H2Uh-Oh: Water Problems & How To Solve Them
By Paul Eldrenkamp
Water makes life on earth possible. It's a medium in which all manner of organic compounds can interact. This is great for us as living creatures; not so great for us as homeowners. Home maintenance is predominantly about dealing with water. Too much water in the wrong place, and those organic compounds can initiate processes that lead to paint failure, mold, rot, and, ultimately, structural failure.
The fall is a good time to walk around your house and look for signs that water is getting where you don't want it. If you see something that you don't understand that you think might be an indication of potential problems, send us a photo or give us a call-we'll help you diagnose the situation and determine if you need to take action, or can rest easy.
Here are some classic signs of water working against us:
The above photo shows an exterior door that had been left unfinished for several weeks. The stain mark towards the bottom provides a graphic demonstration of just how much water can wick up into bare wood. It's not infrequent that we discover that a wood exterior door is starting to delaminate and decay at the bottom panel because the installer had not thought to prime and paint the bottom edge.
Vertical surfaces shed water very readily; surfaces that are closer to horizontal retain water. This is certainly true of larger surfaces such as a wood bulkhead cover (above) but it's also true of smaller surfaces such as windowsills, which can take a beating if not carefully maintained (below). We try to avoid using painted wood in such situations; there are several alternatives available.
The above photo shows what happens when you fail to guide water reliably away from the house. Note how water draining down alongside the clapboards in the upper right of the photo direct water behind the corner boards, wetting the backs of those boards and causing
the bond between the wood and the paint to fail. Such flashing failures are one of the biggest causes of paint failure and wood rot.
In this example two errors were made: One, the deck boards were placed too close together, meaning that organic debris accumulated in the narrow spaces between the boards and began to act as a sponge, holding water against the sides of the deck boards. This may not have caused damage as severe as what's in the photo if the deck boards were from a more durable wood. In this case, they were fir decking, which has at best a 10-year lifespan in this application. A better choice would have been composite decking or a tropical hardwood (sustainably forested, of course) such as Garapa.
Here's what we encountered when we gutted the old plaster and lath on the exterior wall of a room at a recent project. Note the water stains on the inside of the old sheathing boards. The exterior of this house is brick, and brick is notorious for leaking. The building paper between the brick and the sheathing had deteriorated to almost nothing in the 80 years since the house was built, and so water leaking through the brick and around the window opening was soaking the sheathing from the outside thoroughly enough to stain it on the inside. The sheathing boards had not rotted for two reasons: One, unlike plywood and other modern building materials, these old boards can get pretty wet before they show even hints of rot; and two, there was no insulation in the wall-meaning heat loss in the winter dried the walls out pretty quickly after they got wet from rain or snow. The big question was how could we add insulation-which would considerably slow down the heat loss, but also significantly diminish its drying effect-without assuring that the boards would start to rot? The answer was imperfect but effective: apply a sealant to the brick (something that should only be done rarely, and with extreme caution); use a form of insulation with high "breathability" to allow for some drying: and to paint the backs of the boards with a mildewcide paint prior to installing the insulation. Six years later, so far so good-no sign of trouble.