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Basements Aren’t Scary…It’s Cellars You Have to Worry About!

Some homes have basements. Others have cellars. Both areas are a space, usually below grade, under the lowest habitable floor of your house. So what’s the difference? If you spend time in it on purpose, it is not a cellar. A cellar is a place where you go only if you absolutely have to because something is about to blow up and take your house with it, and the switch to stop that from happening is in the cellar.

As a general rule, it is best to never go down there. If you absolutely must, here are some tips to navigating the horror.

The stairs…

Unlike basements with their building-code-compliant handrails and lighting, your cellar stairs will be approximately 3½-inches deep and will be “lit” by one naked, underpowered lightbulb dangling by a fraying wire in a location where it cannot illuminate the steps.

This is to ensure that your foot slips off at least three times during your descent. If the stair width doesn’t get you, the cobwebs, which you can’t see because of the crappy lighting, will play backup. The stairs are the main reason why many people have never seen their cellar.

The circuit breaker box…

This will be the reason that you eventually will go down into your cellar. Circuits are always breaking, usually during dinner parties. When approaching, touching or running away from a circuit breaker box, don’t put anything metallic near it, or think about anything metallic when you are trying to figure out which of the 1,000 circuits need to be unbroke.

The furnace…

The furnace is the object in your house most capable of mass destruction, and it is not a coincidence that it is in the cellar. A day after my neighbor’s furnace was professionally serviced, it exploded because the “professional” hired to work on it neglected to turn off, or on, some important switch.

The explosion lifted the house clean off its foundation. My neighbor was in his cellar at the time, and miraculously, he wasn’t seriously injured, though he couldn’t hear for a while. If that story doesn’t 1) convince you to move out of your house for a week after anyone touches your furnace, and 2) reaffirm the importance of never going into your cellar, I don’t know what will.
The water heater

Our water heater sprang a leak several years ago, but because we never go into our cellar, we didn’t know. Fortunately, during a small soiree, a new friend announced he wanted to see the cellar. “Be my guest,” I said with mock nonchalance. “Report back if anything looks amiss.” Several minutes later, he reported that something was way amiss—water was spurting out of the front of the heater in a lovely arc.

Your water heater will do this every once in a while. Rather than monitoring it by visiting it periodically in person, or investing a ton of money in one of those “smart” water heater monitors, simply set up a video baby monitor. Although the picture quality will be grainy due to the cellar’s underpowered light bulb, you will be able to monitor the heater safely from the living room, and you may get some bonus footage of ghosts.

A cellar is a place where you go only if you absolutely have to!

The oil tank…

If you heat your home with oil, your oil tank probably looks like a sunken ocean liner after a few decades at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. You could replace it, which is very important and expensive and probably way overdue, or not replace it, which will become very expensive when it rusts out and leaks oil over, and probably through, the cellar floor, creating your own little Superfund site.

Oil tanks are one of those “can’t win” types of things. Personally, we choose to ignore ours. I’m not suggesting you do that (but I’m not not suggesting it).

The insulation…

Do you know what kind of insulation you have in the ceiling of your cellar? If it’s pink fiberglass insulation, I’ve got some bad news: It is not only the perfect nesting ground for whatever animals find their way into your cellar (in our case, snakes, rabbits, raccoons, and some moles), but it also retains moisture and creates moldy, mildew odors that will permeate your entire home and cause anyone with allergies to not want to visit.

Depending upon whether you like the allergy sufferers, you may or may not want to hire someone who owns a fleet of Tyvek suits to replace this insulation with something less problematic. Be warned: One of the crew members who removed our pink insulation found so many snakes that he threw up into his Tyvek suit.

The dirt floor…

If you have a properly scary cellar, it’s got a dirt floor, which is a mixed blessing. On the down side, if you do decide to venture down there, you’ll be tracking dirt all over your house after navigating your way back up the skinny stairs and cobwebs. On the plus side, basement flooding is no big deal!

You could have 6 inches of standing water in your dirt cellar and it wouldn’t matter because it would be gone the next day. Heaven knows you’re not storing anything you care about down there, so you don’t have to worry about water damage. After a week of heavy rain, you can sit smugly in your living room, drinking a beer, watching your water-heater/ghost-cam as your neighbors frantically run their sump pumps 24/7 in their fancy, wide-stair-having, well-lit basements.

How scary is your cellar?

By being inhospitable and dangerous, yet super-low maintenance, your cellar is clearly trying to tell you something: It doesn’t want you just as much as you don’t want it. Like so many things about your home, it was designed this way. I don’t know why. So, just stay out unless you absolutely, positively can’t avoid it, and you almost always can.