Settling Things Down
A Fine Mess
Call an architect or engineer if you spot a foundation crack that is greater than 1/8-inch wide or you can see all the way through it. These cracks indicate significant foundation settle mentor the presence of expansive soils.
All houses settle into their sites to a certain extent after they're built. If things go well, you'll see few if any signs of it, as your house will nestle into place gradually and evenly. But this isn't always the case. Sometimes settlement is more abrupt and/or uneven.
Cracks that are wider at the bottom than the top indicate soil settling.
The direction of a crack can give you an indication of what's causing it. Settling cracks generally move away from the corner of the foundation as it goes down. A crack due to expansive soils is directed toward the corner as it goes down. All cracks will normally appear at the weakest point in the wall, which is generally where a window is cut into it.
Soils of Clay
Around the House
Wondering about the soil conditions around your house? Go to www.usda.gov, where you'll find handy soil maps for most of the country, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If there's clay soil in your area, your house's foundation might be at a higher risk for developing problems due to changes in the soil's moisture level. Clay soils act like sponges. They absorb water during wet weather-typically winter and spring-and shrink when it's dry-typically during summer months.
Foundations are designed to handle some movement. As the soil shrinks and swells,the foundation and the house will move up and down. The movement is subtle, not something you'd notice. What you might notice is damage that seems to appear and disappear on a regular basis. This indicates that your house is returning to the same position on both its upward and downward swings.
Extremes of either condition, however, can literally push a foundation to the breaking point.
Cracks that are wider at the top than at the bottom indicate expansive soils.
Keeping Foundations Happy
A Fine Mess
When watering your yard, don't make the mistake that many people do and just water parts of it. Keeping your front yard lush and letting other areas dry out will cause foundation expansion in the wet areas and contraction in the dry areas.
There's not much you can do about construction defects beyond remediating them. And there's not much you can do about the composition of the soil under and around your house. But you can help your foundation stay in good shape simply by keeping moisture levels in the soil around it on an even keel-not too wet, not too dry.
For tips on preventing too much water from entering the ground around your home, turn to Maintaining a Good Grade. If you're in a situation where you need to temporarily add moisture -- say, you're in an area that's experiencing a drought -- you can do so by watering your foundation, just like you water your yard.
There are fancy, in-ground foundation-watering systems that you can buy. These systems can be worth the money if you live in an area where soil and weather conditions warrant them. If you have to cope with occasional drought conditions, you don't have to go to the expense of installing permanent solutions. Watering with plain old soaker hoses works almost as well and is much less expensive.
Simply position a soaker hose about 3 to 5 feet away from the foundation. Run the hose daily over a period of several weeks. How long you keep the water running depends on how hot, dry, and sunny it is. You want to run it long enough to give the subsoil a good soaking, down to a depth of about 3 to 4 feet.
Be careful when adding moisture to the ground. Do it too quickly or add too much, and you can cause the opposite problem -- soil expansion, which can also cause a crack.
Once the soil is sufficiently saturated, keep watering it as needed to maintain moisture levels. Obviously, you'll water more when it's hot and dry than when it's cool and damp.
More on: Home Improvements
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Common Household Disasters © 2005 by Paul Hayman and Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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