What causes foundation settlement

What Causes Foundation Settlement and Can I Prevent Problems?

You’re a new and/or *awesomely proactive* homeowner with preventing foundation problems on your mind. Surely you can keep bad things from happening to your foundation with a few smart prevention techniques, right?

Anchor Foundation Repair Bryan College Station

Anchor Foundation Repair has been repairing foundation settlement problems in Bryan, College Station, and other Brazos Valley communities since 1985. We know *a bit* about settlement. We can tell you about how foundation problems most commonly happen and offer our professional opinion on the matter of prevention.

This article will review and explain the top cause of foundation settlement for residential homes and explore the idea of preventing foundation problems for your home. Let’s *dig in* and check it out . . . 

What Causes Foundation Problems?

Inquiring minds want to know how things can go wrong to cause foundation problems. Two ingredients work together in creating trouble for your foundation.

signs of foundation settlement

The full backstory about the main cause of foundation settlement and problems starts with our location/geography. Mix in the two ingredients of expansive clay soil properties plus the cycle of climate conditions and you have “a recipe for foundation movement.”

It’s hard to really say that *things have gone wrong* though. It’s just about where we live and our normal weather patterns. So it’s not an extraordinary circumstance that ends up causing signs of home foundation problems, it’s a fairly normal and somewhat expected situation.

Ingredient 1: Expansive Clay Soil Conditions

Throughout Central Texas and many other areas of the US, expansive clay soils dominate the landscape. This geographic area cooks up foundation problems starting with the soil and its normal behavior when exposed to water. 

Expansive clay soils are defined by how they act by expanding and contracting based on moisture levels.

Medium Moisture Levels

Imagine a room filled halfway up with not-quite inflated balls. Now imagine that these half-inflated balls are clay molecules. To show how packed together the balls/molecules are, let’s pretend to squeeze two walls together, causing the balls/molecules to pack together more tightly.

expansive clay molecules and foundation settlement

Since the balls are not all the way inflated, they squish together. So keep going with the imaginary walls closing in until it’s pretty snug in there. This state will represent a medium moisture level: not too wet, and not too dry. 

Wetter Moisture Levels

Now imagine inflating all the balls up some more at the same time. Since the balls/clay molecules can’t push out much on the sides because they are packed in so tightly already, the only way they can really expand is up. 

Foundation Settlement

So they start popping up and pushing into the space above the surface of the balls, i.e. the rest of the room (also known as your foundation). Can you imagine it? The molecules in the soil puff up when wet, like the balls in the room becoming more inflated. The molecules are packed closely together and push out all the way around (like inflating a ball).

Because the clay molecules are already tightly packed in, they can’t push out very well on the sides so they push up instead (where there is less resistance believe it or not) and with much more power on your home’s foundation during rainy seasons.

Drier Moisture Levels

expansive clay soils and foundation settlement

When it’s dry in the summer and there is no rain for extended periods, the clay molecules/balls sink and deflate to a smaller molecule size and let your foundation fall back. 

When it’s really dry, the clay molecules can deflate much more than the “medium moisture levels” described first above. Imagine if you deflate all the balls in the room to where they are not even tightly packed together anymore. 

What happens to the level of the balls? They sink, just like your foundation would if it was laying on top of those balls. This is foundation settlement.

Cycling Through Wet and Dry Seasons

Your home’s foundation will begin to weaken and sometimes break due to these strong forces and then it moves from its original position. This is what we call “settlement” in the industry.

weather creates foundation problems

The forces of expansive clay soils on your home are like daylight savings time on your foundation, springing forward (up) and falling back every year.

Ingredient 2: Inconsistent Climate Conditions

As we cycle through wet and dry seasons, we now know that the soil expands with more moisture and contracts when it becomes more arid. So repeat this pushing up and falling effect over and over again through the seasons and years. Your foundation is resting on that.

Our rainy and drought seasons tend to be *kind of intense* in Central Texas. Sometimes we get a lot of rain for extended periods, and then we will get no rain . . . like none . . . for a long time . . .  and our soil reacts with the same extremes as the climate. 

Brazos Valley foundation repair solutions

Sometimes the soil is strongly lifting and powerful, creating upward pressure on your foundation. Then, the soil becomes drier and drier, and the foundation begins sinking down. 

Not surprisingly, it’s enough to make any foundation in our area crack up a bit. It’s kind of like a paper clip that you bend back and forth repeatedly. Eventually, it breaks.

If it were dry here all the time, the expansive soils wouldn’t expand. If it were wet here all the time, the expansive soils would stay expanded. If there were consistency in the climate, this wouldn’t be such a problem for your foundation but . . . all I can say is . . . welcome to Texas: where “inconsistent climate conditions” is our three-part middle name!

Could I Have Prevented These Foundation Problems?

Now you’re thinking that since we know that the soil and climate have this predictable-ish pattern, maybe I can control or prevent my foundation from settling, right?

Number one, we know we simply cannot change the soil in our area, it’s not going anywhere. Number two, we can’t control the weather either. It’s always going to get super rainy and then super dry. The only thing that you can control (maybe) is the moisture levels. Well yes, maybe you could . . . but maybe not really.

Thoughts on Watering Your Foundation

watering your foundation

Some home care sources say you can “water your foundation” to keep the moisture levels consistent and you could try that (we can’t stop you). But it would still be very difficult to maintain a level of moisture equal to our wettest times throughout all the dry times. We’re talking swampy mess plus very high water bills. 

*Opinion Alert* Watering your foundation could work better in other climate areas, but just not very well here in Central Texas. So don’t rule it out completely if you happen to be reading this and live in an area with either different soil types or different climate patterns.

Our best suggestion is to water your landscaping and grass around your home as normal to maintain their life, but don’t do more than that. This will give you some amount of moisture consistency, without running up your water usage to extremes. 

Watering During Drought Conditions

Watering a bit more during drought conditions could help some. But you might run into lawn watering limitations and conservation issues. So you really can’t go crazy with watering then either.

You Are Not to Blame for Your Foundation Issues . . . 

home foundation repair

Ultimately the strong forces of expansive clay soils and our climate will win out over any of your small-scale watering efforts. So don’t try too hard to meet an unattainable ideal of perfectly consistent moisture at all times for the sake of your foundation. 

Just keep your plants and grass alive which is what you would normally want to do anyway.

Now that you understand the *specialness* of our soil and weather conditions, please know that there was not much you really could have done to prevent your foundation problems here in Central Texas. Foundation problems are not your fault.

Handling Drainage Issues Could Help Your Foundation 

Now that you know more about the main cause of foundation settlement and problems, you might be starting to understand that it’s tough to be proactive with our expansive clay soil and fluctuating weather conditions. As far as we can tell, no one has found a way to fully prevent foundation issues. 

handling drainage to prevent foundation problems

We have been helping Brazos Valley homeowners problem-solve their foundation concerns for the past 35+ years. We want homeowners to understand their issues and feel good about choosing the solution that works best for them.

Speaking of solutions and solving problems, there is actually a bit more you can do to prevent wet conditions than dry conditions around your home: deal with drainage issues. Control the things you can and check out this article on handling poor drainage around your foundation.