Caulked back door

Caulked back door

I installed the basement back door in March. Once the floor was set up and the walls were framed Percy, our electrician, came out to finish the basement electrical. One of the items on the list was the back door light. In order to get the electrical run properly we decided to finish the trim on the back door. I started by caulking all of the seams around the framing to ensure a good air seal.

Back door trim

Back door trim in progress

I bought PVC trim, because I don’t want to have to do extra maintenance once the house is done. I debated scribing the edge against the brick, but ultimately I discovered I could use the angle grinder with the masonry disk to remove both excess brick and excess PVC. The door is recessed in the wall because the floor slab doesn’t come up to the front edge of the wall. Because of this, our rim joist (which is 6″ x 8″) was exposed, so I needed to trim that as well. The initial electrical was just a piece of conduit, but we wound up with a standard mud ring on a 4″ box. I used the sunken PVC screws with caps, but the color didn’t quite match. We’ll be painting over this anyway to prevent UV fading.

Trim installed

Trim installed

The biggest challenge was the light fixture. The first one we bought didn’t fit because the back box didn’t fit inside the recessed area of the trim. The second light I ordered wasn’t the same size as the specifications, so it hung down too far (the door swings out). We’ll save that one for the first floor. Finally, after a lot of searching for something that didn’t stick up, didn’t stick down, and had a small enough base plate, the third light I ordered fit (if just barely). It’s a barn style light that I put an outdoor-rated LED bulb into.

Light installed

Light installed

We’re pretty happy with the end result. Having an actual outdoor light that works on a light switch is a bit of a novelty for us. The last outdoor light we had was a flood on the back porch (on the second floor) that we didn’t use much. The three different shades of white are a bit irritating, but we’ll get to that eventually.

It works!

It works!

You can see a sneak peak of some of the plumbing and electrical work that’s been going on. In this photo I’d caulked the left side but not the right (it started raining). I’ve since finished it up, but we still haven’t painted. That will probably wait until I’ve trimmed the rest of the basement windows, and possibly until we’re siding the rest of the house.

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I installed the interior weeping system back in late October after the plumbers said it needed to be finished for them to continue (Ha!). That’s also when I put in the sump pit (aka crock, aka basin) and I researched and ordered the actual sump pump, but it didn’t get hooked up until yesterday when the plumbers connected the drain line. I used a ton of zip ties to get all the cables neat and tidy.

One of our big concerns has been water in the basement. The biggest reason is we’re planning to move into the basement for the next year or two and water would be a pretty big problem, but even if that weren’t the case the basement will be part of our finished space and flooding could be a huge expense. We know multiple people with similar houses that have experienced basement flooding for several reasons, so we’re taking the steps we can to prevent that from happening to us.

Unfortunately, the biggest factor in basement flooding is something we haven’t tackled yet, namely gutters that direct rain water away from the house. Because our second floor has a bump out that we’re planning to remove, we haven’t redone our roof and gutters yet. Because we’re a long way from landscaping, we haven’t taken up the sidewalk along the side of the house and put in a drainage system and a rain garden. Because we haven’t put in new windows on the second floor, we haven’t re-sided the house to prevent water from getting into the brick foundation walls. So, there’s a lot to do. In the mean time we’ll be relying on the sump pump to keep the water out of the basement. The good news is that despite a fairly rainy Spring and the sump pump not being connected until yesterday, the floor has been dry. The bad news is we’ve had a dehumidifier running non-stop for weeks and the basement still has 90% relative humidity.

StormPro System

I read a lot about sump pumps and I weighed a lot of pros and cons, reviews, opinions, brands, and specs, and I settled on an Ion Genesis StormPro sump pump system, all pre-plumbed so it just dropped in. This system uses a smart controller, two separate ⅓ HP pumps, and two separate digital water level sensors to keep everything working smoothly. The controller alternates between the pumps to prevent one from sitting idle for too long, or uses both if one can’t keep up.  The water levels sensors are extremely accurate and reliable, with no moving parts and complete redundancy. There’s a high level alarm and we can connect the controller to our alarm system to notify us remotely if there’s a problem. The only important feature it doesn’t have is battery backup. The reason for that omission is we’re planning to install solar panels on the roof along with a Tesla Powerwall battery backup for the whole house. The sump pump will (eventually) rely on this as well. Our power has been pretty reliable, so we’re not worried about not having the backup in the short term. Of course, since I ordered, the “Genesis” controller has been upgraded to the “Endeavor” controller (pictured above) for the same price, which adds some additional functionality.

Sump Pump Installed

Sump pump controller installed on boiler panel

For the time being, the sump is draining into the sewer and out to the City. Chicago allows this (for some reason) so we’re taking advantage of it, since we don’t have the aforementioned rain garden and drainage system outside. We intend to divert the sump pump to that once it’s in place, both because it’s the right thing to do (it doesn’t make sense to mix storm water with sewage), and because we’ve heard of backups in the sewer system (because of all the storm water) that mean there’s no where for the water to go.

Control Panel

Control Panel

When I turned on the sump pump, the pit was pretty full. The alarm sounded and the display told me there was high water. After testing both pumps, it quickly drained the basin and it’s been running only occasionally since then. The display shows the amperage draw of the pump (helpful if there’s blockage or other motor problem) as well as the water level in the basin down to a fraction of an inch. The controller lets you set the water fill level in half inch increments. We have a large 30″ basin, so I set it for 8″. The plumber informed me that the city inspectors have been requiring the sump pit to be proud of the floor by a couple of inches, something I didn’t know when I installed it level with the top of the slab. Hopefully they don’t have a problem with it. Given where the holes in the sides of the basin were and the slope that I had to put on the drain pipes, I couldn’t have put it any higher than I did anyway.

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Since we’re not framing the exterior walls of the basement yet, we went straight to the interior walls, specifically the permanent walls for the bathroom and mechanical room. After Mario put in the mesh for the concrete, I went around and carefully measured locations for the walls and placed J-bolts to secure the sill plates, so that once the slab was poured we wouldn’t have to drill into it. The main reason for this was the radiant tubing in the slab: if you drill into the concrete and hit a tube, that loop is basically useless, and our floor only has three loops. Unfortunately, Mario informed me the day of the pour that because of the way they were screeding and finishing the floor, the J-bolts sticking up all over would get knocked over and interfere, so he pulled almost all of them out.

First wall section

First wall section

I framed the wall in sections, pressure-treated sill plate and standard 2x4s, sill gasket under the pressure treated sill to prevent moisture wicking, coated screws for anything touching the pressure-treated lumber and regular screws and 8D nails for the rest. The uneven floor joists above required some shimming and I had to add blocking to a couple of sections where the wall was parallel to joists. I watched all my inside corners for drywall nailing edges and followed the tub instructions for framing around it. For the curb at the outside walls I built L-shaped pieces and attached them after the fact rather than try to build it with the section. I came back and installed an additional exterior half-wall for the utility sink and washing machine hookup, though in retrospect I might as well have just framed a full wall. I may reconfigure that, but I need to pick up some additional lumber since my original estimates proved low.

Bathroom framing

Bathroom framing

While the wall framing was pretty straightforward, we did run into some snags. For starters, the plumbers had put the toilet too close to the tub, something I could have had them fix if I’d noticed it before the floor was poured, say, back in October when they installed it. Because the toilet can’t move, I shifted the tub a few inches away, so the tub will have to use an offset drain and one of the few remaining J-bolts no longer aligned with the wall. They also managed to place a vent completely outside of the wall it was supposed to go through, but at least it’s inside the mechanical room where it won’t cause too much of an issue. I had to frame the wet wall of the bathroom with 2x6s because the plumbing alignment with the steel column wasn’t quite right, and I had to make some provisions for the steel beam that runs through the bathroom. In general, framing around all of the pipes sticking out of the floor was challenging.

Bathroom framing done

Bathroom framing done

With all the walls up and framed and a few J-bolts secured, I spent a lot of time poring over the photos I took of the floor after Lester installed the PEX tubing, determining where exactly I could drill the floor and secure the walls with Tapcon screws without hitting anything. After several nerve-wracking drills, including one gush of concrete dust that I was certain was air escaping from the pressurized tube, I had all the walls secure and the pressure gauge on the PEX lines holding near 70psi assured me I hadn’t hit any. Whew.

Now the plumbers and electrician are working on their respective pieces. Once they’re done and we’ve passed inspection we’ll get to insulation, drywall and putting up the temporary walls. I’ve got a list of smaller items as well, like hooking back up the water filter, moving the water heater, running venting for the bathroom exhaust fan, and ordering the other fixtures: vanity, toilet, faucets, and utility sink.

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Our basement floor is radiant heated and the ceiling isn’t all that high, which meant we wanted a flooring surface that didn’t interfere with the heat and didn’t consume any height. Staining and sealing the concrete slab was the perfect solution, and not terribly expensive to boot. There’s a number of tints, color seals, paints, and other options for finishing concrete, but we liked the texture and look of acid staining. After some browsing, research, and shopping, I ordered four gallons of acid stain and two gallons of lithium silicate densifier/hardener.

Washing the floor

Washing the floor

The first step was to wash the floor, and we made it a family affair with Sarah and I and the kids mopping and scrubbing. We’d been careful to keep the floor clean after the pour, and done things like painting before hand, but cleaning was still a necessary step. With that done we let it dry overnight, though the first step in staining was re-moistening the floor. I used a pump sprayer for most of the process, and the only issue we ran into was a couple of spots where water pooled and the stain didn’t take. I’d recommend mopping up any puddles first so you don’t have to reapply stain like we did. We let the stain set for about four hours; the longer you leave it the darker the color. Then we neutralized the acid by spraying an ammonia/water mixture and mopping and washing again. We weren’t quite satisfied with the color, so at that point we did another four hour stain on the lighter spots before neutralizing and washing again. One source said to wash until the water runs clear or the sealer wouldn’t take, but after several washes the water was still brown. Another site said we’d wind up taking the stain off if we over washed, so we finally called it “good enough”.

I came back the following day and applied the sealer. I was originally going to put down two coats of sealer, but it went on fairly thick, to the point that we’ll have to go back over it with a broom and then mop off the yellowed excess. As a result we still have a gallon of the sealer to use later, maybe when we finish the basement into an entertaining space in a couple years. When the other basement work is done I’ll come back and wax the floor to give it a bit of gloss, but we’re happy with the result.

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With the floor in, the first order of business is to close up the basement. I put in most of the new basement windows a few months ago, but we couldn’t put in the door until the slab was in, and we left the front window open so that it could be used as a makeshift door during the work. I installed the buck for the front window first. It was a rare case where I could put the box together first and then put it into place whole, instead of assembling in place. The issue with the front window is the outermost wythe of bricks is a smaller opening than the inner two, leaving a gap to either side of the window.

I got the buck into place and secured it with Tapcon screws. I’ve learned a trick with Tapcons (at least when it comes to brick). I use my rotary hammer to drill the holes using an SDS bit because it’s much faster than my regular drill, but then I circle back with the regular drill and the drill bit that comes with the screws because it does a better job of removing the dust in the holes, so the screws will go all the way in. I’ve actually sheared off screws trying to force them into holes that have brick dust. I also use my cordless drill with a spade bit to drill about a half-inch into the buck so that the head of the screw is counter-sunk, and I use the impact driver to actually put in the screw, so I wind up with four power tools arrayed around me, but it gets the job done.

Footing repair

Footing repair

I rebuilt the bricks around the back doorway when I was working on the side windows, but my masonry skills aren’t so hot and it wasn’t very even. I used the laser level with a vertical line pointing toward the house to cast exactly on the brick that needed to be removed and used an angle grinder with a masonry disc to straighten it out. I did this grinding a few weeks ago before the new floor was poured because the grinder throws a lot of dust that we didn’t want all over our new floor before we’ve stained and sealed it. Once the floor was in I needed to address the footer area below the bricks, because we removed the original stone door sill and the opening was wider at the bottom. I used mortar to fill the gaps at the bottom and let it set up overnight. I used the leftover mortar to fill the gaps on the sides of the front window buck.

With the doorway (mostly) even, I cut pressured treated 2×6 boards to build a buck for the top and sides, with sill gasket behind the sides. I used a router to cut dados from the side pieces at the height of the top of the door frame, since the doorway is a bit taller than the door. The left side fit great, but the right side had some sizable gaps behind the buck. I thought it would still work and screwed everything in place, but when I went to test fit the door I realized I was off by about a quarter-inch. I took the right side buck back off, and rather than grind the brick I planed the back of the buck so that it contoured to the bricks. This achieved the same effect and I was able to get the door installed.

There was still the matter of the rectangle above the door. Our plan is to cover the buck with PVC trim, and have a light fixture above the door. I needed a solid base to attach an electrical box, but it needed to be flush with the buck so that the trim would look right. I screwed some scrap 2x6s into the either side of the buck, recessed to accommodate the plywood. I used leftover pressure treated ¾” plywood from the first floor windows. With a little bit of adjustment I got it attached and screwed into place.

As usual, I still need to go around and seal with backer rod, caulk and spray foam, and I still need to get the deadbolt installed (once I re-key it). We’re planning to replace the satin nickel handle and deadbolt at some point with oil-rubbed bronze, but that can wait. These locks are ultimately destined for the garage (which we don’t have yet). This summer, once the PVC has dried out, I plan to go around and install PVC trim on the bucks of the windows and doors. For the first time since we bought our house, nothing is boarded up and we have proper windows and doors everywhere.

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