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Technical Tip


After all, every time it rains, buildings get water tested, right? Wrong! During periods of prolonged rainy weather, extremely heavy downpours, or severe storms, water can be driven inside in unusual ways that may never happen again. Does this mean that you shouldn’t find out what caused a building to leak. Au contrare, before properly fixing leaks, you have to know their origin. You can’t assume that the entry point corresponds with the stains on interior ceilings, floors, and walls.

Last week, on his home improvement TV show, a nationally recognized construction authority conducted an inspection and water test for a homeowner who had replaced his roof, caulked his house, and waterproofed his walls without stopping a pesky leak into his living room. Finally, the host had to cut into the ceiling around the water stain to backtrack the leak to its origin. The water was getting in through a knothole next to a recently caulked exterior wall. Over time, the knot had simply fallen out of the hole. The hole was located near an obscure corner. The contractors that waterproofed, roofed and caulked the house never noticed the tiny hole. The homeowner had spent thousands of dollars, unnecessarily, on projects that didn’t stop the leaking. Ultimately, water testing along with a thorough inspection and a simple tube of caulk did the trick.

The TV show brought to mind vivid memories of several similar situations we dealt with on our own home. When we first moved into our home, our dining room ceiling started leaking. Assuming it was a broken water pipe, we called in a plumber. The plumber found that it wasn’t a water pipe at all. Instead, he traced the problem to an upstairs bathroom. It was freaky, but my son had inadvertently caused the leak. The plumber discovered that the only time it leaked was when my son showered; where he stood in the shower, where he pointed the shower head, and how the water bounced off his back onto the glass tub enclosure created the unique circumstance. The real issue was that the builder had failed to waterproof the bathroom floor underneath the carpeting. As the water bounced off my son’s back, it hit the glass tub enclosure and ran down the inside of the shower door, flooding the slotted channel at the bottom. The water filled the channel, letting it spill out over the outer edge of the tub, down the outside, underneath the carpet, into the plywood floor, along the conduit, until it hit a low spot (the dining room ceiling) staining it. The solution was pulling out the bathroom carpeting, replacing it with vinyl sheet goods and coving that directed the water onto the vinyl floor, instead of under it.

Eighteen years ago we discovered that a flat section of our roof had staple holes in the black construction paper underneath the hot-mopped roofing that dated back to the original construction. We spent two years caulking the joints of our cedar siding, on the wall adjacent to that flat roof, without stopping the leak. We couldn’t believe that the new roof could have been leaking from the get go, but we were wrong. When the metal window frame rusted in the room below and mold grew on the walls we re-roofed that portion of the roof and finally stopped the leaking.

Several years later, during another winter storm, water leaked into our living room damaging our hardwood floors. A glazier found a small gap between the window pane and the metal frame on our sliding glass door; clear silicone caulk did the job that time.

This winter, unbeknownst to us, our 20 year old skylights had broken loose from their metal framework. When El Niño hit with full force, our skylights were blown off. The roofer replacing the skylights noticed that the previous roofing contractor had not installed the roofing material properly around or under a metal flashed air vent. He applied a heavy asphaltic patching material in the barren area. The new skylights and patch around the air vent ended several leaking problems we had been living with for a couple of years.

These experiences have taught us an important lesson; a well planned visual inspection and water testing program should be conducted yearly, preferably right before the rainy season. The building’s exterior should be inspected first for gaps, spaces, cuts, holes, ripples, cracks, openings, and breaks in the structural materials. Window frames, window panes, door frames, door jams, thresholds, walls, siding, stucco, roofs, decks, stairways, drainpipes, gutters, rail bases, mounting brackets, facias, trim, electrical outlets, pipe fittings - everything should be examined.

Once the visual inspection has been completed, then the water testing can begin. It takes at least two people to properly water test a building. After an exterior section is prepared for testing, one person runs the water while the other person is inside, watching to see if or where the water shows up. Never run water over everything at once. Isolate each area, testing it separately. Let the water run for 15 - 30 minutes. Let the water stand on the flat surfaces for another 15 - 30 minutes before removing it. Drains, scuppers, vents, openings, and gutters need to be stuffed up with paper or cloth before testing walls, roofs, and decks. But don’t forget to remove the stuffing after water testing! Remove the water by mopping, toweling, or sweeping it away when finished testing an area. The drains, scuppers, vents, openings, and gutters need to be tested separately, since they could be the problem. Pay close attention to joints and transition points where horizontal and vertical surfaces meet and construction materials change (stucco to siding, hot mop to tile, etc.). To eliminate the possibility that there is more than one leak and avoid major problems in the future, continue testing until you’ve finished the whole building.

Metals such as flashing, gutters, thresholds, air vents, rail bases, drains, and scuppers may need to be replaced due to rusting or corrosion. If these items are broken or bent, water can run in between the building and the item. Sky lights, antennas, satellite dishes, air conditioners, equipment, coping, curbs, fireplace chimneys, grouting, caulking, drains, and scuppers can be contributing factors. Planters can leak as the plants grow bigger and bigger; large roots can penetrate waterproofing material over the years. So don’t forget to inspect and test them, too.

Besides everything else, water testing tells you where water is ponding on flat horizontal surfaces. The ponding water may be located in a critical spot such as in front of a doorway, at the top or bottom of a landing, or where you want to place furniture or equipment. Low spots in flat surfaces should be graded so the surface slopes away from the structure and towards deck drains, gutters, and scuppers.

We’ve learned to always expect the unexpected, not to count on the obvious because only visual inspection and water testing reveal those hidden problems. Checking it out first can prevent property damage as well as save the property owner aggravation, time, and money.


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