How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.

Window wells are weird. And no one cares.

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It’s true. No one thinks about window wells.  Why should they, these things are buried below ground level, full of damp stuff and don’t seem to have any appeal or function. Think again.  In most homes they are the basement’s only source of light and outside air other than the passage and garage doors. When basement windows and their wells are kept operational and in good condition the basement and house both benefit.
I point out window well work to customers all the time, it’s easy, no else wants the work.  Nearly every new house I encounter is ready for window well maintenance or repairs.  If the wells are clean and dry I tell the customer how great they look.  A lot of customers make their decision to hire me or not at this very point, a service person willing to work on window wells is willing to work on about anything.  Window well work is hard, plus it’s weird.  They come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, and are primarily taller than wider, this is the hard work part.  The weird stuff can be un-predictable.
To begin wierd with, to work on wells you immediately head below grade.  A lot of window wells look ok to step into, but take your time.  Some wells are shallow enough to clean out on your knees, after that it takes one leg in the well and a lot of stretching, bending and careful lifting.  Several years ago I rebuilt window wells just over six feet deep. These wells required climbing down a step ladder into the well, getting off the ladder with-out stepping and falling backward through the basement window and finally lifting the step ladder over my head out of the well so I could keep working. Reverse and repeat that process every time I went to get another tool…all along, the floor space of a well is usually smaller than a linen closet.  Window wells for the most part are a small outcrop of brick, cinder block, poured concrete, galvanized steel or molded plastic outside the foundation wall where a basement window exists.  The primary purpose of window wells is to let light and air get to the basement window.  Their secondary purpose is to handle the water falling into them.  No matter what size or shape the well, there are a few simple things to maintain, starting with the landscape.  The ground should be at least two inches below the top of the well wall and sloping away from the house.  Big shrubs and trees get planted a few feet away from the well.  The walls of the well should be intact and maintained.  Mortar and block walls should be maintained just like any other visible tuck point around the house.   By the time I get a window well to where I like it, the well becomes a pleasing view.  Get the walls in great shape, make sure the contact area to the foundation is free from gaps or water could run through there in heavy rains.  While your doing the walls start to service the well floor.  This is where it get’s more weird.  I always wear a respirator when I work on wells. They are full of dust, captured moistness and living things.  They have some dead things sometimes-because toads, rabbits, ground squirrels, birds and all kinds of other things fall down there.  There are mushrooms, spider webs and layers of leaves, paint chips, broken glass and bones.  Finally, a layer of rock.  This is the goal, get to the rock. Clean all the neat things I just mentioned out. Inspect the rock, if it’s not full of mud and dirt let it be. Spray it with a hose, if the water disappears pretty quick the rock is probably fine.  The top of the rock layer should be at least one inch below the bottom of the window sill.  The object is that when rain is driven into the window well and strikes the window,  it runs down the window and sash, hops onto the sill and runs off the sill falling into the rock pit draining away with the other rain water falling into the well.  That’s it.

That’s all the well is for, other that letting light and air reach the window.  Inspect the window frame and sash.  If soil is allowed to touch the window frame, bugs will move in.  All kinds, but the biggest offenders will be termites. Pound for pound termites do more damage than almost any other thing you let in the house. These discovered problems become expensive repairs.  Wood window frames in window wells are a very popular place for termites to move into the house.  The soil will also eat steel and wood.  If the window and frame are damaged by soil and bugs, have it replace or learn how yourself, but don’t blow it off.  If the window system is in great shape, cool, give it a fresh coat of paint, caulk and glass cleaner.  I’ve had a couple customers fill wells with potted plants and decorations after I was done cleaning them up.  Once a window well is in good order and working correctly a lot of the maintenance happens from inside the basement with a shop vac.  All along the house is protected from excess moisture, rot and invasion.
Your friends will come over, they’ll love your new kitchen or patio.  Maybe you’ll take them outside and show them the daring new colors you painted the house.  But when you show them beautifully maintained, clean, bright and dry window wells you will truly be the envy of the party.  Sounds weird, but it’s why I love window wells.

Author: Jonas

Working on private homes since 2000 has inspired me to share the experiences and challenges customers face. Homeowners and non-homeowners alike are encouraged to make choices reflecting their hearts and minds. Acting on these choices and the realities of time, money and lifestyle add confidence and peace to the lives of those living in these homes.

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