Foundation Care


Differential movement of building foundations is a common problem in this area, because of the highly expansive clay soil and changing weather conditions, and costs owners thousands of dollars a year in repair bills. As the building ages, it is probable the foundation will continue to experience differential movement, regardless of how well it was constructed or its present condition. This differential movement does not stop as buildings become older; older structures with a history of minimal differential movement have been known to develop foundation problems in a very short time due to changing conditions at the perimeter of the building foundation.


The primary reason for foundation problems is the highly expansive nature of the clay soil on which the building rests. The clay expands or contracts as its moisture content changes with the weather. Depending on the area, the amount of contraction or shrinkage ranges from minimal to upwards of 65% of the total wet volume. The average amount of shrinkage that can be expected in this region is approximately 35%, with wide variation depending on the location. For example, a sample of water-saturated clay will shrink up to an average of 35% when dried completely. This shrinkage accounts for the large cracks that form in the soil after an extended dry period. The more expansive the clay, the larger the cracks.


Because of the highly expansive nature of the soil, trees and other large plants can significantly contribute to differential settlement of a foundation. The roots of trees and large plants consume the moisture from the soil, causing the soil to shrink much faster than other soil areas exposed to the weather. The soil where the moisture is lost more rapidly will sink lower than the surrounding soil, causing evidences and consequences of differential settlement in building structures. Research studies indicate that a tree should be at least as far away from a building as the mature height of the tree to minimize the effect of drying caused by the tree.


Wet spots caused by dripping faucets, leaking drains, air conditioning condensate drains, leaking water pipes, etc., can cause differential settlement at the location where the soil has been kept wet. The foundation may sink into the soil at a wet area while the soil dries and shrinks at other locations because the drying soil allows the foundation to move downward and overload the wet area.


Water standing or running alongside a foundation after rains may cause differential settlement of a foundation. If soil grading is such that water runs alongside a foundation during rains, the water will run under the edge of the foundation and carry away soil supporting the foundation. The effect is much more pronounced if the soil was very dry prior to the beginning of the rain. In addition, if water is allowed to stand alongside a foundation, it will flow below the foundation and dissolve the clay supporting the foundation, carrying it into the cracks that develop in the yard outside the foundation area during extended dry periods. This problem is more severe if the soil in the general area has been very dry, but is less severe if the soil has been maintained moist.


An owner can significantly reduce the rate of differential settlement by observing the following recommendations:

  1. Try to maintain a constant moisture content in the soil around the foundation. Water the soil evenly and around the entire foundation during extended dry periods. This should prevent a gap from opening between the soil and foundation edge. However, if a gap does appear, water frequently (at least daily) around the entire foundation during extended dry periods (6 to 7 days in the summer). Do not apply water directly into the gap. Instead, water 1 to 2 feet away from the foundation edge. Some homeowners choose to install a fully automated foundation watering system to eliminate the need to remember to water. It is best to add water about three times per day to insure that the applied water has time to soak into the soil.
  2. Cut and cap the roots of any large trees growing closer to the foundation than the mature height of the trees. The roots from a large tree or several medium size trees can consume more water from the soil than can be added with a watering system. This will limit the consumption of water from the soil below the foundation and may prevent excessive differential settlement and cracks in the structure. It is recommended that a professional tree expert be used to prevent damage to the trees When a tree grows too close to a building to allow cutting and capping of the roots, it is advisable to remove the tree or make special provision for watering the soil below the foundation.
  3. Properly grade the soil by filling in low spots and leveling off high spots adjacent to the foundation so that the surface of the soil slopes gradually away from the building. A recommended slope is 1 inch per foot for a distance of 3 to 4 feet from the foundation.
  4. Control roof water runoff and help prevent soil erosion by using a gutter and downspout system. This is especially important if a building has no eaves which overhang the walls or if the eaves are less than 1 foot wide.
  5. Water trees and shrubs growing near a building during extended dry periods as they cause shrinking of the soil due to their high water consumption. Keep in mind that moderate to large trees consume 50 to 75 gallons of water from the soil every day.

Remember: the intent of foundation maintenance is to maintain a constant moisture content in the soil around and below the entire foundation and to prevent soil erosion that can result from water flowing off the roof or other large flat surfaces near the building.

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