Water: Good for Us, Not Our Homes

By Don Carter, Engineer

I assess damaged houses for a living, and I have concluded that if all homeowners were diligent about water management, I’d probably be out of work. Here is why: most Kansas City area homes are built on expansive clay soil. Clay is the stuff flower pots are made of, and it behaves a lot like Play-Doh: it shrinks when it dries and swells when it’s wet. Sixty percent of Johnson County soil types are labeled “severe risk for shrink-swell ” by the USDA. Still, we build houses on them, and to a homeowner, this makes water management a critical issue.

Control water and you can control house movement. Houses are supported on footings. In houses with basements, these footings are typically 8 to 10 feet below ground and sitting on clay soil. If the clay’s moisture content remains constant, its ability to support the house remains relatively steady. But if the clay dries out, it shrinks, and then the house settles. Similarly, if the clay gets flooded it becomes plastic and shifts, often taking the house with it. So how does a homeowner protect against clay changes?

  1. water seepage in the basementGUTTERS – A residential roof can shed over 2,000 gallons of water in a big rain. Make sure gutters are in place, clean, and taper to a downspout. Buy oversized gutters when you replace.
  2. DOWNSPOUTS – Generally more are needed than are typically provided. Add extras adjacent to roof valleys.
  3. SPLASH BLOCKS – Often tilted the wrong way or have turf blocking the outflow. Make sure the open end tilts down and away from the house.
  4. BURIED DISCHARGE – Locate discharge points and keep the area clean and flowing. If the discharge end is uncovered, put a screen over it to keep wildlife out.
  5. PATIO, PORCH, WALK, & DRIVE – Often tilts to the house instead of away. This situation can shed 5,000 gallons of water against basement walls in a heavy rain. Use mudjacking to make sure that water flows away from basement walls.
  6. SURROUNDING LAND – Property higher than yours will dump rain runoff. Use a ditch to intercept flow and channel it around the house.
  7. POOL OR HOT TUB – Keep watertight. If losing water, find out why and fix it.
  8. FOOTING DRAIN – Collects water around foundation footing and usually empties into a basement pit. Confirm that system works. If you have a sump pump, remember that it is supposed to run now and then.
  9. SOIL SLOPE – Earth should taper six inches in 72 inches (six feet) away from the house all around.
  10. IRRIGATION SYSTEMS – Their value is not limited to pretty grass. Irrigation systems are wonderful for protecting foundation footings against hot, dry summers and tree ravage. They work by keeping topsoil moist and sealing in groundwater. I evaluated over 90 drought-damaged homes this summer and not a single one had a sprinkler system. Many of these houses will spend 6 to 10 times the cost of a sprinkler system to pier repair foundations.

clogged gutters

Faulty water management can destabilize clay soil under foundation footings thus leading to structural damage to your home. In Part 2 we will address a more serious water-related problem—mold. Absent good water control, water ponding against your house can crack basement walls with a force known as hydrostatic pressure. Water then seeps in through these cracks or via the natural seam between walls and floor.

Either way, you now have the dreaded “wet basement,” a smelly and unhealthy environment. We all recognize mold. It’s the black or green slimy stuff that shows up when moisture and low light occur in combination. Whereas most mold is a tolerable annoyance, there is one particularly insidious variety known as Stachybotrys chartarum, commonly called Stachy. Stachy is a serious health hazard for certain people, most notably infants, asthmatics, pregnant women, and anyone with lung disease. You may well remember when the State of Kansas SRS office abandoned its space in Olathe because stachy was found in the ceiling that could not be eliminated while the building was occupied.

Stachy produces toxins that may cause Pulmonary Hemorrhage with symptoms such as coughing up blood or nosebleeds. Please know that this hazard is not just limited to occupants, it may well affect visitors who are in your home for only a short time. Stachy is getting enough bad press that we now advise sellers with mold to include it in their real estate disclosure statement to avoid being caught up in a growing number of lawsuits.

Not all mold is as dangerous as stachy. Green mold on bread and cheese or black mold on shower tiles does NOT present the same risk, although a moldy home is never a healthy home. Such things as a runny nose, eye irritation, congestion, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue have been attributed to the toxic effects of different molds. If you have had plumbing leaks, roof leaks, wet basement, or sewer backup in the past year, look for mold or a musty odor. Be alert to water-soaked wood, ceiling tiles, wall paneling, unpainted sheetrock, cardboard boxes, and stacks of newspapers. If these areas were once wet, but have dried, the fungus will not continue to grow.

Black dust caused by the fungus can be sucked up into the furnace blower and spread throughout the house. All of which brings us back to the sermon topic—water management. First, we advised, “Control the water and you control house movement.” Now we say “control the water and you control mold.”