What causes foundation problems and can you prevent them? Whenever there’s a home problem, you always wonder if you could have prevented it somehow. Tracking back through all your decisions, you’re questioning every past move to see where you went wrong. Also diagnosed as the “Why is this happening to meeeeeeeeee?” Syndrome.
Foundation problems are no different. There’s always a “why is this happening” question swirling in the background. It’s very natural and everyone does it. Not that it changes anything for you when you already have a problem but people still want to know these things. Maybe it’s just human curiosity?
Whatever the reason is that you want to know this stuff, Anchor Foundation Repair can answer these questions for you. We have been answering homeowner questions about foundation problems and repairs (as well as doing the repairs) in the Bryan, College Station, and greater Brazos Valley since 1985.
We know a thing or two about what causes foundation problems since we are the ones fixing them for your friends and neighbors. Yes, we do foundation repairs as our primary service. But we also serve as a source of education and knowledge for our community about “all things foundation-related.”
One of our guiding principles is to build trust by providing impartial information. We get asked this question a lot so we thought we should write it down for you. We will take a look at:
- Causes of Foundation Problems
- Thoughts on Prevention
- Determining if Repair is Needed
We restore confidence to homeowners with facts and expert opinions, enabling you to make sound decisions for your home. Here’s our take on the facts of what causes your foundation issues, and a dash of opinions on prevention.
1. Root Causes of Foundation Problems
Inquiring minds want to know how things went wrong in the first place to cause foundation problems. Two ingredients work together in creating trouble for your foundation.
The full backstory starts with location/geography (i.e. the kitchen), mix in the two ingredients of expansive clay soil properties plus the cycle of climate conditions and you have “a recipe for foundation movement.”
Ingredient 1: Expansive Clay Soil Conditions
Throughout Central Texas where we live, expansive clay soils dominate the landscape east of I-35. This “kitchen” likes to cook up foundation problems starting with the soil in the area and its behavior. Expansive 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 (these are clay molecules now). To show how tightly packed together the balls/molecules are, let’s squeeze two walls together like the epic trash compactor scene where Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewy find themselves trapped in Star Wars®.
I know . . . this kitchen is getting weird, right?
Since the balls are not all the way inflated, they squish together pretty tightly. So keep going with the trash compactor walls until it’s pretty snug in there. This state will represent a medium moisture level: not too wet, not too dry, but just right.
Oh great, now Goldilocks is in this kitchen too??
Wetter Moisture Levels
Now imagine inflating all the balls up some more at the same time and it starts to get interesting.
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. 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 see 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 they are 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: aka summer, aka drought, aka 10th level of Hades
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, they can deflate much more than the “medium moisture levels” described 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.
Now, repeat this pushing up and falling effect over and over again through the seasons and years.
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.
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. Wait, this kitchen even has daylight savings time??
Ingredient 2: Climate Conditions
Now combine expansive clay soil with our delightful weather patterns. Sometimes we get a lot of rain for extended periods, and then we will get no rain. Like none . . . for a long time . . . welcome to Texas!
Since our rainy and drought seasons tend to be *kind of intense* (to put it nicely), our soil is a bit like manic depression. Sometimes it’s strongly lifting and powerful: getting lots of stuff done messing around with your foundation. Sometimes it’s just feeling depressed and sadly sinking down.
It’s enough to make any foundation in our area, well . . . crack up a bit. Oh and yes, now there are manic depressives in the kitchen too, staring at Goldilocks with slight contempt.
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 again is . . . welcome to Texas: where “inconsistent climate conditions” is our three-part middle name!
2. 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 we can control or prevent our foundations from settling, right? Well yes, maybe you could . . . but maybe not really.
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.
Thoughts on 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* This technique 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 here 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.
You are not to blame for your foundation issues . . .
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 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. Yay! This one’s not your fault!
It *might* be your fault (or possibly your parents’ fault) if you are hanging out in your kitchen with the cast of Star Wars®, Goldilocks, and some manic depressives living on Daylight Savings Time though . . . but we will save that issue for your therapist . . .
3. Deciding if Repair is Needed
Based on everything you have read so far, you can’t avoid the dirt or the weather so you can’t really stay away from foundation movement in your home altogether. Some foundation movement and settlement are to be expected. Most importantly, it is not always a major problem. Now you’re thinking, “Well, how can I tell if it’s a major problem or not?”
This is a tough question, but we’ll do our best to answer it. It can’t be listed out in a nice little bulleted list with absolute certainty because it’s difficult to define in simple, quantifiable terms. We know it when we see it (or hear it) though. Here are some things that tip us off one way or another in figuring out if a foundation is failing to perform.
Cases Where Foundation Repair is Not Needed
Settlement happens. If you live in this area, it could happen to you. It does produce some small flaws in your otherwise perfect home.
These are the kinds of things that you might notice as a homeowner because you are in the house every day, but they are not really bugging you. A visitor or guest in your home would not notice them at all, barely notice them without a thought, and wouldn’t pass judgment over your home quality because of them if they did notice.
“I think of normal settlement as more like small hairline cracks in walls or drywall tape joints that ripple or shear just a little. A slight separation at brick frieze that could use just a touch of caulk and paint. A mortar crack that is so small you almost don’t even see it. Window separation you don’t notice until up close.”-Craig Tripp, Anchor Foundation Repair President, Owner, CEO, Foundation Repair Extraordinaire
With these small flaws, there are no measurements involved. Like if the crack is X inches long it falls in the settlement range, if it’s Y inches long then your home needs foundation repair. There’s no “pass/fail” measuring stick you can put on these.
Little things that are not very noticeable and do not affect the functionality of your home fall into the range of “to be expected” and likely do not need to be addressed with foundation repair. You can still open and close your doors, you can caulk the trim, you can only see the mortar crack with a magnifying glass and it’s not really bothering you. All is well.
Cases Where Foundation Repair is Needed
The “normal settlement” line gets crossed when it starts to affect how the home performs. Is it performing the job of keeping you safe, secure, warm, dry, etc.?
But also, is it doing its job to make you feel safe, secure, warm, dry, etc? Notice the word “feel” being used here. Deciding when a foundation needs repair is often a feeling of the homeowner as well.
If your home and foundation are not giving you the *feeling* of safety and security, it’s not performing well. In other words, you still can’t quantify it in numbers or measurements, but it’s still failing to perform its job for you to feel safe, secure, warm, dry, and happy.
Here is a list of some things that might cross the “failing to perform” line and why. These are in no particular order and there are probably more examples that I can’t think of right now so it’s not an exhaustive list.
- Cracks in walls that are really “scary looking” – you don’t feel safe
- Doors that don’t lock, latch, close – you’re not safe or secure
- Brick separation or cracks that let in air, water, and bugs – you’re not warm (or cool, we do live in Texas still), not dry, and not bug-free
- Anything that can’t be covered with a small amount of caulk and paint – you don’t feel secure or happy with your home
“We also cross that line when the owner starts to have reasonable doubt, worry, or unhappiness with their home. These things are more feelings-based vs. an engineering amount of settlement that is acceptable or unacceptable by some measurement.”-Craig Tripp, Anchor Foundation Repair President, Boss Man, Errand Boy, Bill Payer, Foundation Repair Master
Sometimes the Case Differs from Homeowner to Homeowner
Foundations don’t clearly “pass” or “fail” to perform in some cases because there is a spectrum of homeowner tolerance involved in the decision process. Sometimes the case is not clear because it is based somewhat on the homeowner’s opinion and how they feel about the problem.
According to The Foundation Repair Master (nope, not letting this crazy stuff go just yet), the definition of passing vs. failing or settlement vs. failure is fluid.
This “not so clear” line between what is deemed normal settlement and foundation performance failure is not going to be the same for every home and homeowner. Everyone’s tolerance to physical flaws, performance flaws, and general feelings about their home will be different.
Maybe some deeply philosophical sayings will help here:
One man’s crack in the wall that must be fixed is another man’s “meh.”
One woman’s not locking door is another woman’s “oh well, we live in the country.”
One child’s arachnophobia is another child’s “yay, bugs are my friends and I want to be an entomologist when I grow up.”
*Follow me for more terrible sayings that will never make it into the common American vernacular.*
Feelings Matter in Foundation Repair, but so do Professional Opinions
If the last feeling-filled section of this article didn’t make it clear, YOUR feelings are a part of choosing foundation repair for your home or not. Even after reading this compelling narrative filled with masterful wisdom, some homeowners might not feel solid enough with their thoughts and still need or want a professional opinion.
Guess what? We are full of professional opinions and have 35+ years of expertise in assessing foundation problems as well as foundation repair in the Brazos Valley. It would be kinda weird to call this business Anchor Foundation Repair otherwise.
We are absolutely ready to help you sort out your feelings on your foundation whenever you are. But not so fast . . . the master thinks you need more teachings before you are truly ready.
Just to confirm that what you are seeing around your home are foundation-related issues, learn to sense the true and false signs of foundation problems with confidence.
P.S. Make an appointment with a therapist to talk about *everything that happened* in this article too. Or maybe I should make that appointment for myself . . .