Cracking the Drought Code: The Homeowner’s Guide to Foundation Protection during a Drought
All across the country, droughts are taking a serious toll on crops, livestock, plants, and even the foundations of homes. Homeowners are faced with tens of thousands of dollars of damage each year due to foundation repairs, some of which could be prevented. The cost of foundation repairs can reach $100,000 or more, and these costs are not often covered by homeowners’ insurance.
With constantly changing weather conditions and climate patterns, droughts can happen almost anywhere. Compounded by the extremely high temperatures that often accompany drought conditions, special precautions must be taken to preserve the value, comfort, and safety of your home.
How Drought Compromises the Integrity of Your Home
Drought causes many threats to the integrity of your home, which is something that many homeowners don’t realize until they’ve experienced it. Extended periods of dryness cause foundations to shift, crack, and sink when the surrounding soil loses essential moisture.
When rain finally falls again and moisture is retained, the soil expands and lifts the foundation up again...but not always evenly. These are some of the many ways that drought can damage your home:
Dry Soil & Tree Roots
Since your home is not a natural fixture in the environment, it is in constant competition with Mother Nature and the great outdoors. Many properties have expansive tree root systems growing beneath them, which go largely unnoticed until weather conditions provoke and expose them.
During times of drought, your home’s foundation can crack and even sink due to overly dry soil and tree roots that compete for moisture in the soil surrounding your home. When planting new trees, plant them a safe distance away from your foundation, and transplant trees away from the foundation whenever possible.
However, cracking isn’t the only problem that results from this competition for resources. Foundation cracks can lead to many other issues inside your home, such as causing your floors to slope and become uneven.
Cracked Pavement & Asphalt
One of the most common problems that drought causes for homeowners is cracked driveways and sidewalks. When the pavement and asphalt around your home is subjected to extreme weather conditions, the surfaces both inside and outside your home are prone to cracking. Oftentimes, exterior cracks are an indicator of more extensive cracking in the vicinity.
Other Types of Cracking
However, driveways and sidewalks aren’t the only features around your home that frequently crack during a drought. These are some of the other common materials that become fractured when there is a lack of moisture in the air and on the ground:
· Brick work
Windows & Doors
As a homeowner, window and doors must be fully functional to provide convenient access and maximize energy efficiency. However, if you experience a drought, chances are that you may start having issues with your windows and doors sticking. You can replace these features, but will likely have the same problems with new windows and doors if your foundation is broken and uneven.
Because a home’s pipe system depends on the foundation to support it, homeowners also experience broken pipes as a result of drought. Broken pipes lead to all sorts of costly plumbing and heating repairs, which can be a huge inconvenience for many homeowners.
Even if you are experiencing a drought now, rain is bound to fall from the sky in due time. Another unfortunate side effect of drought damage is leaks. Foundation cracks allow water to seep into your home during heavy downpours, causing major damage to your basement and crawl space.
Severity of the Problem
Many homeowners don’t consider drought to be a serious problem in their area and don’t take the necessary precautions to protect their homes accordingly. However, our climate is in a continuous state of flux, and weather patterns can change rapidly and without warning. Drought is possible in nearly any region, so it’s a good idea to understand its risks to your home well in advance. Drought-prone areas, like Texas, Arizona, and California aren’t just affected by increased prices in fuel and groceries, but also costly repairs if homeowners don’t keep up with regular maintenance and care.
Drought problems are often more severe in areas with clay soil because it is more likely to shift when dry. Brick homes are also known to experience more foundation problems during drought because bricks are heavier and put more pressure on the soil than wood and siding. Clay soil is very common in Texas, and Jean-Louis Briaud, professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M in College Station has compared clay soil to a sponge.
“The sponge changes significantly when it’s dry and when it’s wet.” And similar to a sponge, clay soil shrinks and swells with moisture changes, says Briaud, who’s also the president of the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering.
According to the National Association of Realtors, repairing a single foundation crack could cost you $400 to $800, and the process of stabilizing and supporting foundation often costs $1,000 to $3,000. During recent droughts in Texas, contractors regularly charged between $8,000 and $15,000 for foundation damage jobs.
How to Prevent Foundation Damage
Before faced with a drought, take a walk around your house to observe where the soil lies at your foundation. This is the best way to avoid serious foundation problems. A lack of gap between the foundation and soil typically indicates that moisture levels are good. But if you see a gap, your foundation is at risk of cracking and sinking. Dig about six inches down to feel below the surface to assess the dryness. If the soil at that level is completely dry, you need to moisten (but not drench) it around the base of your home.
As a precautionary measure, spray the soil around your house with water to increase moisture and close the gap. One useful and aesthetic way to maintain this moisture is to plant shrubs and flowers around the base of your foundation. Plant roots will hold moisture in the soil and also keep the area shaded, which is incredibly important during drought periods. A consistent, but not overcrowded, row of plants along your foundation can help retain moisture without depleting resources.
Also consider putting a couple inches of mulch down underneath your new plants to help retain the soil moisture and prevent erosion. Always plant new trees far enough away from the house to avoid tree root invasion. And arborist or horticulturist can help you predict the route and extent of tree root growth to determine a safe planting distance from your home.
When Drought Occurs
According to Texas A&M AgriLife, watering your foundation is the most effective way to protect it from damage during a drought. Water Resource Program Specialist Dotty Woodson recommends creating a dedicated irrigation zone around the house and about eight to 18 inches from the foundation.
You can also attach drip irrigation or a soaker hose to an outdoor faucet and set a timer to water the foundation at optimal times of day. It is essential to have a backflow preventer on your outdoor faucet so that water doesn’t back up into the pipes. Homeowners can typically find the following irrigation supplies at local hardware stores and garden centers:
· Soaker hose
· Pressure regulator
· Backflow preventer
· Faucet splitter
· Drip irrigation filter
· Faucet timer
· Tubing adapter
Local governments in drought-affected areas often impose watering restrictions, so it’s your responsibility to adhere to these limits and make your watering sessions as efficient as possible. Make sure that your sprinklers are working properly, or considering watering your foundation by hand with a hose for more direct application.
It’s important to not overwater your foundation though, because an excess of moisture can result in an unwanted edge lift. This occurs when the edge of the foundation’s exterior is raised above the edge of the interior. As a general guideline, watering twice a day for 15 minutes with a soaker hose and timer should do the trick.
Signs that Your Home is Suffering from Foundation Damage
Owning a home is a huge responsibility, so it’s important to personally inspect your home on a regular basis to check for damage and address any issues before they progress beyond repair. If your area has experienced uncommonly dry weather conditions in the past, you very well may have a case of foundation damage on your hands.
These are some of the most common signs that your home is suffering from foundation damage due to a previous or current drought:
· Sloping floors
· Uneven floors
· Cracked driveway and sidewalks
· Cracked bricks
· Cracked drywall
· Cracked tiles
· Cracked stucco
· Cracked basement floor
· Sticking doors and windows
· Cracks in the corners of walls
· Broken pipes
· Shifted chimneys
· Gas meter askew
Keep in mind that drought conditions could have been present even before you moved into your home. So it’s a good idea to check for foundation issues even if your period of ownership has been accompanied by a steady flow of rain.
What to Do if the Damage is Already Done
If the drought damage has already been done, don’t despair. There are viable ways to restore the integrity of your foundation and protect it from future drought conditions.
If you discover cracks in your foundation, fill them with waterproofing, which can be easily found in local hardware stores. However, fixing foundation is rarely a quick fix. After patching up obvious cracks, homeowners may need to install piers underneath their homes to make them less susceptible to shifts and movements in the soil.
And like most household repairs, the longer you wait to call a professional to take a look at your foundation, the more extensive and expensive the repairs will be. So inspect your home often for damage and don’t delay when you see the first signs of cracking.
Homeowners may want to hold off on temporary fixes, like replacing doors and windows, tuck pointing, and drywall repairs, until they determined the larger structural issue affecting their homes. The structure of a home deteriorates over time and if you don’t address these issues early on, you could have to deal with serious issues like collapsing walls, a broken sewer, or a complete replacement of your foundation.
Additional Resources for Drought-Prone Areas
Resources in Austin
The National Weather Service provides helpful drought information to help Austin residents be prepared for whatever the season brings. Here are some helpful links to prepare for drought and handle its damage in Austin:
· National Weather Service Austin/San Antonio Drought Information
· NWS Local Drought Information Statement
· Austin Water Utility
· Austin Online Drought Resources
Resources in Dallas
If you live in the Dallas area, these are some resources you should get familiar with in case a drought strikes in the future. It’s always a good idea to check the city’s drought and water emergency plan to understand potential watering restrictions.
· National Weather Service Dallas/Fort Worth Drought Information
· NWS Local Drought Information Statement
· North Texas Municipal Water District
Resources throughout Texas
Regardless of where you live in Texas, these resources can help you prepare for drought and protect your home:
· List of Texas Public Water Systems Limiting Water Use to Avoid Shortages
· Water Data for Texas
· U.S. Drought Monitor for Texas
· Keep Texas Beautiful Drought Resources
· Texas Department of Agriculture Disaster Resource Information Packet
For Further Reading
To learn more about drought and how it can affect your home and family, check out these helpful links, including drought monitoring information and historical data.
· Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
· Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
· Texas State Historical Commission
· National Weather Service Drought Monitoring
· Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Drought Resources
· Texas Water Resources Institute’s Timeline of Droughts in Texas
· USDA Disaster and Drought Information and News
· Red Cross Drought Preparedness & Water Conservation