Repairing Termite and Water Damage

T.M. writes : I bought an older home described as “move-in-ready”. It was built in the early 1920’s with green lumberyard wood over a crawlspace, and heated with a coal stove. A poured  Michigan basement was added after the fact.  A room with a bath and bedroom was added later with a dirt crawlspace floor. The addition had no insulation and no venting. The soil around the house is mostly clay and the basement leaks.

After buying the house, I discovered that termites had eaten much of the tongue-and-groove wood used as sheathing  for the house walls and roof.  The hardwood framing structure is hardwood  has sustained damage, but not as much.

At this point, I have spent so much money on rewiring,  a new septic system,  heating and air, that I can’t walk away now. Around here, it seems that if you own a hammer you are a construction expert.  I have asked contractors about the gutters. They are too close to the roof and the water pours over the top. There is no roof overhang – it stops at the edge of the house. No ventilation has lead to moisture problems, air quality problems, and mold.  One source of water is the leaky basement. I paid a pretty penny to have some guy paint the foundation walls with tar, but the leaks continue.

I am running out of money and I need to know who to turn to for some real, honest advice. Everyone has an opinion and none are the same. How do I insulate walls that are covered by three layers of paneling?  I have graded the ground away from the foundation, but it was already cracked and the various “fixes” didn’t fix it. The foundation walls bow in a bit in places. I need to insulate the house walls but don’t know what to use. Can you offer any advice?  I feel that I have been mislead  repeatedly by local tradespeople and am I’m tired of it. Thank you very much.

Steve Bliss of BuildingAdvisor.com responds:  Sorry to hear about your situation. To be facing such a wide range of problems may seem overwhelming. However, if you approach the problems in a logical manner, you should be able to get your house back in order.

Your two most pressing problems are moisture and termites, which are related as termites and other wood-destroying insects such as carpenter ants are attracted to wet, rotting wood.

It is was me, I’d begin with the termite infestation. No sense repairing a home that is going to eaten by termites. A licensed pest control operator should be able to tell you whether you have a current infestation and what should be done to eliminate and control the problem. Unless you are averse to using termiticide chemicals around and below your house, that is the easiest and most cost-effective approach. Keeping brush and soil away from foundation is important as are regular inspections of the foundation for termite tunnels leading from the ground into the home. In some cases, the termites can enter where you cannot see them — for example, under porches or exterior stairs, or in shallow crawl spaces. If you are averse to using strong chemicals, then you might want to explore the more expensive baiting systems now used.

If the termite damage is extensive, you may need to repair and/or replace some structural lumber  such as sills (the first piece of wood on top of the foundation), beams, etc. If you cannot make this assessment yourself, you’ll need a competent, licensed pest control operator, building contractor, or structural engineer to take a look at the problem. They can determine the degree of wood damage by visual inspection and by poking the wood surface with an awl and/or drilling into the wood.

At the same time, you should start to address the moisture issue as this affects all the other problems you cited as well as the insect infestation. Excessive moisture in a house can lead to wood decay, mold, and air quality problems.

First, you need to figure out where the liquid water and water vapor are entering the house. It sounds like water is spilling out of gutters, running down your basement walls, and entering through cracks in the foundation (or at the footing). You are at a disadvantage with no roof overhangs, but that’s even more of a reason to get your gutter system working properly. Ideally the gutters will drain to downspouts that lead the water away from the foundation. Horizontal extensions of the downspouts at the bottom sometimes help.  Adding roof overhangs would be expensive, but something you may want to considered when it’s time to reroof.

It sounds like you have already graded the soil around the house away from the foundation, which is also important. Well placed splash blocks can also help. In some cases, where proper grading is not an option, surface or subsurface drains away from the house are required.

While you could excavate and waterproof the foundation, and add foundation drains, this is very costly and usually not required as long as you direct the surface runoff away from the house. The black “tar” that was painted onto your basement walls was probably “dampproofing” not “waterproofing.” It will slow the movement of water vapor, but not stop liquid water from entering through cracks. While there are many good exterior waterproofing systems, I would steer clear of systems that claim to waterproof your foundation on the interior – I’ve never seen one work well.

If you have a subsurface water problem, that is water coming up through the basement floor due to a high water table in the rainy season, then a sump pump in your basement is the most cost-effective approach.

Also make sure you cover all dirt floor areas in crawlspaces or basement areas with heavy (4 to 6 mil) polyethylene film as evaporation of soil moisture is a common source of household moisture that is cheap and easy to fix. For the best performance, run the poly up the walls a couple of feet and seal it to the walls with non-hardening acoustical sealant or a sealant especially designed to stick to polyethylene. If this is an area where you or others need to walk for maintenance reasons, you can cover the area with a couple of inches of gravel or lay down some wide planks for walkways. With a well-sealed floor, it is usually unnecessary to ventilate a crawlspace (unless required by code). A further advantage of a well-sealed, unvented crawlspace is that you can insulate the crawlspace walls, making for warmer floors as well as energy savings.

Also, make sure any gas appliances (furnace, water heater etc.) are properly vented as backdrafting will cause both moisture and air quality problems — potentially including deadly carbon monoxide. Other possible sources of excess moisture are unvented or poorly vented kitchens, bathrooms, and clothes dryers, firewood drying in the basement, or an abundance of house plants.

Ideally, you should reduce interior moisture levels in the heating season to about 40% relative humidity or lower. If you have condensation running down your windows in the winter, then the indoor humidity is too high. You may need to hire a moisture/energy expert to locate additional moisture sources.

Once you’ve solved your termite and moisture problems, you can address your concerns about insulation, air sealing, ventilation, and air quality.

As for what type of insulation to use, there are a number of options. However, the least expensive and one of the best is blown-in cellulose for both walls and ceilings — although you need to make sure that your ceiling structure is strong enough to support the weight (fiberglass is lighter weight). The chemical used to make the cellulose fire-proof (borate)  also provides some protection against termites and carpenter ants. Make sure you use a cellulose product that is 100% borate treated rather than a cheaper chemical combination.

An experienced weatherization contractor can help you identify and seal areas of air leakage, which can be as important as insulation in terms of comfort and energy savings. Many states and municipalities offer free or low cost energy audits that can help you formulate a sensible plan and find approved contractors to do the work.

If you insulate and air-seal, you may also need to add more whole-house ventilation to maintain fresh air in the home. Putting one or more quiet bathroom fans on automatic timers is the least expensive and simplest approach to added ventilation. Make sure you consult with an energy auditor before proceeding to make sure backdrafting of gas appliances, fireplaces, or woodstoves will not be a problem.

You will need to find competent contractors to perform the work as any job can be done well or poorly. It sounds like you’re having trouble finding good, trustworthy contractors in your area. Your best bet is to ask friends and neighbors, get referrals, and check references. Check with your Better Business Bureau for complaints. You might also try Angie’s List or similar websites that have contractor ratings and feedback from customers.

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