For the past 35 years many people have phoned after periods of sudden or prolonged rainfall and said that their basement is leaking for the first time and do they have a structural problem? The general answer is no. Most basements do take on some water at some point in time. From a common sense point of view, if you dig a hole in the ground and place limestone, concrete block or poured concrete as a foundation wall, it is not unreasonable for that hole in the ground to take on some water during periods of rainfall when the soil mass just outside the foundation walls becomes completely saturated. It may be helpful to think of soil as a sponge. All of us have taken a dry sponge and placed it on top of water at some time in the past. The sponge soaks up the water until the sponge becomes completely saturated and at that point can hold no more water. Soils are very similar. After a period of prolong rainfall, when the soil mass becomes saturated, basements can leak. Typically or in most instances this does not cause a structural problem with the foundation. Fortunately, there are fairly easy and relatively inexpensive methods of controlling water penetration in a basement, even during periods of prolonged rainfall.
Even though it is repetitive and not altogether enjoyable, keeping the gutters cleaned out, free of debris and the gutters aligned properly (see roof section, specifically, gutters) to the downspouts so that all rainwater flowing off the roof into the gutters is directed away from the foundation will help minimize water penetration in the basement area. Depending on how long you intend to live in the house, terminating each of the downspouts into underground drain lines directed approximately 5-10 feet away from the foundation and then exiting and/or coming above the ground is almost always a worthwhile home improvement.
Making sure the exterior grade surrounding the foundation has a slight positive grade away from the house to better control exterior surface drainage will also be beneficial.
In some instances the installation of galvanized steel ‘window wells’ and quite possibly plexi-glass covers to the window wells may be necessary to better control exterior surface drainage.
In some instances, some basements are very persistent in allowing some slight water penetration along hairline shrinkage cracks. There are two basic and straight forward methods of eliminating water penetration through hairline cracks on a foundation. If it is a concrete foundation, epoxy injection is typically very satisfactory. Epoxy injection was first used as a structural repair. Contractors performing epoxy injection realized that after a structural crack had been repaired with epoxy it never leaked from that point afterwards. Today epoxy injection is used more frequently to control water penetration through a non-structural settlement and/or hairline shrinkage crack. Epoxy injection is considered a relatively sophisticated method of repair and generally very satisfactory. Foundation repair contractors that perform epoxy injection to control water seepage through a hairline crack will most often warranty their work.
A second method of repair that may be more labor intensive but equally as effective is the use of bentonite clay. Permanent water seepage problems can often be corrected with external waterproofing methods. After looking into this type of problem in the past I have found that one of the simplest and generally most effective solution is to make a post hole excavation on the exterior where the crack is located. The excavation must expose the crack over its entire length; all the way to the footing may be required.
Special cleaning is really not necessary, but any excess dirt should be scraped from the concrete. The crack should then be covered with approximately one inch of bentonite clay, while refilling the rest of the hole with compacted earth (use a 2x4 to compact the soil). Because bentonite clay is a very powdery material, a piece of metal should be placed one to two inches away from the wall to retain the bentonite. When the post hole has been completely backfilled with compacted soil, make sure new grading maintains a positive slope away from the foundation to best control exterior drainage.
Typical Foundation Cracks
Nearly all foundations do develop cracks as the house ages. This is true for limestone foundations, concrete block foundations, as well as concrete foundations. Limestone foundations will develop cracks that typically occur between the cement mortar joints. These cracks are most often irregular without distinct patterns. Concrete block foundations will most often develop ‘stair step cracks’ in that the crack will follow along cement mortar joints in a stair step fashion. Nearly all concrete foundations will develop hairline shrinkage cracks. A hairline shrinkage crack is not a structural type of crack caused by settlement. Hairline shrinkage cracks are the result of too much water in the concrete mix when the concrete foundation is originally placed. During the curing of the concrete foundation minute shrinkage occurs as the water within the concrete mix evaporates and/or becomes physically a part of the concrete foundation. Hairline shrinkage cracks would not be considered unusual and in fact occur on the greatest majority on placed concrete foundations.
Foundation cracks on limestone and concrete block foundations can be tuckpointed with satisfactory results. Hairline shrinkage cracks on concrete foundations typically do not need to be repaired unless water seepage thru the crack is troublesome. If leakage occurs along a hairline shrinkage crack the seepage can be eliminated by epoxy injection or if applicable the placement of bentonite clays on the exterior of the house (see wet basements).
Abnormal Foundation Cracks
As previously mentioned, all foundations will most often experience some settlement after original construction. This is true for limestone foundations, concrete block foundations, as well as placed concrete foundations. Most often the settlement that occurs after original construction does not cause serious foundation cracks, or abnormal foundation cracks. There are many reasons why a foundation will settle abnormally. Improperly sized or improperly placed footings will result in abnormal settlement. In the St. Louis Metropolitan area, which has an abundance of expansive clay soils, improper drainage immediately around the foundation can cause abnormal foundation cracks. There are a number of different types of abnormal cracks that can occur, but the majority fall within four groups; differential settlement, lateral displacement, rotational movement and frost line cracks or cracks that occur horizontally along a foundation wall.
Differential settlement is witnessed by an unevenness along the crack and frequently the crack is wider at the top and then pinches closed at the bottom (this is most often the case; however, the reverse can sometimes occur). When there is differential settlement occurring along a crack, if you run your finger along the foundation passing the crack, there will be a ridge line or the concrete has a sharp edge that can be felt. One side of the crack will be offset, and the crack will not be even along the wall plane, along the length of the crack.
Lateral displacement is witnessed by looking at the top of a foundation. When one side of the crack is actually physically lower than the other side, indicating that there has been either settlement downward on one side of the crack or a lifting motion can also be present.
Rotational movement does not occur frequently. It is witnessed at a corner of a foundation. As an example, if you are standing at the southwest corner of a house there would be cracks occurring both on the south foundation wall and the west foundation wall. Both of the cracks would have noticeable differential settlement and the settlement would correspond with the opposing crack on the opposite wall.
Frost Line Cracks
Frost line cracks occur most often either at the frost line or just above the frost line. They are witnessed by a horizontal crack occurring along a foundation and are nearly always caused by improper exterior drainage. As the soil mass on the exterior of the house becomes saturated during periods of prolonged and/or heavy rainfall, the soil mass can expand and then push on the concrete foundation. When frost line cracks are serious there is a bulging inward of the foundation that occurs along the crack (the crack is most often the apex).
Abnormal foundation cracks should be reviewed by a licensed structural engineer or a foundation repair contractor. Fortunately there are specific repairs that can deal with each type of abnormal foundation crack and/or settlement. Most often foundation repair contractors provide warranties regarding their work. The warranties are typically transferable to a new owner.
How much insulation should my attic have?
For your information the current national standard is R-35 which equals 12 inches to 14 inches of blown fiberglass insulation (different insulators have different R-values). If you plan to spend more than five years in a house, adding additional insulation would be a worthwhile improvement. This can be done by professionals or by yourself. Many owners prefer to do this type of improvement themselves. If you do add insulation during your occupancy make sure to take correct precautions. Use a high quality respirator so you don’t breathe in the insulating material. If possible try to ventilate the attic space with a box fan so the loose ‘friable’ fiberglass particles are moved out of the attic area. I also suggest that long sleeve shirts and pants be worn as well as some type of head/hair protection. Most types of insulating materials are very unpleasant and itchy when in contact with your skin.
How much ventilation should my attic have?
Attic areas require adequate ventilation since extreme heat and humidity for extended periods will shorten the life of the roofing material. Good attic ventilation will also help lower air conditioning costs. By minimizing the temperature in the attic, the air conditioning condensing unit does not have to cycle as often. You should monitor the condition of the attic during the first few years of your occupancy. If you find the temperature exceeding 120 degrees on a regular basis during the summer months, then additional ventilation is needed. If condensation is occurring on the underside of the roofing materials during the winter months, then again, more venting is necessary.
How do I repair hairline cracks on plaster or dry walled walls?
Nearly all houses do develop typical hairline cracks on interior walls. This is very normal and is the result of typical house settlement. Minor hairline cracks on plastered or dry walled walls would be regarded as cosmetic and can be easily repaired when you plan to redecorate. When repairing these types of cracks, I recommend using either nylon mesh tape or fiberglass mesh tape. Bed coat the tape in a high vinyl content of joint compound. After this dries, do not sand. If the crack is large or has opened considerably, we recommend applying another layer of mesh tape thereby ‘plying’ the crack with several layers of a fiberglass or mesh type material. Apply three coats of a high vinyl joint compound and then sand smooth. Generally, when cracks are repaired in this professional manner, they do not reoccur. Most professional painters are familiar with this type of repair.
How do I paint over a moisture stain?
When painting over any moisture stain a stain sealer should always be used. If you simply paint over the moisture stain(s) with a latex paint the moisture stain will bleed through the new latex paint. We have found the alcohol based stain sealers to be far superior to the water borne. If desired you can have the stain sealer tinted with a pigment to closely match your desired finish color. Professionals generally recommend a half-tone, so the end product of the stain sealer is one half-tone lighter than the finish color desired (finish coat of paint). Shellac or varnish works fine for sealing moisture stains. In any event, when painting over a moisture stain, making sure a stain sealer is used before the finish coat of paint is recommended.
What about squeaky floors?
Floor squeaks in several areas of a house are not a structural concern. There are two reasons this usually occurs; loose sub-floor nails or the carpenter did not nail off the sub-floor as well as he should have. If you plan to install new floor coverings, then you can renail or screw the sub-floor when the old flooring is removed. I do not recommend placing wood shims between the sub-floor and floor joist. There are other corrective measures; please phone our office if you have any questions.
There have been a number of class action lawsuits against the manufacturers of hardboard siding because the hardboard has not held up as intended. The short service life or the delamination of the hardboard siding is often the result of poor installation and not necessarily a defect in manufacturing. If a contractor installing hardboard siding sets a nail head below the surface of the hardboard siding by hitting the nail head too hard with his hammer or by having the air pressure in a pneumatic fastening system set too high, the air nailer/hammer will set the head of the nail below the surface of the hardboard, which will allow moisture to start wicking into the hardboard.
Hardboard is a frequently used exterior siding material. However, it would be considered a relatively high maintenance surface. Hardboard siding and trim should always be kept well caulked and painted. Any nail head that has been set below the surface of the hardboard should be caulked before painting. If the surface of the hardboard siding is broken, then moisture can get below the surface and start to delaminate the siding. If surface breaks or holes (and seams) are kept well sealed, then water cannot get below the surface. When you paint the hardboard, make sure to paint the leading edge or bottom of each piece as this is also a primary area where water begins to delaminate the siding.
What is tuckpointing?
Tuckpointing is a construction term used by masons that relates to the cement mortar joints on a brick masonry wall or stone wall. With aging and sometimes because there is a missing downspout, the cement mortar joints between the bricks on a wall or the stone of a wall erodes and should be replaced. When the mortar joints between the bricks erode, either from weather or water (usually water), new mortar should be placed in the mortar joints. This procedure is referred to as tuckpointing. When tuckpointing, make sure to rake out the existing mortar joints of all loose mortar, usually about 1/2 inch, before new tuckpointing is performed.
If you choose to use a dye in the mortar mix to better match the existing mortar color, you should be informed that dyes weaken the cement/mortar mix. Therefore, we always suggest using as little dye as possible. If a dye is used, the mixture will dry to a different tone. We suggest preparing a sample batch and allowing it to dry prior to application in the mortar joints, because the freshly mixed color and the dry color will vary.
Tuckpointing a stair step crack on an exterior masonry wall
Stairstep cracks are always caused by settlement. This type of settlement would not be considered unusual. Usually, settlement is caused by expansive soils (plastic soils) which are the clays inherent in this area of St. Louis. When the soil mass becomes saturated, the clay slightly expands. Conversely, during periods of drought, the soil mass constricts. This ongoing movement of the soil mass results in stairstep cracks.
When tuckpointing a stairstep crack, make sure to rake out the existing mortar joint at least ¾ of an inch before new tuckpointing is performed. This will help facilitate a more permanent repair. If you choose to use a dye in the mortar mix to better match the existing mortar color, you should be informed that dyes weaken the cement/mortar mix. Therefore, we always suggest using as little dye as possible. If a dye is used, the mixture will dry to a different tone. We suggest preparing a sample batch and allowing it to dry prior to application in the mortar joints because the freshly mixed color and the dry color will vary. Some structural engineers in the St. Louis Metropolitan area are now recommending a silicone based ‘tuckpointing’ mixed with sand, so that the silicone base/sand caulking looks like cement mortar; however, it does have the ability to expand and contract. In any event, either tuckpoint the stairstep crack with a standard cement mixture or silicone sand mixture is recommended.
Masonry chimneys will eventually need to be tuckpointed. This is true for brick masonry, as well as stone chimneys. When tuckpointing a masonry chimney do make sure to seal the cement mortar cap at the top of the chimney as a first priority. The top of the chimney is the most vulnerable part of a chimney. The cement mortar cap on top of the chimney is exposed to daily weathering, therefore will usually develop hairline cracks and often slowly separate from the masonry directly below the top cement mortar cap. The very top of the chimney should be checked every year, or every other year depending on how difficult accessing the top of the chimney is.
The cracks that develop on nearly all cement mortar chimney caps should be properly sealed. This can be done by rubbing in fairly dry cement (just a little water added to the cement mix) into the cracks or using a high quality exterior caulking compound. Properly rubbing in a mortar mix using considerable pressure to work the cement deep into the cracks is usually preferred. Wetting the cement mortar cap before pressing in cement is always advised. If the mortar cap is generally deteriorated with large cracks or has begun to separate from the masonry below it, a tuckpointing contractor may often recommend removal of the existing cement mortar cap and installing a new one. This is generally not that expensive considering the cost of an 80 pound sack of pre-mixed cement is typically less than $10; therefore it would be considered labor intensive, not material intensive.
It is best to keep a cap of some sort on the top of the chimney. These caps are usually made with metal (copper, galvanized steel or aluminum) and should be fitted with screens to prevent bird nesting in the flue. Capping of this type does protect the cement mortar cap on top of the chimney as well as prevent most water penetration from entering the flue, and prevents general leaf debris including small sticks and leaves and other small animals (small rodents) from getting into the chimney.
How long do shingles last?
Most often not the 20 years they are supposed to. The type of shingle is very important; standard fiberglass shingle, normally 17-18 years, architecturally cut fiberglass shingle, about 22-23 years. There are very important considerations. How steep is the pitch of the roof? Shingle will last longer on a steeply pitched roof. Light colored shingle will generally last longer than dark shingles because heat stressing is reduced. Shingle on shaded roofs will generally last longer. Ventilated attics will help minimize heat stressing and the shingle will last longer.
You can tell yourself, if you feel secure working at heights or getting on and off a ladder when it is placed on a roof. If you are nervous about ladders and/or heights, then call a professional. When examining a roof for hail damage think of pock marks or dimples. When hail impacts roof shingle, the striking hail creates small imprints, usually but not always the aggregate or gravelly surface to the shingle is popped off where the impact occurs. There is often a pattern. If the storm is fast moving from the west, the west side of the roof will show more pock marks (any west facing plane of the roof). There may be no or very few pock marks on the east roof plane. If a storm is slow moving, hail damage can occur on each roof plane. Check metal roof vents for dimple-like marks, as well as metal rain and bird screens on the top of the chimney. Plumbing vent flashings can also be damaged.
Hard Roofs, Slate Tile and Cement Tile
These are wonderful roofs and there are at least a hundred books covering the subject.
Only roofing contractors specializing with ‘hard roofs’ should be employed. This rule should be strictly adhered to. Depending on where the slate is quarried, the service life can range from 60 years to 150 years, assuming periodic normal maintenance. The characteristics of a clay tiled roof are dependant on the style and type of clay tile. Oddly not all tiled roofs were intended to be 100 percent water tight! The felt underneath the clay tile can hold out as much as 5 percent of rain water or snow melt. Re-felting approximately every 70 years on some types of clay tile roofs would be regarded as ‘normal maintenance’. Again, roofing contractors unfamiliar with slate or tile repair should not be contracted to work on a hard roof surface. Slaters or contractors familiar with hard roof surfaces will know the specific fastening and methods of securing slates or tiles, as well as cutting and fitting them.
What is a GFI?
Technically the correct name is GFCI, which stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. The purpose of a ground-fault interrupter (GFI) is to prevent serious shock which can occur if you are holding a faulty electrical appliance such as an electric toothbrush or hair blower at the same time you are touching water or another ground such as sink faucets. Although many homes today do not have GFI breakers, they are valuable safety devices and are now required by many local electrical codes and the N.E.C. (National Electrical Council) on new construction.
Proper maintenance of a GFI breaker includes testing it every thirty days. When you push the small test button the breaker should throw off. At that point you should push the breaker over to the complete “off” side and then back to “on”. This procedure is recommended by the manufacturer and we feel that it should be done on a regular basis. You may find that a unit will sometimes snap off during a time of high humidity in the bathroom -- for example, from the steam of a very hot shower. In that case, you should flip the unit back on.
The problems with aluminum wiring have not been the wiring in and of itself. The problems result in the switches and outlets. When aluminum wire was first used, electrical contractors installed switches and outlets throughout the house that were specifically designed for copper. Copper and aluminum are dissimilar metals and basically do not get along with each other molecularly. When problems started to arise (basically loose connections resulting in arcing and sometimes leading to fires) the National Electrical Council set a mandate to develop switches and outlets specifically designed for aluminum wire. A house that does not have switches and outlets specifically designed for aluminum wire is typically referred to as a house with ‘old technology aluminum’. A house that does have switches and outlets specifically designed for aluminum is often referred to as house with ‘new technology aluminum wiring’. You can check to see if a house has new or old technology aluminum wiring by removing cover plates from various outlets or switches. The outlets/switches that are observed should have an identification that is stamped on the surface of the outlet or switch and reads CO-ALR or CU-AL. If a house has old technology aluminum wire, then upgrading the house to new technology is always recommended. Aluminum wire is susceptible to loose connections and short circuits when the aluminum wire is connected to switches and outlets designed for copper wiring.
There are two methods to upgrade the house to new technology. The first is to change out all switches and outlets with aluminum compatible switches and outlets (the CO-ALR or CU-AL switches and outlets) or ‘pig tailing’ is also accepted in that an electrician wire nuts a short section of copper wire to the original aluminum wiring, making sure to use an appropriate wire nut and oxidizing paste designed for such use and then connects the short section of copper wire or the ‘pig tail’ to the switch and/or outlet.
Federal Electrical Panels
In the past several years there has been some controversy and questions concerning Federal Pacific electrical service panels. Personally, I find it odd that the controversy started only in the past several years as the time line actually started many years ago when the National Electrical Council published several articles and warnings concerning Federal Pacific electrical panels. There are definite similarities between old technology aluminum wiring in a home and Federal Pacific electric panels. By design, each has problems. What is important regarding building inspection is to keep in mind that as of today the National Electrical Council, BOCA (Building Officials Code Administration) 2000 Revised Existing Structures, and St. Louis County electrical standards do not require replacement of Federal Pacific electrical panels or aluminum wire.
What is recommended by the agencies is the suggestion that homeowners with Federal Pacific electrical panels or old technology aluminum wiring in their home, have a licensed electrician check the electrical panel or wiring every several years to insure that no problems have occurred. If you intend to live in the home for 4 to 5 years or longer, it would be a worthwhile home improvement to replace the main electrical panel with a new one. By replacing the electrical panel (in the industry it's called a ‘service change out’) you would gain an extra advantage of having one main breaker that shuts off all the electricity in the home with one switch. New electrical panels are generally better designed overall and have the additional advantage of one main disconnect.
It has also come to our attention that some homeowner insurance companies will not insure a house that has a Federal Pacific electrical service panel in it. It is not clear if this trend applies to just the main electrical panel, or if it also applies to a Federal Pacific electrical sub-panel.
There has been a trend in the past where homeowner’s insurance companies will not insure a house that has knob-and-tube wiring within it. Knob-and-tube wiring was used almost exclusively before the newer non-metallic electrical cable (typically referred to as romex) was used. Most often knob-and-tube wiring in and of itself has not been the problem. The problems resulting from older knob-and-tube wiring is the fact that inexperienced workmen tap into an original knob-and-tube wired circuit and add additional load to a designed circuit. As well as the fact that the inexperienced workman reverses the polarity on the knob-and-tube wiring and when tapping into original knob-and-tube wiring will put two hot wires together creating a 220 volt circuit where there should be a 110 volt wall outlet.
When problems arose and insurance companies were called in, the insurance company traced back the problem to the knob-and-tube wiring. It was never the knob-and-tube wiring that was the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem was an inexperienced workman tapping into original knob-and-tube wiring. You should not place any additional demand on original knob-and-tube wire circuits. If additional usage is required, new wires should be pulled back to the main electrical panel to service these installations. It is very important that knob-and-tube wiring be protected from any damage which may occur as a result of careless or improper usage. The insulation on the wire itself should be intact. If you ever witness any frayed insulation on original knob-and-tube wiring, then an experienced person and/or electrician should use electrical tape to reinsulate any area where the insulation is damaged.