Bulkhead door instasllation at a northeastern  U.S. home (C) Daniel Friedman Basement walk-out covers & accessways
Bulkhead doors & basement exit stair covers, construction, sources & safety

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Basement walkout doors & covers: this article describes basement walkout doors & door covers, also called bulkhead doors - exits from a below-grade building basement directly to the exterior should be protected from the weather. Without a safe and weather-tight cover basement water entry and even building flooding are likely in most climates. Traditional wooden and site-built basement exit walkout covers are fine if maintained, but as we illustrate here, rotted walk-out door covers can be dangerous. We include information on where to buy bulkhead or basement walkout doors.

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Basement Walkouts: stairs, walkout covers, choices, construction, inspection & repair

Steel Basement Walkout Door Covers

Steel Bilco-type basement walkout door exit from a home whose basement is below grade level (C) Daniel Friedman Shown at left is a traditional steel basement walk-out door cover. Bilco®, a manufacturer of steel basement walk-out doors has been widely-enough used in North America that some people refer to these doors as "Bilco doors" - which perhaps Bilco appreciates.[1]

You'll notice that the installer built a foundation for the basement exit door that extends above ground level - a step to keep surface runoff water from entering the outdoor stairwell down into the basement.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Watch for these defects and hazards at this type of steel basement walkout door installation:

Our photo at below left illustrates what looks at first glance like a perfectly nice basement walkout door cover installation.

Steel Bilco-type basement walkout door exit from a home whose basement is below grade level (C) Daniel Friedman

Looking more closely at the lower right door panel you'll see it's covered with green algae; We think that a history of roof spillage onto this door invites rust damage to the door and leaks into the building.

Steel Bilco-type basement walkout door exit from a home whose basement is below grade level (C) Daniel Friedman

Above the basement walkout door was cleverly installed against an entry porch to give headroom for the basement entry stairwell. But take a look at the moss and algae growing around the foundation of the door (look out for rust-perforation in those locations).

And though it's not quite obvious in this photo, in-slope sidewalk paving around this basement entry drains towards the steel "Bilco-type" door rather than away from it. As this basement walkout was installed without an above-ground curb water freely runs down the steps into the basement in wet weather.

Damaged, Leaky, Unsafe Basement Walkout Doors

Unsafe wooden basement bulkhead door (C) Daniel Friedman

These photos each show a rotted and unsafe bulkhead door made of wood.

The photo above is so horrible that it's condition is obvious to just about anybody who might visit this Poughkeepsie home. But what about the un-expected injury to the heating service technician who was asked to enter the home by this pathway to perform emergency heat repairs when no one was at home to let the service person into the basement by another, safer entry?

Unsafe wooden basement bulkhead door (C) Daniel Friedman

Above the wooden bulkhead door shows a hazard that some homeowners may not anticipate: a fall-through collapse of this door when visiting children or workers stand on its surface.

And below we illustrate fresh evidence of a leaky home-made bulkhead door. The door structure looks as if it too may be rotted, and we note that the steps are uneven in slope, pitch, and rise. And wet steps add to the slip trip fall hazard.

Bulkhead door leaking (C) Daniel Friedman

This stairway is rampant with trip hazards and thus is unsafe.

Access to these doors should be blocked and marked off as unsafe. The doors also leak, inviting basement water entry at each rain. When these doors are replaced, build the curb up above ground level and provide locking security as well.

Frost Damage to Basement Walkout Door Foundations & Walls

Block foundation frost damage at walkout stair (C) Daniel Friedman

Despite construction on footings below the frost line, in freezing climates we often find frost-damaged foundation walls around the stairwell beneath a bulkhead door intended to protect the basement walk-out.

You can see that the block foundation wall on the right side of the stairwell shown above has been patched from time to time, apparently in an attempt to address leakage and frost cracking.

And at left you see very severe frost damage to a concrete block foundation that occurred only at the basement walk-out stair and foundation for the bulkhead door at this home.


Basement Walk-Out Stairway Drain Clogs

Debris and leaves easily clog this basement walkout stairwell drain (C) Daniel Friedman

Above the green algae in this basement walk-out stairwell tells us of a history of wet conditions and a serious slip trip and fall hazard on these stairs. (SLIPPERY STAIRS, WALKS)

Debris and leaves easily clog this basement walkout stairwell drain (C) Daniel Friedman

And above we illustrate how reliance on a basement walkout stairwell drain to keep water out of the basement is a chancy proposition.

Unprotected Basement Exit Doorways to the Outside

Basement walkout without cover - check for a functional drain & for basement leaks (C) Daniel Friedman

Basement exits to outdoors should be protected from the weather by a roof or other means.

Basement walkout without cover - check for a functional drain & for basement leaks (C) Daniel Friedman

When a basement exit stairway such as the installation at above left has no protection from the weather we expect to find one or more occurrences of basement flooding or at least water entry over the life of the building. At above right we see that a drain was installed in this basement exit passage. We hope that the bottom of the basement walkout stairwell is below the level of the basement floor slab so that when leaves or snow cover block the drain we don't end up with a basement flood. But what about when the drain just stops working?

Interior of a basement with no outside protection from water entry at the stairway (C) Daniel Friedman

Here is the interior of the basement whose door to the exterior was shown above. This was a well-kept home, but nevertheless basement leakage had been chronic through the basement walkout stairway. The owner finally constructed a raised masonry platform indoors to reduce recurrent water damage to the floor.

Nevertheless, when the exterior basement exit door stairwell drain clogs and floods water can certainly rise high enough to enter this room and flood the basement again. That's just what happened.

Secure & Leak-Proof Bulkhead Doors

Below we illustrate a basement access that is not intended for general public use. This locked hatchway covers mechanical systems equipment. The EPDM roof and secure flashing at the building along with an above-grade-level curb are intended to keep water out of the mechanicals pit.

Locked and weatherproofed bulkhead door (C) Daniel Friedman

Basement Garage Exits to the Outdoors Also May Need Protection

Basement-Garage with in-slope driveway invites basement flooding (C) InspectAPedia Carson Dunlop Associates

This garage door facing an in-sloping driveway illustrates a common source of basement water entry and flooding.

Typically the builder installs an intercept drain across the garage entry to reduce the chances of a basement flood.

But what happens when leaves, snow, or frozen snow cover the intercept drain?

It is likely that over the life of this home it will suffer from water entry down this driveway, into the garage, and often into the rest of the home's basement as well.

Because construction of a protective roof over the entire driveway may not be feasible or may even be prohibited by local codes, provision of a berm across the garage entry, a raised garage floor, and careful maintenance of the intercept drain may be the best options for this homeowner.

In-Garage Stairs to Basement = explosion waiting to happen

Basement stair with open side, no rail (C) Daniel Friedman

At left, in a variation of basement walk-out stairs we illustrate an unsafe entry stair passing from a residential garage into the home's basement.

Watch out: As heating equipment is most often found in the home's basement, imagine the explosion that may occur (one did, despite our emphatic warnings, in Fishkill NY) if a vehicle leaks gasoline and gasoline fumes into the garage.

Gasoline fumes, heavier than air, fall down the stairwell, into the basement (or crawl space) where, at the next spark or flame, there is risk of an explosion.

A "fire door" in the stairwell bottom is not enough security for this installation. In fact, as you can see, the (not fire-rated) door has been left ajar.

Where to Buy Steel Bulkhead Doors & Cellar Doors or Basement Walk-out Doors

Bulkhead door at the FDR estate, Hyde Park NY (C) Daniel Friedman

At left: a steel bulkhead door at the FDR estate in Hyde Park, NY.

Door Codes: Building Code Requirements Regarding Basement Walkout or Bulkhead Doors

Clarification from "Residential exit doors, stairways, landings, handrails and guards [ copy on file as /Stairs/Stair_Code_NYS_Bulleting_RCstairsTB.pdf ] - for New York:

RCNYS section R310, entitled “Emergency Escape and Rescue Openings,” includes section R310.3 which addresses bulkhead enclosures (“bilco” type doors). This section requires bulkhead enclosures to provide direct access to the basement.

This part does not preclude the installation of an insulated side hinged door at the bottom. In addition to the requirement for the minimum net clear opening with the bulkhead door panels in the fully open position required by R310.1.1, section R314.9 is applicable.

Since the bulkhead is an emergency escape and rescue opening, it does not serve as part of the required building egress (section R311).

The last part of section R314.9 exempts the bulkhead from the requirements of sections R312, landings, R314,stairways, and R315, handrails, when the bulkhead stairway is covered by a bulkhead enclosure with hinged doors.

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