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Alan Jobin of Alabama Foundation Specialists Inc. adjusts a power-head drill to place helia piers under the foundation of a Decatur house recently.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Alan Jobin of Alabama Foundation Specialists Inc. adjusts a power-head drill to place helia piers under the foundation of a Decatur house recently.

Drought conditions cause costly damage to homes
Have you checked your house for cracks? Sinking foundations on the rise in Valley

By Catherine Godbey 340-2441

El Nino was the nation's scapegoat for weather events in the late 1990s. For North Alabama residents, the scapegoat title now belongs to the 100-year-drought.

Why are lake levels decreasing? The drought. Why are electric bills increasing? The drought. Why are crops failing? The drought.

Add movement of building foundations and costly repairs to the list.

"The drought is definitely affecting structural foundation movement," said Richard Steed, civil engineer with Professional Inspection Consultants Inc. "I have seen a widespread increase east to west through the whole north section of the Tennessee Valley."

This year, more residents, to their astonishment, are seeing cracks appear in the exteriors and interiors of their homes.

"During this hot weather, people tend to stay inside to escape the heat ... all of a sudden they go outside and are surprised to see a crack," said Junior Perez, site foreman with Alabama Foundation Specialists Inc., a company that specializes in foundation repair.

Lack of moisture

The crack, a visible scar resulting from the foundation movement, links to the lack of moisture in the soil. Due to the drought's severity, the soil, deprived of moisture, contracts, which decreases the foundation's support.

"Soils tend to expand with moisture and contract with a lack of moisture, much like a sponge," said Steed. "As moisture dissipates, shrinkage in the soils occurs."

Cracks in the soil serve as an early indicator of the moisture decreasing. These warning signs, however, don't automatically translate to foundation instability, said Steed.

Direct indicators of damage to the foundation include exterior and interior cracks. Chimneys pull away from houses, cracks occur at window and door frames and separation develops between bricks.

Foundations resting directly on the soil are the most susceptible to the movement, but any building made of any material is at risk.

"Separation is easier to spot on brick homes because we can see the cracks between the bricks," Steed said. "With siding, the first signs of foundation movement appear on the front porch, where cracks will first appear."

Mending the wound requires specialized equipment or a torrential rainfall. If a rainfall occurs, the soil could inflate and minimize the cracks. Rainfall represents a temporary adhesive, and when another drought occurs, the cracks will return, Perez explained.

The permanent solution involves lifting the structure back to a secure height. A combination of brackets and helical piers provide the required support. Brackets, placed under the foundation, serve as the foundation's footing while helical piers, screw-like pipes, are driven into the soil and provide an upward force.

"We drill the piers down on average about 14 feet," Perez said. "That is where we usually reach 2,500 psi (pounds per square inch). That pressure will support the home."

Once installed, the piers reduce the chance of foundation movement recurring but do not entirely eliminate the affects of future movement.

If left untreated, further damage could include broken sewer lines, pipes and water service lines. With the risk of elevated damage, more homeowners are opting to stabilize their homes.

"We used to average 40 piers a week, and now we are putting in 200 piers a week," said Ben Bayless Jr., of Alabama Foundation Specialists. "That tells you the extent of the drought."

Treatment, although necessary to guard against further consequences, strains household budgets. According to Steed, the piers range from $800 to $1,000 each. A typical structure averages 10 piers but the number can span from four to 60, Bayless said.

The cost of each project varies, depending upon the structure's size and damage.

Insurance unlikely

The burden of fixing a foundation lies solely on the homeowner. Homeowners' insurance policies, which primarily cover windstorms, hail, fire and accidental discharge of water, fail to include foundation settling.

"The insurance companies I have worked with, typically foundation movement or damage caused by foundation movement, is not a covered item," Steed said, "but each policy is different."

"I don't know of any insurance policies that cover settling," added David Carden, owner of Carden Insurance Agency. "Settling is excluded from the policies just like sinkholes and earthquakes."

After predicting dry weather for seven months, weather forecasters still do not foresee relief from the drought. The National Weather Service officially classifies North Alabama as experiencing extreme and exceptional drought conditions.

With no relief predicted, the number of faulting foundation cases will rise.

"We will continue to see the foundations moving as long as the drought continues and the water levels decrease," said Perez.

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