Overcoming Dark, Dank and Dingy

Cold, damp basements and cobweb-covered attics are usually the first spaces we look when we need to stash excess stuff. Unfortunately, they’re often unpleasant, hard-to-access areas that we dread working in.

However, accessibility, lighting and climate challenges don’t have to deter you from putting your attic and basement to use. Even homes with shallow-pitched roofs can yield a lot of valuable attic space, and basements can provide even easier access. With the right approach, you can overcome most drawbacks to safe, effective storage in these areas, and your efforts can yield not only a surprising increase in storage capacity but a healthier home as well.

Tips for attics

  • Ensure safe access by installing an appropriate attic ladder. Models are available for a variety of loads and installation situations, and most can be installed in an afternoon (see photos, below).
  • Don’t place boxes or other items directly on top of the attic’s insulation, as they’re liable to come crashing down through the ceiling. Install decking that can adequately handle the storage load between the trusses or rafters (see photo, below).
  • Provide adequate light. If you can’t install a wired light fixture, add a couple of battery-operated lights or wear a headlamp. Don’t rely on a flashlight, as you’ll need to keep both hands free to safely ascend and descend the access ladder.
  • If you plan to store objects in a truss-framed garage attic, be aware of load restrictions. Standard trusses are designed to support the weight of the roof overhead, not the weight of objects stored on top of their bottom members. A typical storage load for a standard truss is 10 to 15 pounds per square foot, so use this only for light objects such as empty suitcases. If you plan to store heavier items, consult a qualified contractor to learn what modifications are possible to safely increase the load capacity.

When installing an attic ladder, pay attention to not only the ceiling’s rough opening size but also the amount of available space on the floor. Additional safety devices such as the Versa Rail shown here provide a secure handhold while ascending and descending an attic ladder.

Panels such as those from Attic Dek (shown here) install between the trusses and provide a strong, stable storage platform.

Tips for basements

  • To keep rainwater from pooling against the foundation and leaking into the basement, direct all of your home’s downspouts away from the house and make sure that the lawn and all flower beds slope away from the foundation.
  • Check your basement’s relative humidity with a hygrometer. An ideal basement humidity level should be no higher than about 50 percent. (Always measure relative humidity in problem areas where there’s less airflow, such as corners.) If necessary, run a dehumidifier.
  • Pursue proactive remedies for persistent moisture problems. Applying a waterproof masonry coating may be enough (see photo, below), but for more severe water leakage, you may need to install either an interior drainage system that feeds to a sump pump or an exterior foundation drain. For these problems, consult with a professional, as you may have underlying foundation damage that must be corrected before you can stop the water from infiltrating.

Waterproof masonry coatings such as those from UGL create a waterproof barrier on concrete and masonry surfaces.

Mold problems
Basements and attics that are dark, that lack appropriate airflow and that harbor moisture are prone to the development of mold. These microscopic organisms can grow on almost any surface including wood, paper, carpet, insulation and concrete.

Analyzing the type of mold in your home can help you get rid of the problem.

All types of mold can damage items in storage, and some varieties such as black mold (strachybotrys chartarum) can cause serious health problems such as asthma, severe allergic reactions, respiratory bleeding and fibromyalgia. Consumer test kits are available to help you determine whether you have a mold problem, what type of mold exists and how to remedy it. Follow these tips to prevent and deal with mold:

  • Because moisture must be present for mold to survive, repair any water leaks around storage spaces. Caulk any apparent cracks in your home’s foundation; then seal the basement floor and walls with a waterproofing compound.
  • If mold is already present, scrub the affected surfaces with a fungicide cleaner or by using a mold mitigation product. Because mold spores can be released and spread by scrubbing, always wear rubber gloves and a face mask when working in or around mold-affected areas.
  • If mold has penetrated the surface of gypsum-based wallboard, remove the affected areas and some of the surrounding intact wallboard and replace it with a paperless variety such as Georgia-Pacific’s DensArmor Plus paperless interior drywall.

Pest control
Spiders and various insects such as sowbugs, pillbugs, centipedes, silverfish, firebrats and crickets love to call storage spaces home. Though some are merely a nuisance, others can cause considerable damage to items in storage. Crickets eat fabrics such as cotton, linen, wool, rayon, nylon, silk and furs. Silverfish and firebrats feed on glue, wallpaper paste, book bindings, paper, photographs, starch in clothing, cotton, linen, rayon and leather. And some spiders such as the brown recluse and black widow are poisonous (and sometimes deadly) to humans. To keep spiders and other bugs at bay, follow these tips:

Not all bugs are bad. The house centipede, for example, eats spiders and helps keep other harmful insects at bay.

  • Inspect and treat all boxes, furniture, cartons or other items that have been used or stored in potentially infested areas before bringing them inside.
  • To minimize potential entry points, caulk any holes or cracks in your basement’s foundation or around basement windows.
  • Reduce potential food sources by storing old books, papers, starched linens and cardboard boxes in sealed plastic containers.
  • Lower the humidity in storage spaces and reduce the temperature in areas around hot-water pipes, water heaters and boilers.
  • Treat a 3-ft.-wide strip around the outside of your home’s foundation with a dust or aerosol spray that is labeled for these pests. (Read the label and follow all label directions when using pesticides.)

Although the potential problems with attics and basements may seem daunting, they’re relatively easy to solve. With a little perseverance and common sense, you’ll be able to conquer just about any storage challenge and improve your home’s organization and safety.