How to Install a Basement Bulkhead Door System
By Rob Robillard
I recently installed a new powder-coated Bilco basement door. I first saw this new door finish at a builder’s trade show in Orlando and then started seeing them pop up all over. When I had the opportunity to install one on my workshop entrance this past spring, I jumped on it.
What’s the hype with this new Bilco door?
Bilco is a well-known brand in the building trades. The company has been making bulkhead doors, precast stairs and window wells that meet egress codes for years. The Bilco basement door system satisfies IRC 2012 Building code requirements for emergency egress in finished basement areas.
Egress is required in building codes and ensures that homes have plenty of exits, so that in the event of an emergency, people can get out quickly and easily. Building inspectors are very particular about ensuring that homes meet the egress standard, since failure to follow the egress code can be fatal in the case of a fire.
NOTE: As a general rule, every bedroom must have an outlet to the outside, which can be a window or door, through which someone can easily fit. When remodeling basements or adding bedrooms, contractors will often cut an exit in a foundation wall and use a bulkhead as the external security/weather door, and then install an internal weather-stripped door to keep the heat in.
The new Bilco door is similar to the classic standard steel doors that Bilco has been making for years with one major difference: It has a factory applied powder-coat finish. Bilco offers four colors in this finish; white, sandstone, light gray and brick.
Why a powder-coat finish?
Powder coating is mainly done to metal and is a type of coating that is applied as a free-flowing, dry powder. This coating is typically applied electrostatically and is then cured under heat to allow it to flow and form a “skin” over the metal. The result is a superior finish that is more durable and tougher than conventional paint. Powder-coated finishes typically are more resistant to chipping, scratching and fading—all things that can happen to painted steel basement doors.
By powder coating the doors Bilco is able to offer a better quality, environmentally safer product. Powder coating produces a thicker, more uniform and better-looking coating than conventional liquid paints. Powder coatings emit zero or near zero volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), and the overspray can be recycled to achieve nearly 100 percent use of the coating.
Installing the Bulkhead
For my installation, I ordered the extension panel for the system to achieve the proper headroom when exiting the basement. The new unit was replacing a 25-year-old unit. The pre-formed concrete stair foundation was in great shape, so all I needed to do was replace the cap.
TIP: If your situation requires concrete repair, then check out Bilco’s website for help and advice. The company offers ideas on how to make the repairs needed, plus they sell “foundation plates” to help smooth and level the surface area for a better installation. It’s the easiest and fastest way to improve the foundation surface area.
Prior to ordering I had to carefully measure my existing condition to see if the measurements fell within the parameters of the new powder-coated Bilco basement door unit. There is some leeway with the measurements, and the concrete pre-formed stair still fit the unit.
It is critical that the new door be installed on a surface that is smooth and level. When installed properly the Bilco door unit will open smoothly, close easily and keep out Mother Nature.
TIP: One of the reasons the old bulkhead failed was lack of gutters. I suggest you install gutters or a rain diverter above any basement door unit to protect the door as well as to keep water from getting under seams and into the basement below.
The Bilco doors and panels arrived as a drop shipment from my lumberyard. The door came boxed up as heavy-duty metal panels. I was pleased to see how nice the powder-coated with a polyester resin finish looked. The polyester resin provides a durable, weather-resistant coating that exudes quality.
This powder-coat process also eliminates the time and expense required to paint the door—a huge time and money saver. If only I could buy powder-coated cedar clapboards for my house!
STEP 1: Assemble the frame. This step was straightforward and easy to do using round-head nuts and bolts. It reminded me of an Erector set. Bilco provides a detailed instruction manual with pictures to assist in every step.
STEP 2: Anchor the frame to house foundation. This was the fun part. I moved the door system as a complete unit into place and checked it for fit, leveling it in the process. Once I was happy with the fit, I measured the door diagonals to “square the unit” and then used a marker to mark the anchor locations on the concrete foundation.
The instruction manual calls for a 3/16-in. hole and six 1/4-by-1-3/4-in. masonry screws, three on each side.
I chose to use Wedge Bolts where I was able to fit my impact driver and then used expansion bolts where I could not fit my driver. My main reason is that I like to over-build and I wanted better “hurricane lift” protection than what I felt the masonry screws offered.
The extension panels have flanges that allow the unit to be attached to the house wall.
I used this to install screws right to the wood framework of the house. After this unit was installed, I overlapped and covered these seams with Vycor rubber flashing and then overlapped them with cedar clapboard siding, caulking all of the seams.
STEP 3: Door installation.
The doors were heavy and solid. They have hinges that index into hinge receiver brackets and are secured in place with hinge pins—super easy and fast to install!
STEP 4: Gas spring installation. To assist opening and closing, each door has a gas spring piston that prevents the doors from slamming and also assists in raising and lowering them. The pistons allow the operator to lift a normally heavy door with one hand.
At this point I could almost smell victory—a few simple nuts and bolts attach the spring piston which snaps into place onto the bracket.
STEP 5: Painting the door. If you purchased a powder-coated door, there is no need to paint the door. You’re done!
STEP 6: Rubber bumper installation. The last step is to install two rubber bumpers at the door’s edge to protect the doors and the side wall frames.
Final Impressions of the Bilco bulkhead Door
The gas pistons really make these heavy doors easy to open and close—a great feature for small children and the elderly. The locking slide bolt on the inside is easy to use and super secure. The strength and durability built into these doors also provides a real sense of home security. The doors close reasonably tightly and have overlapping flanges that keep out the weather and wind-driven rain. I will be adding the optional keyed lock to this door soon.
The powder-coated Bilco basement door was very easy to install. I rate this moderate level of difficulty for a DIY’er.
The powder-coat finish really makes these doors “pop” and will no doubt provide a weather-tight seal from the elements for years to come.
One thing I was not excited about was that Bilco does not use galvanized or stainless steel with their fasteners. A small investment to improve the quality fasteners will go a long way when enjoying your new bulkhead door.
After installing this door I would recommend a Bilco powder-coated door as a basement access or egress without hesitation. The bulkhead doors are ideal for access to a basement and to allow you to move large storage items, hot water tanks, furnaces, pool tables, furniture, etc. through the door.
It’s safe, secure and durable, and the finish is going to last a long time.
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