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Foundation Problems

A house with severely cracked wallsThis article will examine the question of whether relying solely on the levelness of a slab as a basis for recommending foundation repair is an accurate way of determining the need for underpinning. The simple answer to this dilemma is no. While slab measurements are a widely used method of determining the levelness of a slab, they cannot and should not be the sole basis for determining whether a home needs underpinning based on a variety of reasons, 3 of which we will be examining.

Reasons Why Basing Foundation Repair Recommendations
Solely on Measurements is an inexact Science

  • No newly constructed slab is perfectly level
  • When a new home is constructed, numerous factors affect the slope of the slab, including it’s shape, support materials, extent of soil preparation, and the weight of the structure which is built on it among other things. For these reasons, and the fact that human handywork can never be absolutely perfect, a perfectly level slab at the time of construction is absolutely impossible.It is absolutely feasible, that at the time of construction of a home, a slab can have a slope of 2 inches or more, and the home will be properly designed to support this deflection. Thus, any leveling done on this house in the future to correct the slope can adversely affect the structure of the home.
  • The nature of Expansive soils means that slab foundations are constantly moving
  • Because of the characteristics of expansive soils in and around Austin and San Antonio the moisture content of the soil is always changing. In short moist soils expand and dry soils contract, for this reason measurements taken over extended periods of time will show different levels of deviation. As previously stated, while measuring the deviation of a slab is a widely used technique, it is not the only factor which should be considered when evaluating a foundation.

    “The foundation surface changes as the soil shrinks and swells. While the foundation may become more level with time, at least some damage to the supported structure does not disappear, such as cracks in brittle wall coverings. Thus, it is possible that a house that shows cracking in brittle wall coverings may fail to be properly diagnosed because the foundation surface profile was judged to be “level” at the time of the inspection.” excerpt taken from Using Slab-on-Ground Elevation Measurements in Residential Foundation Engineering Performance Evaluations

  • A level reading can be obtained on a structure that actually needs repairs
  • Because of the two factors previously discussed, a slab which was not completely level after construction, and, which is experiencing soil expansion or contraction underneath the slab, at any given time, based on the conditions, can exhibit a level reading.

    “Either foundation deflection (bending or angular distortion) or tilt (planar rotation) may affect structural integrity and performance. Determining the deflection and tilt of a slab-on-ground foundation is an approximation without an as built or previous floor elevation survey, because the original surface configuration is unknown. Therefore, a floor elevation survey can provide valuable information, but should not be the only basis for evaluating foundation deflection and tilt.” excerpt taken from the Guidelines for the Evaluation and Repair of Residential Foundations Section 5.4 – Deflection and Tilt

Relying on Measurements Alone Would be Irrational

As described, measurements of slopes in foundations are not the only way to tell whether a foundation is in need of repair. Relying solely on measurements to determine the condition of a foundation can lead to inaccurate evaluations, and more damage to a home. Knowing the soil make up of the area in which the home is located, the shape of the slab, observing signs of foundation problems, and familiarity with slab construction all contribute to making an informed decision on whether to recommend foundation repair or not.

“There is no rational, logical reason to refuse to make a positive diagnosis merely because the surface profile does not conform with one of two distortion profiles that are used for design purposes.” excerpt taken from Using Slab-on-Ground Elevation Measurements in Residential Foundation Engineering Performance Evaluations

A combination of Measurements, Observation,
Knowledge of Soil, and Experience

Superior Foundation Repair’s steel pier method of foundation repair has been tested over decades and been shown to effectively counteract the effects of expansive soil on slab foundations by relying on bedrock for support. When evaluating a foundation and recommending repair we combine our experience, extensive knowledge of Central Texas soils, observation of signs of structural damage, along with measurements to determine our recommendations for repair. We have recommended repair on homes which other foundation companies did not recommend repair, and conversely, we have recommended no repair on homes where other companies have recommended repair. We always stand by our evaluations of slab foundations.

If your home is exhibiting signs of foundation problems, then contact Superior Foundation Repair today to have one of our experienced inspectors evaluate the condition of your foundation.

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Behavior and Effects of Expansive Soil, Copyright Prentice HallWith the Onset of Summer, Comes Contracting Soil

After a fall and winter of higher than average rainfall in Central Texas, thanks to El Nino, a dry summer has the potential to wreak havoc on building foundations across the region.

Soil in Central Texas has Expanded
Due to Recent Rainfall

The soil composition here in Central Texas is comprised of moderate to highly expansive soils, see our post on expansive soils. What this means is that in wet periods our soils absorb water and expand, and during dry periods they lose moisture and contract.

Diagram of Expansive Soil, Copyright Prentice Hall In the example at right, taken from a Prentice Hall textbook, we can easily see the amount of moisture present in an expansive soil multiplies when moisture is introduced causing a phenomenon known as soil heave. As the name suggests soil heave causes the soil to lift upward and can either put added pressure on your exterior walls, if the soil under your house remains dry, or on the center of your foundation, if the soil under your home is affected by leaks or other sources of moisture.

Large Cracks in a Foundation or Walls
are Usually a Sign of Foundation Problems

If your home is experiencing any foundation problems, you will most likely either want to have a structural engineer take a look, or call a foundation repair company out to examine your home.

Superior has years of experience with San Antonio and Austin Foundation Repair. We also offer coupons to our web customers at our Google Maps pages, if you are in the Austin area visit our Superior Foundation Repair Austin – Google Maps page to see our specials. If you are in the San Antonio area visit our Superior Foundation Repair San Antonio – Google Maps page for our specials.

Call 877-302-5111 or follow this link to request a free foundation repair estimate.

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The New York Times

On March 4th the New York Times published an article about the foundation repair industry titled “Shifting Soil Threatens Homes’ Foundations”. The article points out that the foundation repair industry has grown even throughout the recession as more and more home owners have been faced with problems caused by expansive soil (read more about expansive soil in Central Texas).

The Article states:

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association indicates that since the 1990s there has been an accelerating trend nationwide toward more extended dry periods followed by downpours. Whether due to random climate patterns or global warming, the swings between hot and dry weather and severe rain or snow have profoundly affected soil underneath buildings.

Clay soils, like those beneath the houses of Mr. Derse and Ms. Wilson, shrink during droughts and swell during floods, causing structures to bob. And because sandier soil loses its adhesive properties in dry conditions, it pulls away from foundations. Heavy rains cause it to shift or just collapse beneath structures. With both kinds of soil, such sinking, called subsidence, usually happens gradually, said Randall Orndorff, a geologist with the United States Geologic Survey. But, he said, “swinging from very wet to extremely dry weather like we’ve been seeing lately in many parts of the country may be accelerating the effect.”

While the author questions whether foundation problems are caused by global warming (this of course is an entirely different debate which we will not elaborate upon), she does provide an excellent explanation of how foundation problems occur. The soils in Texas are especially subject to these characteristics, thus the large amount of foundation repair companies that can be found in Texas.

The article also discusses the cost of foundation repair to homeowners and estimates that around $4 billion dollars a year are spent repairing foundations, a much more conservative figure than the $12.5 billion purported by the Foundation Repair Association. Regardless, foundation repair is a multi-billion dollar industry which people often tend to ignore until they see the signs of foundation problems.

The author also points out, “Subsidence is not covered by most homeowners’ insurance policies in the United States.” This topic has already been covered by Superior Foundation Repair in a previous blog post and readers should be aware of this fact already (read about insurance and foundation repair).

Another aspect covered in the article is proper techniques for maintaining a healthy foundation.

Landscaping should, as a rule, be installed so that water slopes away from the house and gutters should discharge at least five feet from the house to avoid oversaturating the soil. (read more about landscaping and home foundations) During droughts, experts recommend placing soaker hoses around the perimeter of the house and turning them on for 30 minutes a day. “The idea is to maintain a constant amount of moisture in the soil,” said Tom Witherspoon, a foundation engineer in Dallas. “If you can do that, your house will never move.” (read more about maintaining a healthy foundation)

Among other things there are a few personal stories mixed in with the article which highlight the hardships endured by various families who have dealt with foundation problems.

The article makes some good points about the foundation repair industry and the severity of problems caused by expansive soil throughout the United States, even if the article is loosely based around the idea that climate change may be the cause of foundation problems. However, the author also brings into question whether or not poor construction habits, the increase in new homes, or the availability of good quality soil have contributed to the increase in foundation problems across America. In all the article is an excellent read for anyone interested in understanding foundation repair and how it affects families.

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image courtesy of *Sally M* on Flickr

A list of 5 resolutions Central Texas Homeowners should take to heart to help protect their home investment and insure a healthy foundation:

  1. Know the signs of Foundation Problems

    There are many telltale signs of Foundation problems, which homeowners may not be aware of. Early signs of foundation problems may be chalked up to faulty construction, poor materials, or general wear and tear. But left unchecked may lead to major structural damage in the future. Read Superior Foundation Repair’s Top 10 signs of Foundation problems and check your home to see if it is starting to show any signs of these problems. Most foundation problems begin to manifest themselves within 3-4 years of construction, and when ignored can adversely affect the price of a house.

  2. Find out what type of soil your house is built on

    Austin is home to many expansive soil types. Expansive soils wreak havoc on home foundations, as they expand during wet periods, and contract during dry periods. All this expansion and contraction leads to major stress on home foundations, and over years can seriously damage a buildings structural integrity. Read Superior Foundation Repair’s blog post about expansive soils in Central Texas, and contact your builder or a certified geologist to determine what type of soil your house is sitting on. If you know you are in a potential danger zone, Superior Foundation Repair’s Steel Piers can counteract the effects of expansive soils on your home by anchoring your home’s foundation to bedrock.

  3. Learn how to avoid causing foundation problems

    Oftentimes Home Owners undertake remodeling or landscaping projects at home which adversely affect their foundations. Read Superior’s blog post about how home owners cause foundation problems, before making additions to a home or property. Well planned projects can save a lot of money and headaches for the future. Use certified contractors to complete any additions and do not opt for the cheapest option. Check the contractor’s standing with the BBB before agreeing upon any contract, and ask for a list of references.

  4. Maintain a healthy foundation

    As homeowners, there are steps that can be taken to ensure that minimal stress is put on a home’s foundation. Superior Foundation Repair’s Foundation maintenance tips are a good start for learning how to care for a home’s foundation. Follow these steps to counteract typical causes of foundation problems and to protect your home investment. Even if a home has previously had foundation repair (Spread Footer, Drilled Bell Concrete Pier, Simple Pressed Pilings, Concrete Pressed Pilings, etc.) these are not permanent fixes, and the home will most likely need foundation repair again in the future. Superior Foundation Repair’s Steel Pier House Leveling Process is the only solution for permanent foundation repair. By lifting a home’s foundation and anchoring it to bedrock, the home will have a secure foundation for a lifetime.

  5. Check your landscaping and remedy potential problems

    Check existing landscaping at home to avoid potential structural damage caused by poorly designed installation. Read Superior’s tips about Landscaping and Foundations to learn how to properly install landscaping additions to a home or remedy current problems a home may be experiencing. Inattention to Landscaping problems can seriously affect a home’s foundation, while proper care can help homeowners avoid headaches in the future.

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A frustrated home owner with foundation problems

  1. Overwatering

    Overwatering a lawn is a common cause of foundation problems in areas with Vertisols (Expansive Soils).

    A frequent source of damage is the differential swelling caused by pockets of moist soil adjacent to dry soil. For example, lawn and garden watering creates a moist zone on the exterior of a foundation, whereas the interior is dry; this creates differential swelling pressure on foundation elements.

    source: Damage to Foundation from Expansive Soils (pdf)

    Texans tend to overwater due to the unpredictability of the weather patterns. However, maintining a constant moisture level in the soil surrounding your foundation is imperative for home owners. Overwatering exerts added pressure on foundation walls which can cause them to swell upwards, thus causing the infamous, unsightly cracks to appear in walls.

    Watering – Year-round watering should be planned to avoid too much moisture in the rainy season and too little in the dry season. Automatic watering systems may help, but they can require a seasonal adjustment and attention to maintenance. If the valve accidentally sticks open, major damage could result.

    source: Living with Expansive Soils (pdf)

  2. Installing Landscaping too Close to a Foundation

    When considering landscaping for your house, it is important to keep plants a safe distance from the foundation, usually 5 feet or more. Landscaping planted too close to a foundation can cause the soil to expand through overwatering, deprive the plants of moisture (when the roots reach under the foundation), or in cases of trees cause foundation problems because of their roots.

    How Close to the House Should You Place Foundation Shrubs?

    Having shrubbery right up against your house isn’t good for the house, the shrubbery, or for you! So keep the following guidelines in mind when planning a foundation planting:

    Locate good-sized shrubs (6 feet tall or higher at maturity) in such a way that their mature foliage will remain at least 5 feet away from the house. You can get away with planting shrubs that stay shorter a bit closer to the house. Where you live also makes some difference. In hot, humid climates, you’ll want more air circulating between the house and the foundation shrubs, to discourage rot. Adequate spacing between the plants themselves, too, is important, to reduce disease and maintenance.

    source: David Beaulieu – About.com:Landscaping

  3. Improper Installation of Swimming Pools

    Swimming pools installed improperly can lead to water seepage into the soil. In Central Texas, the expansive soils will absorb this water and put increased pressure on your home’s foundation. Insure that proper waterproofing has been installed when purchasing a home with a swimming pool

    As swimming pools are always in direct contact with water and the hydrostatic head is very high, the waterproofing of swimming pools has to be considered very seriously from beginning and adequate steps are to be taken to ensure their water tightness.

    source: Swimming Pool Protection System (pdf)

    Diagram detailing pool seepage Pool shells always leak some amount of water from natural percolation through the structural gunite skin. If the pool is close enough to adjacent foundations, the entire building can be lifted differentially.

    source: Damage to Foundation from Expansive Soils (pdf)

  4. Improper drainage

    Proper drainage is an essential part of any home design. Included in this are gutters which deposit the water far enough away from the foundation to prevent it from influencing the foundation. Also a proper grade in which the land around the house gradually slopes downward, away from the house and deposits runoff water on the streets.

    The foundation should always be provided with adequate drainage, and the soil properly prepared to minimize changes in soil moisture and differential movement.

    source: US Department of Defense: Foundations in Expansive Soils (PDF) section: 7-1

    Superior Foundation Repair recommends depositing water from gutters and downspouts 10 feet (or further) from home foundations located in areas with expansive soils. Superior also recommends a grade of 3-5% sloping away from the foundation.

  5. Interior Remodeling

    When remodeling your home, it is important to understand why your home was designed the way it was in the first place. A major remodeling project which shifts the load of the house significantly, can adversely affect the original design of a foundation. Removal of supporting walls can wreak havoc. Also installing add-ons to a house situated on expansive soil can have the reverse effect intended, if not properly desinged for expansive soils. Make sure your contractor uses a design which will not be adversely affected by shrinking and swelling.

    Interior finishing. One of the most costly mistakes a homeowner or careless contractor can make is to defeat the design purpose of a floating floor slab. A floating garage or basement floor slab is designed to move freely. Therefore, any furring, paneling, dry wall, or interior partitions added to a basement or garage must maintain this freedom of vertical movement. Any added walls or wall coverings should be suspended from the existing walls or ceiling, and should not be attached to the floor slab. A minimum void space of 3 in. should then be provided just above the floor slab. This void space may be covered with flexible molding, or inflexible molding attached to the floor rather than the wall. Although these recommendations provide for 3 in. of upward swell of the soil beneath the floor slab, more void space may be necessary in areas of highly swelling clay. source: Colorado Geological Survey: Mitigation and Land Use (Swelling Soil)

Should your house experience foundation problems due to improper maintenance. Contact Superior Foundation Repair immediately for a Free Foundation Repair Estimate on the extent of damage done to your home.

Read our Foundation Maintenance tips for more information on maintaining a healthy home foundation

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