“Are you a fireman?” was the question posed to me after giving this particular customer a quick lesson on the building code regarding egress basement windows and window wells.
“Don’t be ridiculous madame,” was my reply, “my proficiency at playing ice hockey is far too poor to be ever considered for such a position.”
This response references a local hiring practice that’s enabled our firefighters to go undefeated in charity hockey games for the past 40 years.
The issue at hand was her basement window, which had an existing window well, that she wanted to cover with some type of plastic canopy. Her idea was to somehow fasten the appropriate-sized canopy to the steel wall of the well.
Window wells are one of those necessary evils. They aren’t so attractive and they have a tendency to collect water against the foundation, which is not a good thing. In severe rains, they’ve also been known to create an interesting type of aquarium featuring some of our local frogs, insects and plant life, which can be a little unsettling for the unsuspecting basement dweller upon opening the curtains at sunrise.
However, when the landscaping has buried a portion of your basement window into the soil, a window well is what you’ll need to provide the necessary spacing for light, and escape. So – and addressing the issue at hand – this person’s desire to cover the window well is a prudent decision.
Window wells are good at collecting water, doing what wells are designed to do. However, water that pools at the foundation will creep down the wall and then infiltrate your finished basement through some little crack.
That’s the reason why we cover our window wells. The only flaw in her strategy was that she wanted to fasten the window well lid to the well. That’s when I explained to her the error in performing such a task, since it would eliminate an escape route, should there be a fire emergency.
“Oh well,” she continued, “if it was an emergency and I had to force it open, I could certainly do so.”
That’s when I explained the egress principle, which states a proper escape route must not require the escapee to figure out a latch or combination lock, or have prior knowledge as to how something opens— and certainly not require force.
When smoke fills a room, you’ve got about as long as you can hold your breath, which under duress is about 30 seconds, before the carbons and smoke matter overwhelm you. So, escape has got to be swift, and easy.
That’s when she blurted out the fireman quip.
The best system is a flip up lid that attaches to the foundation. These well covers are available with ridged, clear plastic tops that are extremely lightweight, requiring little pressure to open, while effectively diverting water away from the well. Then we discussed depth of the lid, which in this case needed to be about 14 inches.
A 14-inch lid indicated a 12-inch deep window well, which of course raised the question as to what use this basement room served. The building code doesn’t require storage, closet, or furnace rooms to have a window, so regardless of the size of the window, or depth of window well, compliance would not be an issue.
However, if this basement room were a bedroom, then we’d have a problem. Basement bedrooms require a window that when slid open, provides at least 3.8 square feet of escapable space, with 15 inches being the minimum opening of any one side. Along with this minimum window size, comes a minimum window well size, which states that the well must have a depth of at least 22 inches.
If you’re planning on renovating your basement with the idea of creating a few new bedrooms, make sure the window sizes and window well depths, conform to code.