About sixty years ago, egress window and egress window well requirements began to show up in the Universal Building Code as being necessary to protect the general public living in single family homes. An egress well will do a number of things:
- provide light;
- enable air circulation to a typically dark and airless area of the home;
- allow for emergency escape and allow for rescue personnel to get into the basement to help people to escape.
In this guide, we will review the types of wells available, their installation and maintenance, and what to consider when purchasing.
Understanding Egress Requirements: Legal Necessities
Legally, building codes require an egress window well to be installed when there is a bedroom, also called a “sleeping room”, in the basement. Checking with your local building inspector will give you the requirements for your community. State guidelines are listed here, but your local codes may be more stringent. More than one egress well may be needed, depending on the square footage of the room.
More than half of the fires that cause fatalities are between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., when the occupant’s guard is down and the sensory warnings (like smoke smell, or crackling flames) are not active in sound sleep. So it is vitally important to have an easy means of escape.
Material Choices for Egress Wells: Durability and Maintenance
Egress window wells need to be a minimum of 36” x 36”, and can be made from a number of materials. Comments on durability, maintenance, and ease of installation by a homeowner are listed below.
1. Stacked field stone has a lovely rustic appearance and the size is up to the installer.
The main disadvantage is that they may leak between stones, and if the top surface is irregular, getting a window well cover to work may be an adventure. Also, if not constructed properly, collapse is a real concern. Construction can be done by a homeowner with a strong back and experience with mortaring irregular stones. Regular inspection is encouraged; checking for leaks and inspecting the mortar joints is important, and also check for eroding soil around the outside of the well.
2. Poured concrete is a great one-piece solution that rarely leaks, and is the best choice if extra large wells are needed.
These wells are usually made at the same time the home is constructed and are great for allowing extra light and airflow into the basement. Not usually done by a homeowner. The only disadvantage is that the wells will need a custom window well covers because of size. No regular maintenance is needed; just check for eroding soil around the outside of the well, and replace if needed.
3. Concrete block (or brick) wells rarely shift, and is a doable project for homeowners with some DIY experience and a strong back.
Research must be done on the best practices to tie the block well into the existing foundation wall to prevent leaks. The size is determined by the homeowner. The only disadvantage is that the wells will need custom window well covers because of size. The capstone possibilities on a block well are endless. The only limits are imagination and budget. Inspect the mortar joints yearly; and also check for eroding soil around the outside of the well and replace as needed.
4. Wood Timbers are fast and easy to use. The timbers need to be fastened together and firmly anchored into the ground to prevent shifting, and be anchored to the foundation wall.
Research must be done on the best practices to tie the block well into the existing foundation wall to prevent leaks. Using the proper caulk at the joints is recommended. The main disadvantage of timber wells is that even pressure treated timber or repurposed railroad ties will eventually degrade. All wood that is meant for contact with the ground is chemically treated and some precautions must be taken when handling.
Wells will need custom window well covers because of size. Regular yearly inspections are needed to keep shifting and water leaks at bay
5. Modular plastic wells are light weight and easy to transport. Care must be taken when installing. Must be installed according to manufacturer’s instructions or they will become misshapen or flex over time and void the warranty.
Separation of the sections can happen if not installed correctly. Custom covers are often required. However, plastic does not degrade or rust so that is a clear advantage. Inspect the area around the well regularly to be sure the soil is not eroding and replace and tamp down the new soil as needed.
6. One piece fiberglass wells have a very sturdy construction, and they are fairly easy to handle with two people. These wells have a very attractive molded stone look interior texture and have the egress ladder molded into the well. Must be installed according to manufacturer’s instructions. Very resistant to shifting and collapse if installed correctly. No regular maintenance is needed, just inspect the area around the well occasionally to be sure the soil is not eroding and replace and tamp down the new soil as needed.
7. Galvanized wells are the most commonly chosen window well. They are readily available and the installation is straightforward. Please see the instructions below.
The steel is resistant to rust because of the galvanizing process, and it is common for wells to outlast their 30 year warranty.
If installed correctly, these wells are unlikely to leak or fail. These wells can shift or leak if they are not backfilled correctly and if they are not firmly anchored to the foundation. Generally these wells are one of the lowest cost options, and window well covers are widely available in stock or custom sizes.
yearly to be sure the soil is not eroding and replace and tamp down the new soil as needed.
Preparation and Installation: Ensuring Success
Installation preparation for the site will vary depending on the well type chosen. The most important things to consider are:
- Determine the proper size of the well you need. This guide will help you decide the proper width and height of the well. Please note that it doesn’t matter what type of window well you choose, a 36” inside projection is mandatory, (you can have more) and the width and height dimensions suggested in the guide are good rules to follow.
- The lay of the land. To be successful installing any type well, the land MUST slope away from the foundation wall, and after installation there needs to be a slope away from the lip of the well. Consider how the area looks after a hard rain, and where the water runs, and plan so that the well is not the low spot in the yard.
- The lip of any well should be at least 3-4” above the basic grade of the yard and the grade can slope down from the lip of the well. Landscaping mulch can be used next to the well lip for appearance’s sake.
- All wells should go at least 8” below the window’s bottom sill. Then as a last step, add round decorative stones to the bottom of the well to about 2” below the window sill.
- Get permits from your local building department. This is not the time to take action without necessary permissions and beg for forgiveness later. This will cause delays, stop work orders, and possibly fines.
- Have your property marked for buried utilities! Most municipalities request at least 7 days before you start work to mark natural gas, electrical, fiber optic lines, etc.
Installing Metal Wells: A Step-by-Step Guide
Call your Local Diggers Hotline/One Call before digging.
First of all if you are digging the hole manually you will need:
- Spade and a metal file to sharpen the spade as needed
- A mattock to dislodge stones, if your ground is rocky
- A wheelbarrow to remove the soil and a large tarp to put the removed soil on. Retain this soil until the job is finished for backfilling.
To attach the well to the foundation you will need these tools:
- Hammer drill to drill the holes to fasten the well to the foundation wall and masonry bits.
- Wrenches to bolt the well to the house with the appropriate fasteners for your foundation type
- We also recommend using a non leveling concrete caulk between the foundation and the flange of the window well to help prevent water leaking into the well from the sides.
For best results use a 1” flat washer between the fastener and the window well. For solid concrete, Masonry anchors or Sleeve Anchors have the most consistent holding values. Sleeve anchors can be installed closer to the edge of the concrete than wedge anchors, since they expand along the entire sleeve. Tapcons are the easiest to use, but not necessarily the strongest. They are strong enough for the application provided you are drilling and bolting into a solid, poured foundation wall. If you have a foundation made with non concrete materials, please consult a local carpenter for recommendations. 3/8” x 2” recommended.
Flanges should be attached to the foundation wall at 12” centers minimum to assure structural stability. Drill holes using the correct size diameter masonry bit for the fastener you choose. Remove all concrete dust.
Apply a polyurethane caulk/sealant, make sure it is NOT self-leveling. It is too runny! Fasten well to the foundation wall. Connect a drain into the foundation drainage system if available. Add 8-12” of decorative stone in the bottom of the well for support and drainage.
Backfill in layers 12” at a time, compacting non-mechanically after each layer, using the soil set aside on the tarp, being careful to not distort the well. The backfill material should be used that is free of large rock, soil clods, frozen material or other active soils. Avoid use of heavy construction equipment near the window wells after backfilling.
Important if you ordered a well/cover package: Since the side walls of the well can either bend out or toe in due to flexing during shipment, do a trial fit of cover to the well before you install the well. Also maintain symmetrical tapering back to the wall on each side when backfilling the well. These precautions will ensure proper fit of your cover.
Egress ladders is one of the finishing touches to the project. Egress ladders are code for wells over 44” deep from the bottom of the well to the lip. If you feel more comfortable with a ladder in a shorter well, that’s only common sense if you have children or infirm members of the family that can’t “leg up” to get out of the well.
Window well covers are required by some municipalities and also by some insurance companies. Choose wisely. A custom window well cover will ensure the safety of family members and pets, keep your well clean, and will always be egress compliant no matter how big or unusually shaped your window well is. Consider the load capacity and accessibility of the cover that is chosen. “Making do” at this stage of the game is a false economy.
In Conclusion: Safety, Value, and Peace of Mind
Remember that an egress window well will enhance your home’s value, give you peace of mind, and be sure that your home is compliant with the latest building codes. Take into consideration budget, installation, and maintenance when choosing the type of window well you want. When using a contractor, do your homework first and get two or three bids to be sure that you get the best value for your money.