Posts Tagged ‘moisture and mold’

Condensation in a manufactured home crawlspace with “ventilation”

April 27, 2011

So, your brand new home was built with a crawlspace that has the vents installed according to code requirements. Further, the crawlspace has a proper vapor barrier covering the floor. You should have absolutely NO concerns about moisture in the crawlspace, right? Well, maybe.

Here is one case where I found out in a rather uncomfortable way that a crawlspace built with proper ventilation and a moisture barrier (of sorts) can indeed get lots of moisture.

One spring day last year, I left a meeting in Columbus around noon and headed toward Wilmington to do an FHA inspection on a new manufactured home installation. This home was built on a crawlspace with a poured concrete slab floor. The home’s air conditioning was not operating because it had not yet been fully installed. Wilmington had received light rain the morning of the inspection. The home reportedly has had drainage problems at one end; but the crawlspace was dry. By the time I got to the home, we were experiencing our usual humid weather our springs and summers bring.

Let’s get into the photo (fun) part of the story.


This photo shows a front view of the home on the day of the inspection. Note the right crawlspace perimeter wall.



This photo shows a closer view of the right perimeter wall area, which was still having some drainage problems on the day of the inspection.



When I went to enter the crawlspace, this view greeted me. Note the water droplets hanging on pretty much every surface in the crawlspace; but the slab is totally dry. BTW, that metal bar angling from the slab to the home’s frame is a lateral brace—part of the home’s anchoring system.



In a view down the crawlspace, water droplets can be seen on pretty much all surfaces.



And since I have a lot of pictures, here is yet another view of the water droplets on surfaces. The lateral brace in the photo is the second of the pair of braces used in the anchoring system. Note all of the droplets on the bottom board (the membrane along the bottom of the home.



This photo shows a closer view of water droplets on bottom board—and by this time on my camera lens.



Yep, a lot of water was present. And every time I raked any of these surfaces, I got a shower of cold water—not a pleasant experience.



This photos shows that the crawlspace vents were wide-open. Interestingly, no surfaces near the vent has water on them.


Where am I going with this story? All of the water droplets seen in these photos are due to condensation. The prior night, the area where the home was installed had colder temperatures and, since the home was not heated, the crawlspace temperatures were also on the chilly side. The next day, as is common in our area, outdoor temperatures climbed rapidly, as did the humidity levels, fueled in part by recent rain. The crawlspace surface temperatures remained below the condensation point of the air, causing water droplets to form on pretty much every surfaces inside the crawlspace, except those near the vents where the surfaces apparently warmed more rapidly.

I believe that this case is proof that even properly ventilated and moisture protected crawlspaces can get water in them. The condensed water may have come from water vapor coming up through the slab. However, the open vents provide a more open path to water vapor in the outside air.

Even if water vapor had come up through the slab, this case shows that the water vapor can be converted back into water droplets that can be absorbed by the crawlspace materials exposed to the water. Thankfully, the intact bottom board of this manufactured home prevented moisture from reaching the insulation above the bottom board. Otherwise, the insulation could sop up the water like a sponge and hold it long enough to possibly cause more serious issues.

However, this case shows that water can get inside a crawlspace without liquid water entering the crawlspace. If surfaces inside the crawlspace are below the dewpoint of air entering the crawlspace, condensation will occur. Having vents in the crawlspace open it up to outside air which can supply the moist air. Open vents can also allow heat in the crawlspace to escape, allowing surfaces in the crawlspace to cool to below the dewpoint temperature of air that may enter the crawlspace later.

Now, if the crawlspace does not have a vapor barrier, moisture issues could be much worse. I am looking forward to the time when I enter a crawlspace that actually has fog—and I have been in some that were close.

Oh, one other lesson I learned is that if you are going to enter a crawlspace with condensation on the surfaces, you will get wet. In this case, I was soaked to my underwear by the time I left the crawlspace. Very unpleasant.

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Want Proof That Termites Are (Misplaced) Evil?

April 15, 2011

I recently had a structural inspection that showed (once again) how much damage a gang of termites can do to a home. This damage was located in the rim joists and sole plates of a home with brick veneer. However, these termites had incentive to invade the wood due to the rim joists and sole plates being apparently exposed to excess water coming from behind the brick veneer.

Some background is needed before getting into the termite business. The sole plates are the boards that sit atop the foundation, upon which the first floor joists rest. Rim joists, also known as band joists, are the boards that box in the floor joists. The ends of all floor joists resting on the sole plate but up against rim joists. Rim joists also help stabilize the joists and help keep them from angling or twisting.

In a properly designed brick veneer wall, a gap is supposed to be installed between the brick veneer and the exterior wall sheathing. The exterior sheathing is the material that covers the outside face of the wall framing. Sheathing can be boards (in older construction), or plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) panels, although in some construction Styrofoam panels may be installed between the plywood or OSB panels. The gap between the exterior sheathing and brick veneer is supposed to serve as a drainage plain to provide water that gets past the brick veneer a drainage path to the base of the wall. And, believe me; water can get past the brick veneer, particularly if the brick is especially porous. Drainage holes (in combination with flashing) in the brick veneer just above the foundation in the brick veneer are supposed to provide a path for water to flow out of the drainage plain. Brick veneer installed on concrete block construction, more commonly used for commercial construction, is also supposed to have a drainage plain with weep holes.

Full brick exterior walls, such as those on many old buildings in Cincinnati, do not need weep holes because the water supposedly travels fully through the brick into the interior wall surface or back out to the exterior surface. Another brick construction that was usually not built with drainage holes was concrete block on a concrete foundation with brick veneer installed in front of the block. Unlike the previously described brick veneer/concrete block wall, the first floor framing in this construction was built on the block and the upper floor framing was built above that. The brick veneer in this construction extended from the concrete foundation and up the exterior wall. This last construction, as used for a crawlspace construction, is the subject of this blog post.

Let’s start with a photo of the foundation construction from inside the crawlspace, shown below:


This photo shows the concrete foundation with the concrete block above it. On the exterior side of the foundation, the soil level would be to the top of the first row of concrete block above the foundation. Now, take note of the dark streaks on the facing concrete foundation. Those streaks are due to water drainage through openings in the block mortar. The question is from where is that water coming. For sure, water can migrate from the soil through the block. But, the darkened block in the area in the corner area and along the foundation to the left that extends the full height of the block hints at another source—the drainage gap behind the brick veneer. Darkening of the block indicates that they are water-saturated. Further support for the drainage gap being a water source is evident from the darkened sole plate wood sitting on top of the darkened concrete block.

Let’s take a closer look at part of the area along the facing foundation. Note the copper water pipe in the photo above. This pipe is the same as the one shown to the left in the photo below. In this photo, the darkened woods of the sole plate and rim joist above the water-saturated concrete block is visible. However, also visible are darkened areas in the subfloor boards on top of the joists. The material that looks like resin or droplets is water droplets on the wood surfaces. The pattern of the water stains on the subfloor indicates that the water source is the exterior wall, and more particularly the drainage gap behind the brick veneer. Areas like these were found all along the exterior walls of this crawlspace foundation.


So, what do these findings have to do with termites—as it turns out, a lot. Termites are one of Nature’s maintenance creatures. They reduce wood back into a form that is useful to plants, microflora and soil. The trouble is that they cannot distinguish between the dead wood of a tree in the forest and the lumber we use in our buildings. The subterranean termites we have in the Cincinnati area also require water to live. In fact, they build mud and frass tubes in areas where they would be exposed to air to conserve water and will carry water from the soil into the tubes to keep them damp enough. In the photo below, the dark streaks on the foundation are the remains of such tubes between the ground and the sole plate. Note that the distance between the ground and the sole plate in the photo is about 5 feet. Termites can be very determined to find a food source.


If termites can find wet wood, their job gets much easier because they do not have to bring as much (if any) water up from the ground. So, in the case of this home, they found it in the wet sole plate and rim joist woods. And once they set up their work area in them, they went to town. The following photos show some of the visible damage. Note in all of these photos that the wood is darkened due to water exposure.




I want to emphasize the words “some of the visible damage.” The exact extent of the damage generally would only be known when the damaged wood is removed and inspected. An ice pick or awl can be used to probe the wood and somewhat determine the extent of damage. If the damage is on the other side of solid wood, though, this method would not find it. Also, termites form multiple tunnels in the wood, which means that unless the wood has been greatly degraded by the tunnels, as in the photos, a lot of probing would be needed to fully determine the damage. More sophisticated and expensive methods to determine the extent of damage exist, such as injecting chilled or heated air into the termite tunnels in the wood and viewing the wood using a thermal camera. In theory, the air would follow the tunnels and provide a temperature difference within the wood that is visible to the camera. The common method, however, is using a probe.

The damaged wood in this home will need to be removed, which will be expensive due to where it is located. The repair will also not be as ideal as new construction. Even worse, as wood is removed, more damaged wood that is not readily visible might be found, making the project much more expensive.

But, a question still exists as to why the sole plate and rim joist wood is getting wet when the wood is at least 16 inches above outside grade. Additionally, the drainage plain behind the brick should extend below the wood to the concrete foundation level. I believe that a couple of possibilities exist. The brick might not have a proper drainage plain, in that the brick veneer is right up against the exterior sheathing. I hope not because that likely means the exterior sheathing and upper floor framing could have moisture and/or termite damage. Another possibility is that the rim joists and/or sill plates block the drainage plain. Then again, water from the upper drainage plain may be filling up the concrete block and/or the gap between the brick and block to the level of the wood. Overall, though, the fact that the subfloor appears to be getting wet indicates that a drainage plain issue is present. When the wood is replaced, the real water source might be evident.

What are the morals of this story? Here are a few:

  • Damp crawlspaces or basements can be an invitation for termites to move in.
  • Properly designed and installed drainage plains behind exterior finishes, whether brick veneer or siding, can help prevent expensive repairs.
  • A great amount of water can penetrate through brick.
  • Trick observation—the crawlspace floor was muddy apparently due to water flowing into it. Since no vapor barrier was present, water from the wet soil can evaporate and enter the home where it can cause mold growth in those dark and quiescent locations where mold likes to hang. Then again, even a vapor barrier might not help if too much water is getting into the crawlspace.

Unfortunately, like most projects of this kind, I will not know the outcome due to the nature of these kinds of projects. Be assured that if I hear anything, you will be the first to know.

5 Things that have changed in building design to cause today’s issues

September 16, 2010

I received a link to an excellent article by someone whose writing I follow.  His name is Dr. Joe Lstiburek and he is to me THE authority on building moisture issues.  His article is titled, “5 Things”, and the link to it is:  http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/insights/bsi-039-five-things/files/BSI-039_Five_Fundamental_Changes.pdf.

Those 5 things that Dr. Lstiburek lists as changes that have occurred to buildings to cause today’s moisture issues are:

  1. Increased thermal resistance.
  2. A change in the permeability of the linings that we put on the inside and outside of building enclosures.
  3. Water and mold sensitivity of building materials.
  4. The ability of the building enclosure to store and redistribute moisture.
  5. Complex three dimensional airflow networks that inadvertently couple the building enclosureto the breathing zone of the occupied space via the mechanical system.

Let me see if  I can translate from the engineer-ese.

  1. Thermal resistance is the ability of a material to transfer heat, similar to the way a wire conducts electricity.  A higher thermal resistance material, such as fiberglass, slows heat transfer.  Dr. Lstiburek says that with reduced thermal transfer, building materials do not dry as rapidly in newer buildings as older ones.
  2. Permeability is a measure of how easily moisture can move through a material.  Over the years, the exterior wall materials have become less permeable.  The result is that moisture that gets into walls cannot get out and moisture inside the home cannot get out of the home the way it used to.
  3. Dr. Lstiburek uses the term sensitive in his list of  Things, but then uses a better term later in his article–resistant.  Basically, the materials being used in today’s buildings are not as resistant to mold growth as those in older homes.
  4. Dr. Lstiburek states that older building materials were able to absorb and not be harmed by moisture than newer materials.  We still have buildings with lath and plaster walls that are over 100 years old because they could take moisture exposure.  The same moisture exposure would have demolished drywall in one exposure to the same moisture quantity as the older homes.
  5. In the older homes, the building exterior was usually more solid than now and it acted as an air barrier.  Nowadays, the exterior is not as resistant to airflow as back then.  The stud and joist cavities serve as runs for wiring, plumbing and supply and return airflow.  Every time a hole is made in a stud or joist, a new airflow path is created.  Then, we open holes in walls for electrical outlets, which are air paths.  So, the newer buildings are holier than the older ones–and not in a good way.

Dr. Lstiburek provides recommendations for resolving these issues in the latter part of his article, and you can read those as well as I.  So, check out the article and if I have not adequately translated the terminology in an understandable way, send in your comments and I will do better.  BTW, if you want other excellent articles on building construction, visit the Building Science website at http://www.buildingscience.com/.


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