Every fall, the Boston Society of Architects organizes a gathering at the Boston Convention Center known as ABX (which stands for Architects Boston Expo). On the convention floor, approximately 400 building supply related vendors display their wares. In addition, 190 seminars are offered in neighboring classrooms that satisfy licensure continuing education requirements for architects, engineers, and building inspectors.
One of the seminars I attended this year (October 28, 2014), my fourth year of participation in ABX, was “30 Years of Warranty Visits: What We’ve Learned”. For purposes of attribution, the warranty part of the seminar was presented by an employee of Byggmeister, Inc. of Newton, Mass. His presentation resonated with my 25 years of experience. So I figured….why not combine and share our experiences and opinions on some of the examples presented? (Any errors, omissions, inaccuracies or flawed opinions that follow are solely my responsibility.)
Here are eleven common residential construction trouble spots and how to avoid them or fix them.
- Paint That Won’t Adhere To Siding.
Paint peels prematurely for many reasons. If you’re not getting at least 7 years out of your exterior paint job, chances are your siding is trapping water. The drying out process is probably compromised and evaporative forces are cracking or peeling the paint off the front face of your siding. The solution is not better surface preparation, more sanding, more coats of paint, more expensive paint, or painting more often! The solution is an air space.
All siding needs a way for water, both in liquid and vapor form, to escape to facilitate drying. With new construction, make sure there’s an air space greater than ¼” between the back side of the siding and the rain screen covering your wall sheathing. Also, make sure the new siding is back primed. On existing conditions, make an air space somehow in the siding assembly. For example, if you have horizontal clapboards, simply drive small wedges behind the underside of the boards. In both cases, new or existing construction, the air space behind the siding will give water a second way to drain and the siding to dry out. The first and only way the siding may have initially dried out, through the front of the painted surface facing the sun, compromises the paint bond to the siding. Evaporative and other forces work their way through the siding to drive the paint off. Installing an air space behind your siding should stop or at least reduce your paint peeling problems. Just make sure you align with a good installer to ensure that the wall assembly is fabricated properly and works right when finished.
- Shrinking Door Panels Reveal Unpainted Wood.
Have you ever noticed that with 6 panel solid wood doors the panels shrink during the winter revealing an unpainted portion along the panel perimeter? It’s ugly. The headline is there’s no way to avoid this condition completely if your door components are solid wood. That’s because wood expands and contracts seasonally as relative humidity levels change. In New England, during the winter heating season, wood that’s inside dries out and shrinks. During the summer months, even in air conditioned environments, the wood absorbs humidity and expands. You can’t prevent this movement. But you can minimize the effects on your door panels if you have the luxury of undertaking new construction and/or a flexible schedule. Simply install new doors in the winter heating season after they have acclimated to a heated enclosed environment for at least 2 months. Wait, monitor moisture levels in the wood with a moisture meter and when moisture is low- paint it. When the summer arrives, the wood will swell and the likelihood of revealing an unpainted panel perimeter is low. When the winter returns, you may luck out and the wood will shrink back to the dimension when originally painted.
If you are dealing with existing conditions and/or an inflexible construction schedule, you’ll need to budget and plan for ongoing paint touch up maintenance when the raw wood inevitably makes its appearance following seasonal movement. Or, you can replace your wood doors with those made with engineered lumber, particle board, steel, aluminum or fiberglass. These materials are more dimensionally stable than wood and hence require less ongoing maintenance.
- Cracked Caulking- Particularly In Wet Areas.
Caulk cracks. It’s not a question of whether. It’s a question of when. Buying more expensive caulks may delay the day of reckoning. But eventually, they all crack, pull apart or degrade, and usually for different reasons.
So what’s the solution? Plan on re-caulking as part of an ongoing maintenance program. And don’t forget to budget for the “re-paint” that usually needs to cover the caulk.
If the caulk is being applied in an area where water needs to be kept out, install a good flashing system that doesn’t require caulk to work properly. Relying solely on caulk to keep the water out is misguided. Eventually the caulk will crack or pull away from surrounding substrates and water will infiltrate. Paying for a good stand alone flashing system is always the preferred solution.
A sidenote on caulk “lifetime” guarantees. Don’t take comfort from this or any other guarantee. The reason resides in the caveats on the tube. Ever read these? The disclaimers usually state that the guarantee is only good when a number of conditions obtain: the temperature range is just right; the surface(s) to be caulked are clean and free from dust or any other contaminants; the shelf life of the caulk, the conditions on the shelf and conditions throughout the supply chain before you made your purchase have been honored; the surfaces are dry and free from any condensation; the environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, dust levels, weather) during the cure period following installation are just right, etc. In other words if all the manufacturer’s conditions obtain- and all never fully obtain in the field– then the caulk is guaranteed. Otherwise not. Sound like a deal?
Don’t rely on caulk. Just plan to recaulk at regular intervals if you need to use caulk. (The manufacturers will like this conclusion because they’ll sell more caulk!)
- Crown Molding That Pulls Apart Or Away From The Ceiling.
I see this all the time. Two pieces of crown spliced together pull apart at the splice joint due to moisture content related movement. Or long runs of crown separate from the ceiling creating an unsightly gap between the ceiling and the top edge of the crown.
To address crown pulling apart on new construction, I recommend letting the crown material acclimate to the room for at least one month prior to installation. Ideally, the moisture content readings in the crown and any substrates to which it is attached should be close and low. This may take more than a month and will minimize differential seasonal movement related to changes in the relative humidity in the room. Also, I make sure the framing is installed properly to receive crown and modify that framing if necessary and accessible. If the sheetrock is up and the framing is inaccessible and if the framing in the proposed area of the crown is not spaced or installed to receive crown properly and you have the budget, install a 3/8” thick plywood base directly to the front surface of the sheetrock beneath the proposed crown location. The plywood should be screwed to the existing framing. Then the crown is installed with the usual trim fasteners driven through it and securely into the new plywood base.
Sometimes, you’ll need a run of crown that is more than 16-20 feet ie. longer than the fabricated lengths. In this case, two pieces will need to be joined together. When splicing, I glue a mitred joint, held in place by galvanized brads at the splice joint, and let it set up, cure and acclimate on site for at least one month prior to installation. That way, the glue joint will be stronger than the wood itself. If the owner schedule does not permit waiting, I let them know up front what is likely to happen 6-12 months later so that expectations are realistic. Rushing or shortchanging the process will probably result in the splice joint pulling apart and necessitate regular caulking and painting maintenance.
To address crown pulling apart on existing construction, the economically feasible options are somewhat more limited – to recaulking and repainting at regular intervals. You can also try driving more nails and screws, in the vicinity of the splice and to framing members in the wall and ceiling if practical. Or you can take the crown down, install the plywood base described above, and reinstall the crown firmly anchored to the new plywood base.
The headline is if the framing to which crown is nailed is no good, the crown will separate or pull apart as described. If you don’t want to pay for appropriate framing, either before or after the crown is installed, and you don’t want to wait for acclimation, expect that as relative humidity conditions change your crown installation will be unattractive and you’ll have to pay for ongoing paint and caulk maintenance. If your crown is stained, not painted, and proper construction, acclimation and installation protocols have not been followed, expect that your crown will be unattractive over the long term and there’s not much you can do other than a redo of the problem areas correctly.
- Exhaust Fans Clogged.
Exhaust fans from kitchens, bathrooms, dryers, cellar furnaces and other areas usually exist for one reason: to move air from the inside to the outside. If the grille or flapper in the vicinity of the exit point of the exhaust line is inoperable or clogged with lint, debris, birds nests, rodent nests or disabled by layers of paint, the air cannot move from the inside to the outside. When this happens, you will jeopardize the health and safety of those who live inside your home. Fires may start. Back draft conditions may arise and carbon monoxide levels may increase. Moisture may get trapped inside and more mold than usual will grow. Indoor air quality may decline exacerbating asthma and other health related conditions.
Check your exhaust vents to the exterior. Make sure they aren’t clogged. If they are, unclog if feasible. If not, replace.
And if your exhaust fans vent into your attic, pay a pro to relocate the exhaust exit point to the exterior. Remember, the goal is to move air from the inside to the outside, not from the inside to the inside.
- The Bottom of Bathroom Mirrors Become Splotchy Over Time.
Ever notice how large mirrors resting on or directly above bathroom sinks, vanity tops or backsplashes lose some of the silvery reflective qualities at the bottom of the mirror over time? The affected areas, rather than being silvery and reflective, appear splotchy and black, grey, or transparent.
Whatever it is that gets painted or inserted onto the backside or in the middle of glass to create a mirror, it doesn’t do well when wet. It disintegrates. And the disintegration of this vital component of a mirror creates the splotchy appearance. So keep mirrors away from wet areas. And please….do not caulk the bottom or apply metal trim to it thinking this will address the issue. It may cover up the splotchiness short term. Longer term these “fixes” simply trap moisture, particularly condensation on the mirror created from bathing activities. Condensation will drip down into the trim or caulk, making the splotchiness worse over time.
In most cases, it’s probably most cost effective to simply replace the mirror and move the new one higher on the wall, away from liquid water around the sink. To address the condensation dripping issue, make sure there is nothing at the base of the mirror that will trap this inevitable source of water. Let condensation drip down and away from the bottom of the mirror. The easier it is for the mirror to shed water and dry out, the longer it will last in first rate condition.
- Tubs Or Shower Pans With Lousy Or No Flanges Cause Leaks.
Around the perimeter of the top deck of your tub or fiberglass shower pan there should be a lip (which I’ll call a flange) that rises 2-4 inches above the upper most portion of the deck and that should be impenetrable to moisture. Sheetrock or tile backerboard of some kind is nailed or screwed to the wall framing surrounding the tub or shower enclosure, with the bottom of the wall material lapping over the top inch or two of the flange. Finishes, such as tile or paint, are then applied to the wall material. Sometimes the lip or flange over which the wall material is lapped is too small, non-existent, or pervious to water. When this happens, any water that travels down the vertical side walls of the tub or shower enclosure may migrate through the point at which the bottom of the enclosure walls intersect with the tub or shower base, leading to leaks and related staining/damages to lower floors.
On new construction, make sure your plumber installs tubs and shower bases with a good flange. On existing construction, if you notice leaks below your bathroom floor, check to make sure the flange is not the culprit. If it is, there are ways to fabricate and install good flange assemblies in the field with minimal invasion of the existing enclosure wall finishes.
- Grout Joints At Intersecting Planes Of Tile Which Lead To Water Damage .
Next time you’re in a tiled area of any bathroom, take a look at where vertical and horizontal planes of tile intersect. You’ll probably notice that the joint created at those intersections was filled with grout. As you may know, grout is a cementitious material that can expand, shrink, and crack. It can break loose from the surrounding planes to which it may once have adhered and it’s porous. Let’s ignore for a moment that all of the aforementioned conditions are easy for water to penetrate and travel through, leading to leaks and related water damage. Instead, let’s focus on a less obvious tile condition that leads to damage and the need for repairs: the horizontal movement of water through grout joints by capillary action that damages finishes and substrates residing next to tile installations.
One leak prone area is where the base of the intersection of a shower wall intersects with the curb (or the step up) into the of a shower pan. More often than not, the area is not flashed properly by the installer using appropriate membranes and installation protocols. The condition is easy to spot mainly because it is so widespread. Another condition, that can be a bit of a puzzler to diagnose is the wetness and related destruction of the sheetock wall outside of a tiled shower near the curb/wall intersection.
Long story short, the joint at the intersection of the base of the shower wall and the top side of the marble curb or step up into the shower is usually filled with grout. Water drops from within the shower to the top side of this intersection and saturates the grout joint. When saturated, water travels beyond the termination point of the grout onto the abutting sheetrock wall which, as mentioned above, is outside of the tiled area. The area behind the sheetrock outside of the shower is usually flashed and protected properly for a good foot or so beyond the glass shower door. But there is no end dam or alternative material used to stop the horizontal flow of shower water through the grout joint and into the side of the sheetrock at that location. The sheetrock and underlying framing become saturated by means of a water pathway leading through the grout joint from inside the shower enclosure to the edge of the sheetrock outside of the enclosure.
The fix, after the wall is repaired, is to use caulk in lieu of grout in the problem joint. The caulk is impervious and acts as the necessary end dam, preventing capillary movement of water from inside the shower, through the horizontal joint, to the outside of the shower. Since caulk is used and all caulk eventually fails, this will be an area requiring ongoing maintenance and recaulking over the years. The maintenance with caulk will be less than that required when grout is used at this leak prone location.
While we are on the subject of caulk in tiled areas, make sure you use caulk not grout to fill all joints where a horizontal plane of tile intersects with a vertical plane. And make sure weep holes in the caulk are provided to allow moisture to escape. The caulk will be less porous, more flexible and will last longer than grout at these points of intersection. And the tile supply companies offer caulks which more or less match the colors of their grout products.
- WOOD NEEDS A ROOF!
This is one of the best headlines I’ve ever heard. And it applies to all wood, even rot resistant species. If aesthetically, technically, and financially feasible, put a roof over exterior door entries, garage doors, window well “outies”, decks and any other exterior component that is made of wood and that you want to last.
I make good money each year repairing rotten wood on the outside of houses where there is no roof. Splash back of water falling off the main roof of the house onto the ground and then back onto sliding deck doors and garage doors are the biggest offenders and best sources of repair work. If a small overhang, extending maybe 3 feet in depth, had been installed over these doors, repairs and maintenance would have been insignificant or unnecessary.
- Natural Finishes On Exterior Wood Require Annual Maintenance.
This one is short and sweet. Natural finishes on exterior wood don’t last more than a year. Don’t think of them as paint or stain. Think of them as you would varnish on a boat. Boat finishes need annual maintenance. Natural finishes on the exterior of a house need annual maintenance too. Failure to maintain annually will increase your repair and replacement costs on exterior wood naturally finished.
- Wood Deck Handrails Need To Shed Water Not Trap It.
Ever notice that at the horizontal connection point between a deck handrail and the supporting post the handrail is connected butt tight to the post? Sometimes the handrail is pitched, along stairs for example, with the lower termination point of one end of the handrail butt tight against the post creating in essence a dead valley at the rail/post intersection. Water will collect at these points of intersection and rot the wood prematurely because the water can’t escape and allow the wood to dry out. The assembly at this intersection may never dry out.
The fix is to leave a small gaps between the post/rail intersections that is are to code using sturdy stainless fasteners. Another fix is to make sure the profile on the top side of the rail is pitched so it will shed water rather than allow it to accumulate and saturate the rail/post connection point. Pitched rail profiles are readily available in the better lumber yards.