem like an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly way to keep things like root veg­eta­bles and pre­serves from spoil­ing in the win­ter. Un­for­tu­nately, with most mod­ern base­ments be­ing used as rec rooms and com­plete liv­ing space, this can cre­ate some sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems.

His­tor­i­cally, older homes with un­fin­ished and unin­su­lated base­ments were used as cel­lars. These min­i­mally heated ar­eas be­low grade were ideal to house the me­chan­i­cal sys­tems within our homes as well as pro­vide a cool, rel­a­tively dry lo­ca­tion for win­ter stor­age of food. This did not of­ten cre­ate a prob­lem be­cause the en­tire area of the cel­lar was un­heated, ex­cept for some ra­di­ant heat from heat­ing ducts or older boil­ers and pipes. Since the foun­da­tion walls were com­pletely ex­posed at the in­te­rior, they re­mained warm enough to pre­vent ex­ces­sive con­den­sa­tion. If they did be­come cold enough for con­den­sa­tion to form, or in cases of mi­nor seep­age, the area would usu­ally dry out from nor­mal air cir­cu­la­tion be­fore ma­jor prob­lems oc­curred.

The mod­ern prob­lems with base­ments started to oc­cur when we real- ized how much heat we were ac­tu­ally los­ing through our unin­su­lated base­ments and win­dows. This is when we be­gan to add in­su­la­tion to the in­te­rior of the foun­da­tion and seal ar­eas of air leak­age, like win­dows and gaps, to pre­vent heat loss. Once we ac­com­plished this, we re­al­ized that the old cel­lar now be­came more com­fort­able and could be used for more than just stor­age. This was fol­lowed by the ad­di­tion of heat reg­is­ters or radiators to con­vert the base­ment to truly com­fort­able, con­di­tioned liv­ing space.

This sys­tem worked well enough as long as we took proper mea­sures to pre­vent ex­ces­sive amounts of warm air leak­ing through and be­hind the in­su­lated walls. If we did not do a proper job, typ­i­cally with plas­tic air/vapour bar­ri­ers, con­den­sa­tion and frost could eas­ily form on the cold foun­da­tion walls. This frost would melt in the spring, when the foun­da­tion warmed, and wet the in­su­la­tion and foun­da­tion in­te­rior. In many cases, rot and mould would form on the foun­da­tion and the fram­ing and cre­ate what we all know as the damp base­ment smell.

While this short his­tory les­son may seem out of place for your ques­tion, I am pro­vid­ing it be­fore I sum­ma­rize my com­ments about elim­i­nat­ing your cold room. Many newer homes, or ones with newer fin­ished base­ments, have prop­erly in­su­lated and sealed walls over top of their foun­da­tions and win­dows that pre­vent air leak­age. While these mea­sures help to pro­vide a com­fort­able liv­ing space in the base­ment, they also trap warm, moist air. Pre­vi­ously, much of it would have leaked out of this part of the build­ing en­ve­lope. This warm air should not cre­ate a prob­lem, un­less it’s al­lowed to cool be­low the dew point, nor­mally by hit­ting a cold sur­face within the base­ment.

By iso­lat­ing a sin­gle room with­out heat and com­pound­ing it with a vent that al­lows large amounts of cold ex­te­rior air to pen­e­trate, you are pro­vid­ing an ideal lo­ca­tion for that to oc­cur. This is made even worse if you have stocked shelves up against the cold foun­da­tion walls in this room. This stor­age pre­vents air cir­cu­la­tion, which may be your only hope in pre­vent­ing ma­jor con­den­sa­tion and frost for­ma­tion. If the foun­da­tion walls or other ar­eas in this “cold room” re­main wet for any length of time, mould and rot can eas- ily de­velop.

All too of­ten I have done in­spec­tions where there’s a small, iso­lated room with a door in the base­ment that has been used for cold stor­age. Even with­out the ex­te­rior vent to al­low cold-air in­fil­tra­tion, or a well-sealed door, I al­most al­ways see ev­i­dence of mould on the perime­ter walls. On a con­crete foun­da­tion in good con­di­tion, this mould may be eas­ily cleaned. But if there are dam­aged wall cov­er­ings, fram­ing or shelv­ing, they must be torn out and dis­carded to rid the area of the smelly mould. Not only will this im­prove the air qual­ity in the base­ment, it may also pre­vent health-re­lated prob­lems for oc­cu­pants of your home who may be sen­si­tive to mould.

So, rather than give you a sug­ges­tion for proper use of the ex­te­rior vent for your cold-stor­age room, I rec­om­mend seal­ing the vent and im­me­di­ate re­moval of the door and any dam­aged or mouldy com­po­nents from this po­ten­tially trou­ble­some area.

His­tor­i­cally, older homes with un­fin­ished and unin­su­lated base­ments

were used as cel­lars.

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