Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Water on top can lead to big troubles down below.
Tim and Susan Dreier discovered that when they bought and began working on an 1833 house in Shaler. They ultimately found faulty gutters had dropped water alongside the house. It sunk into the ground and through the fieldstone foundation.
“If the gutters had been taken care of all along, I think there night not have been trouble, but ...,” says Tim Dreier.
Such issues are some of the problems that homeowners need to be aware of if they want to avoid dealing with wet basements, damaged walls or both, say experts in roofs, basements and soil.
Staying alert to potential problem areas — above and below — can let a homeowner sidestep problems.
Tom Gallagher from Aqua Guard in Forest Hills, the firm that worked on the Dreiers' house, says inspecting the gutters and drains of a home can be as vital as checking for signs of cracks or bowed walls.
Water that gathers against the basement walls of a house eventually can begin its endless search for cracks.
“Water is a persistent problem when it can settle at the base of a wall,” he says.
Daniel Bain, assistant professor of geology and planetary science at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees and says it is wise also to stay alert to the angle of land around a house. Earth slanting in toward the walls can gather water like a French drain, but without draining.
He also says when considering a property don't pass up an easy way to check water problems: “Wait for a heavy rain and go out and walk around the property to see what's going on.”
Gallagher says the obvious signs of basement trouble are moisture, cracks in walls, bowed walls or efflorescence, which is a crystallization in the mortar between concrete blocks.
He and Aaron Stull, president of Keystone Basement Systems in Wilkins, are quick to mention efflorescence as a indication of trouble. It indicates moisture in the walls that, as it dries, leaves the granular hints of its presence.
Moisture in the walls will lead to cracks during the freeze-and-thaw cycle, so efflorescence is an indicator of trouble on the way, they say.
Cracks are trouble in themselves, Gallagher says, and can indicate greater problems. Most cracks, he says, are horizontal and just above the frost line, where the ground is swelling from moisture and cold.
Walls that are bowing indicate the same sort of problem, but in that case the walls are bending instead of cracking.
“Vertical cracks are signs of settling,” either because of natural settlement of ground or, worse, because of undermining.
He and Pitt's Bain say home buyers and owners need to be aware of whether their home site is above a mined area. The state has a website of municipal maps that show mine sites at www.dep.state.pa.us/msi/checkrisk.html.
While moving and shifting are major issues, basement damage is more often connected to water.
Gutters and downspouts can provide obvious warnings about the threat of basement problems.
Tom Bollnow, research director from the Illinois-based National Roofers Contractors's Association, says moisture problems in the basement often are caused by problems above.
Water settles into the ground and “before it gets a chance to dry, it freezes,” he says.
He and Gallagher also warn that downspouts that are not flowing properly can lead to below-ground water backups that can lead to the leaks.
Water around Dreier's home in Shaler not only came through the fieldstone in the basement, it also damaged the plaster wall that had finished the space there.
To correct the problem, Dreier had Gallagher install a plastic egg-crate-type material between the fieldstone and the new walls which takes any moisture from the ground to an interior drain.
Of course, they also had to fix the gutters in work that cost between $10,000 and $12,000, he says,
Stull and Bain also say the soil make-up in this area can cause trouble. Western Pennsylvania is made up of a great deal of clay, which isn't too pourous. As a result, water in the ground often moves laterally, coming to rest against foundations, where it can provide the same kind of threat water from overflowing gutters does.
“Be aware of the elevation around you,” Pitt's Bain says. “You never want to live at the bottom of a valley.”
Soil testing is awfully expensive, though, Stull says, perhaps running as much as $50,000 for commercial sites or developments. He recommends a home builder spend extra money to have the foundation coated in a synthetic waterproofing, a step above the less-protective damp-proofing.
Bain also recommends looking at some old maps available online at www.digital.library.pitt.edu that can show the paths of creeks and streams that might have been covered in housing development.
Of course, water problems are not limited to the bottom of homes, and Bollnow says to be alert to signs of roof wear to avoid problems before leaks occurs.
Signs of loose or lifted shingles could point to trouble on the way, he says. An even more subtle hint comes from a great amount of shingle granules in the gutters.
“All roofs lose some granules,” he says, “but a lot of them indicates great wear.”
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. or 412-320-7852.