Do you have a smelly basement?

I developed bronchitis because of my smelly basement
As an IT engineer I often worked from home in my basement office - usually in short stints. Two days here, three days there, nothing long term, but the pandemic changed this. As covid cases grew my company like others adopted a work from home policy that thrusted me to the confines of my office. This transition became one of the most expensive periods of my life as a homeowner.

People react to mold and moisture differently, and such was the case of those that frequented my home. I worked in the office occasionally when I worked from home. A day here, a day there, no big deal. In another area of the basement, we had a den, and, in this room, we played video games, watched television and listened to music. Again, I spent no significant in this room either. This room however was different than the office for me. While I developed no significant respiratory issues while in the office, the den gave me headaches and cold like symptoms after only a few hours. My wife on the other hand, displayed no symptoms.

Likewise, friends and family visited frequently, some complained of headaches and cold like symptoms in the den while others didn't. Soon after leaving the basement the symptoms disappeared. I had an idea that there was something wrong in the den but didn't know what it was. To cope, I limited my time in the den. When watching television, I spent a few hours and left. When working, I spent a little time in the office and left - I purposely limited my time in the basement to avoid becoming sick. One thing concerned me however, why was my wife and so many others unaffected? Was my system more sensitive than hers? Perhaps it was all in my head. Could I remain in the office without experiencing any symptoms as my wife did while completing her master's? I was about to find out.

A few months after working from home I was fine. The den still bothered me, so I often closed the door to the office and spent the majority of my time there. Then, things began to change. First my throat began to hurt, next I developed a dry cough. Finally, two months later, my dry cough left, and I now had clear flehm. It developed so slowly that I almost didn’t understand why I had become sick. No matter how I medicated, nothing broke the cold and my symptoms persisted. I avoided the den, so why was I sick? I was forced to confront something I previously shelved – my basement was the cause, and it may be harboring mold.

I had a smelly basement, and I didn’t know what to do
During storms my wife would say "the basement smells wet", but give it a few days, the smell went away and so did the complaints. I thought little of it most days but now that I had developed bronchitis, I thought it was sensible to explore this concern. Was it mold, high humidity or something else? I started by relying on the expertise of contractors and companies. One company stopped by after another and tested the air, the walls and the floor and found no mold. One of the basement restorations companies sent a technician to test the air quality, walls and floor for mold and other harmful gases. Initial results found nothing, but he did identify what he thought may have been a water stain near the water heater. He tested the dry floor and thought the area had elevated moisture levels, noticed a hairline crack in the concrete and concluded that water may exist below the basement foundation. He then submitted a $30,000.00 estimate to install a dehumidifier and a drain. What a load of crock? First, all concrete cracks and the moisture levels on the floor was the same as the moisture levels on my weight bench. Needless to say, I sought a second opinion. One contractor after another produced no evidence of mold but demonstrated a desire to sell their services even if it meant lying. It was frustrating.

Despite the lack of evidence, I stubbornly believed there was hidden mold or elevated moisture levels affecting the den. I knew that the den was shaded by large trees and therefore retained a lot of moisture, so I hired a contractor to remove them. Next, I hired a team to replace my vinyl flooring and instructed them to look for mold below the floors. They found none. The floors looked great, and weeks passed but I was still sick. Back to contractors I went. I scheduled another series of contractors to inspect the home for mold. I asked them to peer behind the walls, use a flashlight in the ceiling – surely the previous contractors did a poor job of discovering the mold. One of the contractors discovered a leak in the AC line and hinted that it may be the cause of my sickness. I replaced the air conditioner unit with one that also dehumidified the basement. During the work, they replaced the old ducts and when complete my basement smelled – brand new. Like a new car with new leather. It was incredible. Unknowingly, the ducts were responsible for a significant amount of the old basement smell and perhaps there may have been a leak in the AC line. I’m not sure because although my AC was new, the flooring was replaced, the large trees were removed, I was still sick. I eventually had to relocate my office upstairs.

I learned that the problem was the water seeping into my basement below ground through the foundation wall of my home
One day I decided to look up this issue on YouTube and I stumbled upon a video that gave me some answers. Homes built in my area, in the 80s were not designed to accommodate prolonged basement dwelling. The video stated that they lacked the ability to deal with moisture and that prolonged exposure to this air caused respiratory issues. Bingo! This was my problem.

YouTube had given me an answer, and after using the knowledge to assess my environment I now understood clearly what the issue was. My home was built at the bottom of a hill and when it rained, water seeped into the ground and traveled downhill. This water then encountered my homes foundation wall and slowly seeped through it. What I encountered wasn’t mold but humidity and perhaps the hydrofluorocarbons that seeped through the damaged AC exhaust line. What was my takeaway? It seems I learned a costly lesson.

The conclusion
In retrospect I spent more than $30,000, lost a number of very large trees but arrived at a similar result. The air in my basement was now surprisingly moisture free. It took some time, but I noticed no respiratory issues after spending more and more time in the basement. The smell also never returned. Prolonged exposure to the sun dried out the soil, hardened it and created a barrier that allowed rainwater to run off instead of seep. This was good, yet somehow, I believe I took the long way around.

The cost of a retaining wall for my home was around $3000 and replacing the AC ducts was $1200. The result – I spent $25,800 more than I needed to. It could have been far worse. A quote for a basement water proofing solution was $30,000 alone, with no new AC and no new flooring. Was I lucky? Not sure, but I certainly wish I knew then what I know now.