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Down in the Depths: Organizing Your Basement

In the basement, clutter around equipment and machinery is inconvenient when you need service and dangerous if the jumble is flammable. Disorganization makes finding items stored there difficult, sometimes impossible, so what's the point of holding onto them, anyway? A mess won't motivate anyone to get busy in the workshop or exercise center. And the whole thing can turn into a swamp of ruined stuff if rainstorm turns into a flood while you're at work or out to dinner. The basement and its functions boil down to three basic needs:

  • A holding place for appliances that run the house — furnace, water heater, water softener, and so forth.
  • Storage.
  • Places for activities such as laundry, hobbies or crafts, exercise, or play.

The most important thing to do in the basement is to store all chemicals and valuable items on shelves or tables above flood level. Even if you don't live near water and no threat of serious flooding is present in your geographic location, water from especially heavy rain can make your basement a mud basin and a safety hazard. Being organized beforehand can lessen the degree of any such disaster.

Here are some additional precautions to keep the basement functional and friendly.

  • Clear out the space around the furnace, water heater, other major appliances, pipes, and drains. Be particularly mindful of flammable and heat-sensitive items, as well as any valuables that may suffer beneath a burst pipe.
  • Install a sump pump to fight floods.
  • Install another sump pump — this one battery-operated for backup during power failures.
  • Keep a large, battery-powered flashlight on hand to check equipment and the fuse box if the power should fail.
  • Maintain critical equipment on a regular basis. Set up a schedule and post it on the wall.

Don't risk turning your basement into toxic soup by storing chemicals — for cleaning, garden care, household jobs, or hobbies — where floodwaters can reach them. Would you want a glimpse of your mother, child, or husband thigh-high in potentially poisonous water chasing bobbing cans of pesticide?

Deciding what to keep

Put each item to the W-A-S-T-E test before you put it into the box or onto the shelf to zero in on what's worth keeping:

  • Worthwhile? Do I ever use this? Do I really need it? What if I just took a photo and filed it under "memories"? Items that you really want or need are probably worth storing, while those that are expendable or you haven't used in several years should be tossed or donated.
  • Again? Will I actually use this item again, or am I keeping it in case of some unlikely future or because I paid good money for it? No matter how valuable something was to you in the past, if you won't use the item again, don't waste the storage space. Discard.
  • Somewhere else? How many spare hair dryers does a family really need? Couldn't I borrow my neighbor's pasta machine if I should finally have that Italian dinner party I've been thinking about for five years? If you can easily find an item somewhere else if and when the need arises, don't store. Say goodbye instead.
  • Toss it? Will my life change for the worse without my box of high school papers on hand? What happens if I haul this dusty old broken-down chair to the Dumpster? If you can imagine tossing an item without clear negative consequences, go ahead and do so.
  • Entire item? Do you need the full set of luggage, or do you only use the carry-on? If you love the punch bowl but always serve in paper cups, why take up storage space with the unused cup set? Just because something came in a set doesn't mean you need to store every piece. Sort out the useful parts or pieces and throw or give away the rest.

There's nothing wrong with storing things. Storing is an organizational basic: If you don't use something every day, storage is the way to keep it out of the way.

You can whip things in and out of storage more quickly if you can see what you're doing, so install enough lights to illuminate every nook and cranny your storage area.

Strategizing your storage solution

You've got basement storage principles down; now how can you put them into action? Here are some examples of how you can group items by category, contain them well, and position them for appropriate access in your basement storage area.

  • Luggage: Keep only the pieces you use, with larger ones in back and smaller in front (don't nest them; you'll forget all about the inside pieces). Try under the stairs if you have space.
  • Home office: Extra inventory and office supplies, on shelves and/or in clear containers.
  • Paperwork and memorabilia: Tax records for the past seven years, real estate papers, wills, warranties, kids memento boxes. Keep on a high shelf to protect from floods and move indispensable items to a safe deposit box.
  • Hobby and craft supplies: Extra inventory, stored in clear containers.
  • Picnic supplies: Cooler, basket, portable dishes and utensils, grill, charcoal, blankets.
  • Holiday and party supplies: Decorations, dishes, silverware, large coffeemaker, punch bowl, cups, card table, and chairs.
  • Bulk food and paper supplies: Canned goods, drinks, and other non-perishable foods, bath tissue, napkins, and paper towels. Buy in bulk on sale or at warehouse stores, and shelve strategically.
  • Extra refrigerator and/or freezer: Drinks, ice, party overflow, big-batch recipes. Put on a platform to protect from floods.

Items you're saving to donate can be collected in boxes or bags until it's time for a pickup or run to your local charity.

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