Sometimes it’s the hidden, quiet monster that you should be the most afraid of. When it comes to your house, that’s certainly the case!
During wet fall and winter months, especially, it’s time to keep your eye out for your home’s worst enemy – trapped moisture.
Of course fire, earthquake and wind storms are also to be prepared for, but it’s actually trapped moisture in a home that causes more damage in most houses.
We’re not talking about a burst pipe – which of course is also a concern – instead we are talking about the sneaky type of moisture that comes from wet jackets and shoes, watering house plants, cooking, showering, wet pets, house leaks and more.
As those sources of moisture evaporate into thin air, they travel through the house until they find a cool wall surface, toilet tank, or even a thermal pane window to turn back into a liquid state. We are sure you have seen it happen!
When this water vapor finds these cool lower corners of rooms, bottom walls of closets and certainly anywhere in an unvented bathroom, it sticks and stays, creating a little environment for mold and mildew. None of this is good and it can be pre-vented – literally.
Over the years working for NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor, we have inspected and directed the rehabilitation of hundreds of moisture-damaged homes. From the foundation to the roof, improper ventilation in one or more areas is usually the problem.
Moisture is tough on houses!
You may assume much of what you see in and around homes is just normal wear and tear —things like peeling paint, curling shingles, rotted skirting, mold, mildew and bug damage. These are not normal and can be prevented with proper ventilation and timely maintenance.
As we said, it’s not just our rainy weather that’s hard on a house, these other moisture sources– even breathing – all contribute to a potentially high humidity problem that can cause real trouble.
The good news is that specific vents can be installed in your roof, foundation, bath and kitchen to take care of the excess moisture.
Adequate ventilation defined
So, how do you know if your house is adequately ventilated?
Homes in our area should have one square foot of ventilation for every 150 square foot of foundation floor area. Same for the attic using roof vents. For example, a one-floor 1,200-square-foot house, divided by 150, would need 8 square feet of ventilation around the perimeter of the foundation and again in the roof.
This can be achieved by adding 1- square-foot foundation vents at every corner and evenly spaced around the foundation or skirting. For the roof, we recommend ridge and soffit venting, but there are other ways to get the job done.
Inside the house you should have a powered fan in the kitchen and each bathroom that is properly vented to the outside. While openable windows can help, they are not as efficient and only work if opened.
By installing these vents you have taken some of the preliminary measures needed for a healthy, home and you.
Is foundation wet?
Let’s focus deeper attention on just one area—the foundation—as a forgotten source of moisture.
Here’s what you want to see and smell under your house:
At least one good, screened or covered access point to get under the house
18 to 24 inches or more of space from the ground to the floor joists.
Clean, dry 6-millimeter black plastic on the ground, laid tightly, anchored at the edges, cut around each pier block and overlapped at the seams by 12 inches.
Very few bugs, spiders or cobwebs.
No wood-type debris and nothing growing.
All areas of the foundation, especially under the kitchen and bath, should be dry. There should be lots of fresh air streaming through the vents and no odd smells, standing water or signs of animals.
All non-treated wood components should be dry, rot-free, away from soil and separated from any concrete using composition roofing or other water-proof barrier.
Ick! What now?
This is what you should do if you see or smell something you shouldn’t:
If you see lots of spider webs, that usually indicates high moisture content in the air and may indicate you need more ventilation and/or a ground cover. Installing 6-mil black plastic on the ground under the house stops this moisture source, instantly.
Next, place a splash block or a pipe at each downspout to convey water away from the foundation
Now do the math for ventilation, adding more vents if needed.
If you find a water puddle on the plastic you need to play detective. If it is gray, filmy or soapy water, it means a sink, tub or washing machine drainpipe could be leaking. Operate each fixture, to find the leak point and repair it.
If the air smells or looks like toilet water, call a plumber! That water is hazardous to your health!
A puddle of clear water on the plastic can be from rain through a vent or a water supply line drip. We would first look at the water meter ‘tattle-tale’ and see if there is a leak indicated. If not, look for another source and the reason why, like rainwater.
You may have to install splash blocks under downspouts to pipe it away. If you have a lot of ground water you may need a sump pump to carry it away from the house but avoid sending ground water into the city sewer system. Big no no!
Other issues to deal with
If you observe any signs left behind by critters — like ammonia cat pee smells, feces, hair, tracks, or even the critter!—trap or remove the animal and secure openings and under the edges of the skirt.
Finally, there may be small sawdust trails and holes peppering the wood, signs of powder-post beetles, or larger holes that ants or termites make. Poor ventilation and/or a steady source of moisture on wood can create a condition known to attract pests. Bottom line is you need to get rid of these pests and the moisture sources that allow them to be there! That may require the knowledge and products professionals use.
Depending on the level of damage, a professional pest spray, proper ventilation and removing all sources of moisture could cure the problem. If you wait too long, you’ll have to replace your foundation, sub-floor and skirting.
More coming soon on moisture
We have more to share about moisture. There is more to be addressed than just the foundation. Look for next week’s column!
Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty are construction specialists at NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor County, where Murnen is executive director. This is a nonprofit organization committed to creating safe and affordable housing opportunities for all residents of Grays Harbor County. For questions about the ductless heat pump program or home repair, housing counseling for renters and landlords, homebuyer education and buying, call 360-533-7828, listen to the extension picks that will best help you and leave a callback name and number. Due to Covid-19, our office is not currently open for a visit, but we will call you back.