Posts Tagged ‘Moisture intrusion’

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.

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.

Shingle Overlays—Just Say No Way

March 11, 2011

Eventually, each owner will need to replace the shingles on his/her residence. At that time, the owner will need to decide whether to install new shingles over the existing shingles, known as overlaying, or to strip all of the shingles off to the roof deck before installing the new shingles. For the former, the existing flashings are also normally kept or supplemented. For the latter, flashings are normally replaced, as well as the underlayment. I will state up front that my firm, Criterium-Cincinnati Engineers, does not support overlaying and this blog lays out our reasons.

Building owners usually only give one reason FOR overlaying shingles and that is the cost is less than fully replacing the existing roof components. On the other hand, roofing professionals and engineers have a number of reasons NOT to overlay. These reasons include the following:

  • Total removal of all of the old roof materials allows inspection of the roof deck, valleys, joints between the roof and walls or chimneys, and areas around roof penetrations, such as sanitary or roof vents. This inspection could discover rotted wood, insects, holes and a number of other issues that could compromise the roof. Some might argue that these issues are visible from within the attic. Having been in more than a few attics, I can assure that these issues are not always visible. For some residences, the attic cannot even be entered and in others no attic exists, such as in residences with cathedral ceilings. We believe that a residence’s first roof replacement should particularly not be an overlayment because of the poor quality of some builders.
  • Total removal of the old shingles can assure that an underlayment is installed. Underlayments perform two main functions: an additional water barrier against leaks in the shingles and separation membrane between the shingles and the roof deck. Shingles installed directly on the roof deck sometimes melt or stick to the deck. But, shingles expand and contract on the roof deck as they heat up and cool down. Shingles stuck to the deck are restricted in their movement, which could result in the shingles buckling or tearing, shortening their life or creating leaks.
  • One of the most vulnerable parts of the roofing system is valleys. Valley flashings can fail and more than a few of these flashings have also been installed incorrectly. Poorer quality builders may not have installed valley flashings at all, trusting that the underlayment will protect the valley. Instead, shingles are weaved across the valley. (By the way, Criterium-Cincinnati Engineers does not support weaving shingles over valleys because of the increased chance for leaks.) Replacement, rather than reuse, of the valley flashings helps assure that valleys will be adequately protected. If the roof is older, new techniques have been implemented since the old roof was installed that adds better protection. One such technique used by better quality roofers is to install an elastomeric membrane beneath the flashing. Not only does the membrane protect against rain leaks, it protects against leaks due to ice dams.
  • In some areas of the country, roof areas above eaves are another area that may need extra protection because they are where ice dams tend to develop. These areas are also vulnerable to shingle lifting due to wind. Better quality roofers install an elastomeric membrane as underlayment over this area in addition to the underlayment used on the rest of the roof. Most original roofs do not have this degree of protection.
  • Rakes, the roof area over the gable, are other areas that are exposed to potential lifting. During overlayments, another layer of shingles are laid along the rake, which raises the edge of the shingles where they are better exposed to the wind and lifting.
  • Roof penetrations, such as vent pipes, also need to be flashed to prevent water leaking through the gap between the roof deck and penetrating object. But, these flashings can also fail and are sometimes damaged by high winds. When a roof is overlaid, these flashings are usually not replaced. So, what happens if these flashings fails before the second (or third) roof is replaced? Removal of the flashing could damage the roof shingles. The usual patch is to smear the flashing seams with tar or roof caulk. Tar or caulk does not normally last as long as the roof shingles and will have to be periodically inspected and repaired. If a leak develops in the tar or caulk, the usual (wrong) solution is to apply more tar or caulk, and the new material commonly fails quicker than the previous material. Even if the flashing is replaced, the best place for it is in the first layer of shingles, which is virtually impossible when more than one layer of shingles is installed.
  • Many two-story homes have second-story exterior walls that meet first story roofs. Flashing is supposed to be installed between the wall and the roof to prevent water entering through the gap between the roof deck and wall sheathing. As other internet posters on the subject of overlayments point out, roofers installing overlayments try to reuse the installed flashing by bending and weaving it with the new shingles. Alternatively, they may also pry out the siding, shove new flashing up under the siding and weave that flashing with the new shingles, leaving the old flashing in place. We have also seen where a roofer installed a continuous flashing up under the siding and ran a bead of roofing caulk between that flashing and the new shingles. And we have also seen where new flashing was not installed at all, but the roofer relied on roofing tar to stick the edge of the new shingles to the old ones. None of these alternatives are acceptable, especially if the old flashing leaks.
  • The addition of a new layer of shingles adds considerable weight to the roof structure. A new layer of shingles weighs about 2 pounds per square foot. Although that amount of weight does not seem like a lot, think in terms of 200 pounds for ONE layer of shingles for a 10 foot X 10 foot area (one square). Add the weight of the original layer of shingles and the total weight of the shingles is now at least 400 pounds per square. Over time, this weight can cause rafters to bow or the roof to sag, particularly for roofs with long rafter spans (distances between supports), rafters that lack ties between opposing rafters, or homes with balloon framing. Likewise, some builders use the maximum spacing between rafters with the minimum thickness of roof sheathing allowed by codes. The result is that the deck sags between the rafters causing the waviness sometimes seen in some roofs. If the roof has developed sags between rafters with only one layer of shingles, what do you think the roof will do with two or more layers? Add an abnormal snow load and the roof could collapse, as some folks found out during the 2010-11 winter.
  • As stated, shingles expand and contract as they heat and cool. The degree of shingle expansion and contraction with change in temperature further varies with thickness, material composition, manufacturing method, lot and a number of other factors. If one layer of shingles is expanding and contracting differently than the second layer of shingles, shear stresses can set up in the layer that expands or contracts less, which eventually will cause tears in the shingle. If these tears are exposed to weathering, the shingles life can be shortened. We have observed that many builders install thinner, cheaper shingles as the original roof on many homes. Homeowners, on the other hand, tend to install thicker sculptured shingles as the overlayment because homeowners believe they will get longer life from them. Guess what that usually means? Yep, two different types of shingles with likely different expansion and contraction properties that are also were likely not even made by the same manufacturer. Since the lower layer of shingles are thinner, they can expand and contract more than the overlayment shingles, which results in tears in the overlayment shingles.
  • Multiple layers of shingles add insulation to the roof, which leads to a hotter attic. In turn, a hotter attic leads to the shingles getting hotter. Heat is a major factor in breaking down shingle materials. Further, a hotter attic means greater expansion and movement of the shingles. The result is a shorter shingle life. A hotter attic also means that a homeowner could be paying more for cooling in the summer when the attic heat is transferred into the living space.
  • We have noted many cases of vertical stacking installation of the shingles. Vertical stacking is where the shingles are installed in eave to peak columns rather than installing them diagonally starting at one of the corners over and eave. Although shingles on properly installed roofs can start curling over time, particularly in overly hot attics, the shingles along the sides of the columns of vertically stacked shingles begin to curl more often and quicker than other shingles. The curled shingles make an uneven base for the new shingles, which creates uneven pressure on the new shingles. In turn, the uneven surface can cause tears in the new shingles exposing the inner part of the shingles to weathering, leading to shortened life.
  • Overlayment shingles are very often not aligned horizontally with lower layers. This misalignment results in the mid-area of upper shingles arching over the tab ends of lower shingles—again with the uneven base thing, causing the tears, weathering, etc.
  • Many shingle manufacturers offer a guarantee. However, that guarantee may not apply to overlays.
  • Dark streaking on roofs is usually caused by a very, very hardy blue-green algae. What happens when these shingles are overlaid with new shingles? That question has not been answered; but, the possibility exists for the algae to spread from the old shingles to the new ones.
  • Shingles that are failing begin to hold moisture. One sign of excess moisture is moss growing on the roof. When new shingles are laid over shingles that are holding moisture, that moisture has to go somewhere. If a moisture barrier exists below the roof deck, such as closed cell foam and insulation with a vapor barrier, the moisture could become trapped between the moisture barrier and the shingles, potentially creating a wood rot condition. Speaking of the moss, how sure are you that the roofer has bully removed the moss before installing new shingles? Exactly what happens to the organic matter trapped under the new shingles? Organic matter is also going to be in the old shingles from the moss rhizoids (root-like structures) that have grown into and between the shingles.

Most roofers estimate that useful life of overlayment shingles can be as much as 25% less than their claimed life, which means that overlayment may not cost less in the long run. For sure, if the roof leaks, the cost of repairing the roof and damaged interior finishes could also vaporize any cost savings from overlayment. The bottom line is shingles overlays just might not be worth the expected savings.

The lowly window well

January 1, 2010

Let me start out right away by saying that I am NOT a fan of windows in basement foundations, UNLESS the basement was intended in the original design as living space.  Windows in the latter case are usually larger and in many cases intended to be alternate escape routes during emergencies.  These windows are also usually insulated glass and of a better quality.

Windows in the former case are usually relatively small and are usually single-pane and relatively cheap.  I guess they are supposed to offer some light into the basement and, since many can be opened, are apparently intended archaically to provide basement ventilation.  They don’t, particularly in the modern home.  I am especially not in favor of basement of cheaper basement windows because they are a security hazard.  As cheap as most are, they could be easily compromised and allow a route for an unwanted to enter the home.  If you think someone could not get int through the window, think again.

So, what does that discussion have to do with window wells?  Pretty much every time I perform an inspection on a home with below-grade cheaper basement windows, I find water stains on the foundation wall beneath the windows, indicating that water has leaked through the windows.  In these cases, water in the window well has gotten deep enough to partially submerge the window and then enter the basement around or through the window.  If this problem happens often enough, windows with steel frames will rust through and windows with wood frames will rot.

Let me step back and talk about the basic construction of a PROPERLY installed window well.  Window wells provide a space around the window to let in light and provide adequate room to maintain the window.  (Most require periodic painting, window replacement and possibly caulk.)   Most of the current window wells are a plastic or galvanized metal, and form a semi-circular space around the window.  However, I have also seen window wells constructed from stone, concrete block and wood.  Most window wells are 18″ to 24″ deep.

Manufactured window wells are supposed to be fastened to the foundation wall and should be caulked to prevent water intrusion through the gap between the well and foundation wall.  The well wall should be above the grade at least three to four inches; but it also has be extend several inches below the window opening the foundation.  Note that I did not say the window frame; I meant below the concrete edge of the opening.  If stone or other materials that cannot be fastened to the foundation are used, I believe that landscape fabric with a layer of gravel should be installed over the outside joint between the well wall and foundation to prevent soil entering into the well through the gap.  Just this past week, I witnessed a case where soil had extensively eroded into the window well through the gap between the well wall and foundation, partially plugging up the drain opening.  Heaven only knows how much soil entered into the drain line.

Each well should have a drain, which is usually three or four inch PVC pipe, although I have also seen corrugated, non-perforated drain pipe used.  The drain line should have a screen or strainer to keep larger debris out of the line where it could eventually clog the line, particularly leaves and grass clippings.  The top of the drain should be two inches or, even better, more below the window opening in the foundation, again not the window frame.  Pea gravel should cover the floor of the well to prevent soil erosion and mud constantly splashing up on the windows and foundation.  BTW, NO other drain lines should be run into the window well from elsewhere, ESPECIALLY downspout drain lines.  (I would not have mentioned it if I had not seen it myself.

Now, what about that drainage?  Where should it go?  In many cases, the window well drain line is run to the footing drain.  I do not favor the window wells draining to the footing drain because debris from the window well could eventually plug up parts of the footing drain line, and that drain line is extremely important in many cases for preventing water intrusion into the basement.  I first wrote that they could be tied into the downspout drain lines.  After thinking about that arrangement, I decided that was not a good idea.  If the downspout drain line plugged up, water could backflow into the window wells if their inlets were lower than the downspout drain line inlets.  The best arrangement would be to run a separate drain line for the window well drains.  This line could be tied into the downspout drain line if the tie-in were far enough below the window well drain line inlets to prevent backflow into the window wells.

I emphasized that the opening to the window well drain line should be inches below the opening in the foundation rather than the window sill.  The reason is that in many cases, water leaks into the basement around the window frame, particularly beneath it.  I have seen cases where the window frame has had the dickens caulked out of it on the inside, and just as well seen my share of leaks despite the caulk.  What the homeowner usually does not realize is that on the outside, water has gotten into the gap between the foundation and the window frame.  Over time, this water rusts metal frames and rots wood frames.  Furthermore, gaps in materials form what we call a capillary gap which tends to hold the water in place even after the water in the window well has drained away.

One way to prevent, or at least slow down, water intruding through basement windows is to install glass block windows.  These are basically mortared in place and provide about as much water intrusion prevention as concrete block.  More importantly, glass block windows are more secure than most single-pane basement windows.  If you still want a window vent, they are available for glass block windows.  You can even provide an opening for a dryer vent, just be sure to put it higher in the window to prevent water entering through it should the window well flood.  A word of caution, though, glass block windows CANNOT be installed if the window is an escape route.  Those escape windows are required by building codes.  I am talking about replacing the cheapy, single-pane windows.

Before I leave this subject, let’s talk maintenance.  I have seen my share of wells nearly filled with leaves, grass clippings and trash.  I have also seen small pastures in them; that is, a lot of vegetation.  Creatures also have a bad habit of getting trapped in the wells—usually frogs or turtles, but the latest edition to the cats who run my house was also apparently born, and abandoned, in one of mine.  My point is that window wells need probably as much maintenance as gutters.  They have to be kept clean to prevent debris and vegetation clogging the drainage system.  You should keep them clean if for no other reason to be able to periodically check your windows.  One final note, if I have not convinced you to change to glass block windows, make sure that plantings around the foundation do not block view of the wells.  Should an intruder choose that route into the home, at least make it possible for someone to see him/her.  While your at it, maybe you should check the lock on the basement door.

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