Planning the basement: solving the mechanical closet riddle

One persistent problem during the process of planning out the basement was the enormous space devoted to the mechanical area. We have a hot water heater, a giant and ancient boiler powering our radiators throughout the house, and a central A/C system all taking up prime real estate in the basement.

Mech Area 1

When we started, oh boy was the mechanical area huge and killing the basement space.

The boiler is the item in the center of that diagram, and we knew that we’d eventually be replacing it, so we needed plenty of room to access the space — hence the big space inside the mechanical closet.

The wall to the left was a little closer with the idea that once we replaced the boiler sometime in the next five years with a newer and much slimmer model, we’d run that wall all the way across at it’s shallowest point by the AC across. And make the closet smaller one day when we get a newer boiler.

Mech Area 2

It’s a little smaller in the version above, but that’s still a huge space wasted. It required a giant door that swung out into the living space and we just weren’t sure if there was a better idea than this.

We made it as small as we could, moved that radiator across the room, positioned the door a little better so it would swing open but allow that corner to have a baker’s rack or standalone counter over there. But man, that was still a lot of wasted space.

Mech Area 3

Rachel had a brainstorm one day: why not put sliding doors in front of the entire mechanical closet? We were thinking about access to this area all wrong up to this point. We had been thinking that we needed room to get inside a space andwork on the systems in the years to come, rather than just sliding open a few doors and having 2/3 of the space open and easy to access.

So that’s what we did in the next version.

Mech Area Final

That’s how it ended up in the final version of the plans. So as we dug out the basement, we left the concrete under the mechanical systems with just a little bit of space around them on the kitchen side.

mech area dig cross section

This also helps you see just how far we dug down for the basement after the four inches of concrete were poured back in.

Aug 29 post concrete pour

To make this plan work I needed to find three matching doors and a good heavy duty sliding track to hold them. The doors needed to be louvered to provide plenty of ventilation for all the mechanical systems.

After about an hour of scouring the massive aisles of doors, I hit the jackpot at Community Forklift one weekend. I lucked into three louvered doors that were old storm/entry doors for an apartment building, based on the outlines and holes from numbers in the center of each one.

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They were $20 apiece for a reason: they were in terrible shape. They had what looked to be mold and/or water damage on them and holes from the small door handles. But I was fairly certain that I could clean them up easy enough, paint ’em and they’d look good as new.

I’d give it a shot anyway.

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I also got two plain slab doors for the closet in the living room ($5 each), and old doors for the bathroom and the bedroom that match our old doors upstairs ($25 and $35 each.) After $95 for a brand new prehung entry door to go between the bedroom and the laundry from the great salvage place on Georgia Avenue (highly recommend!), I’d spent a little over $200 and gotten all the doors I needed other than the actual exterior entry door for the apartment.

I went after the moldy dirt with a toothbrush and soap and water. Then I hit them with 100-150-220 grit paper and sponges for the rest and to rough them up before priming.

After priming them, my workers hung ’em up on a great three-door sliding track that I got direct from Johnson Hardware. If you need any sort of sliding door track, I highly recommend all of theirs. Amazon sells some of their terrific single-pass and two-door tracks, which is where I got the other three for the bedroom, bathroom and living room closet.

Mech closet doors primed

The louvered doors stayed that way for a couple of months until I could get to filling the holes and repairing them the rest of the way just last week. I used DAP’s Plastic Wood built up in layers to fill the door knob holes, which sands down and primes over easily.

Now, you can barely tell where the holes were, and definitely won’t once they get painted.

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All that’s left to do is sand the primer down a tad and put a final coat or two of paint on the doors. I think we’re going to leave them knob-less — they shouldn’t need to be opened on a regular basis by our tenants and they’re easy to grab with the louvers to slide.

With sliding doors, we ended up saving a ton of space for the kitchen, and have plenty of room to access all the mechanical systems for repairs or replacements in the coming years. Good thing too, since just last week (after running hard for two days of constant 20-degree weather) the gauge cracked from pressure and started leaking water because the boiler had no relief valve (!!!! OMG) or expansion tank (!) which is amazing to comprehend. It had been that way since before we bought the house, and now I’m trying to figure out how our building inspector missed that crucial detail.

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I actually took out the old original expansion tank that was in my closet upstairs because we it wasn’t hooked up and hadn’t been in years. So we added a relief valve, new gauge and modern expansion tank that uses an air bladder instead of the ancient method of letting the water go all the way up to a big tank at the highest point.

Sliding doors provided a mechanical area that’s just about as small as possible, saved tons of floorspace for the kitchen, and getting to all of the systems is just a quick slide away.

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