Laurel's Adventures in Home Repair
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Foundation Issues

August 31, 2016 - ?

 

When I was working on the rock walls on the east side of the house during Jan - Feb, 2015, there was a section of the wall that looked like it was tilting over.  I attributed this to what I thought was the erosion of rock at the base of the wall.  This erosion being caused by rain water from the roof hitting this area for a few decades.


Area of rock wall that looked like it was falling over. Photo taken Dec 29, 2014.


Rock wall being repaired, Jan 20, 2015


Rock wall being repaired, Jan 20, 2015


Rock wall being repaired, Jan 27, 2015


Rock wall repair completed. Photo taken Feb 5, 2015

During the spring and summer of this year (2016), I saw it for what it actually was.  The wall is being pushed over by the land next door.


Lateral or horizontal cracking on rock wall. Photo taken Aug 10 2016


Cracking also along lower section of rock wall. Photo taken Aug 29 2016

Earlier in the year, I noticed the comings and goings of plumbers and other contractors at this neighbor's home.  I asked the owner of this property what was going on.  In broken English, I managed to discover that they had water that kept coming out of the ground in their crawl space.  They did not know where the water was coming from. 

During a second conversation, a couple months later, I further discovered that they were "told" that the water table was below their property and they needed to install a sump pump, to remove the water.

Now.... the whole water table thing does make sense in a way. El Paso does sit on top of a huge aquifer that straddles the border with Mexico.  However, our property is lower and we have never had any water in our crawl space.  No damp ground.  No water issues. Then again, there could be some rock formations beneath our property that are blocking the water.  I don't know.  I am not going to hire a geologist or a structural engineer to find this all out.

Did the neighbor install the sump pump like they were told?  Hell no!  What happens to all of the water?  It gathers under their house and is now pushing on a section of a retaining rock wall, that is next to a cement slab on my property.........that is now pushing that slab into the side of my house.
I did notice the rock wall cracking.  I figured, no problem.  Easily repaired.  Until, about a month ago. I went to open a gate on this side of the house and it was sticking at the upper latch side. Making it hard to open.  In eighteen years, we have NEVER had a problem with this gate.  In fact, we had to make sure it was closed and latched to keep it from banging open in the wind. 


Bricks pushed in at bottom of gate post


Gate that is now sticking

I looked up and down the gate to figure out what was going on.  At the bottom of the gate the bricks had shifted.  Which means, the post attached to the wall had moved outwards at the bottom making the top of the post lean inwards toward the gate.  Which means the gate was now sticking at the upper edge of the latch side.

I then looked along the brick wall below the kitchen window on this side of the house and noticed some new cracks that had appeared.  It was then that I realized that what was happening to the rock wall was now also pushing on the cement slab next to the house causing the mortar and bricks to form cracks.

My husband questioned this theory.  I reminded him that the bricks on the outside of the house are attached to a wood frame on top of the cinder block foundation.  With enough force, a slab of concrete could easily start pushing in the bricks on the outside of a wood frame. 

There already existed a few places where there were cracks in the mortar. This happens over time.  I had filled these cracks while I was working on the rock walls. No classic foundational stair step cracks in this location.  Just some areas were the mortar had weakened.  So I knew that all of the cracks I now saw, were all new.


New cracks that had appeared under kitchen window across from rock wall. White lines following cracks


A continuation of photo above.  Area under where hose was stored.


Newer crack on side of kitchen window sill that appeared sometime between Aug 23 - Aug 27, 2016



Profile of area


Profile showing damage

I could hire a structural engineer to come and do a study of the foundation.  Yea, right.  Fat chance of finding one of these critters in El Paso to do this for a little old lady's house at a reasonable rate.  In fact, there are very few in El Paso period.... and none of them returned my phone calls.

I went to my computer and searched on the web for others in the world who have had the same type of problem.  More specifically I was looking for information where a wall was pushing a cement slab into the side of a house.  I wanted to know how the problem was solved.  What steps were taken?  Who helped them correct the problem?  Type of contractor?

If there is anyone else out there with this specific problem, it is not on the web.  I could not find anything like this specific problem.  I did find a lot of retaining walls failing.  I did find street or sidewalk creep referring to slab movement.  But not a wall pushing a slab of concrete into the side of a house.

The next step was to figure out some options to keep the side of my house from becoming damaged any further.

Here are some of the options I came up with:

1)  The obvious thing is for the neighbor to install a sump pump and remove the hydrostatic pressure.  Trying to explain the importance of doing this to the next door neighbor is pointless. It would not be understood and if it was, ignored.

2)  Repair the rock wall.  Unless the pressure is removed, this would be pointless.

3)  Tear down the existing rock wall on this section and build a stronger wall (cinder blocks, with rebar, filled with concrete, etc).  OK... this would work, but who is going to pay for this?  The wall is a two party wall.  It lies on the property line.  Each home owner is responsible for their half of the wall.  I would be willing to pay for half of a stronger wall, but they would not.

4)  Build another wall on my property against the side of the failing rock wall.  Since the second wall would be on my property I would have to pay for it.  BUT, in the long run, who's property am I supporting?.......Theirs.  So I would be paying all that money for an additional supporting wall that benefits them.  Forget that!

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All of the options above, dealt with the wall.  What about my cracking mortar and bricks on my house???  This is where I needed to shift my thinking to damage control.  A damaged house foundation would cost a heck of a lot more to repair than a rock wall.

As far as I could tell, the cracked mortar and bricks on the house were being caused by the cement slab being pushed into it.  All of the cracking was directly across the area where the rock wall is bulging. 

A simple solution to fix this, was to release the pressure of the cement slab against the house.  How would I do this?  Cut it.  What if I cut a trench right through the cement slab?  As far as I could tell, this slab of cement is just that.  A slab of cement.  It is not connected to the foundation of the house, it just butts up against it.

New plan:

1)  Cut the cement slab to release the pressure against the house.  Wait a couple of months to see what happens.  If the cracking of the mortar and bricks stops, then I have solved the problem with the cracking.... for a nominal cement cutting fee. Much cheaper than repairing the foundation of the house.  I can easily fill the new cracks that have appeared on the brick wall myself.

2)  As for the rock wall.....wait and see what happens.  If the whole wall falls over, it is obvious who is to blame for this.  The neighbor's property.  They will now have to pay for the entire wall to be replaced.  If I am forced to repair the wall and remove the debris on my property myself, they will be sued.  If they don't pay, I will have their wages garnished.  I know where the couple works.

3)  If the wall stands, but still shows signs of pressure and failure....and the neighbor's are willing to play nice... AND install a sump pump to relieve the water pressure AND agree to a stronger retaining wall, I am willing to pay for 50% of the new wall.

Step One - Cut the Concrete - Remove the Pressure on the House
 
Instead of contacting contractors that did general cement work, I looked specifically for contractors who's specialty is cutting cement. 

The first company I contacted on Aug 29, 2016 in El Paso was JMR Demolition.  I was told that my job was too small for them. 

They referred me to El Paso Concrete Cutters.  I spoke with their estimator David Leyva.  David came by to do the estimate on Aug 30, 2016.  A few hours later he provided me with an estimate of $250 to cut a 14 foot long trench, one foot wide on the cement slab.  Whether this is a good price or not, I don't know.  I just got paid and compared to foundation repair that can run into the thousands of dollars and the peace of mind I would have from doing "something" about the house brick cracking, whether it worked or not.....$250 seemed like a good deal.  The work was scheduled the next day.

I decided on a 12 inch wide trench with some thought.  If I made a trench of only a couple of inches wide and this closed up, I would have to cut again.  At 12" it would take a while for it to close up, if it ever did.  I would also need to cover or fill the trench.  After looking around on the web, there were more 12 inch wide options for materials than other sizes.
Aug 31, 2016 - Antonio and Fernando from El Paso Concrete Cutters showed up around 8:30 am this morning.  Before they had arrived, I went out to the slab to decide where the cut would be.  I decided to make the cut two feet from the rock wall.  I wanted to keep any footer for the rock wall intact.

The first thing they did was chalk their cutting lines.


Antonio (l) and Fernando (r) chalking cut lines

They wanted to use their larger cutter for the cut, but the side gate was too narrow to get the equipment through.  They had to use the hand held cement cutter.


Fernando cutting cement


Cuts finished in the cement

After making the cuts in the concrete, they jack hammered the cement into chunks that were then removed.

The concrete they removed was only four inches thick.  There was no rebar, no screens.  The cement slab was placed straight on top of the soil. 

The soil underneath the cement was bone dry.  No signs of moisture even though El Paso has had a couple weeks of off-and-on rain.

The cement chunks were all removed and the area cleaned up.

When they left I replaced my tree bed edges and swept the area good removing some smaller chunks of concrete they missed.
 


Jack hammer to break up cement


Cement chunks being removed


Trench area cleaned up


Measurement of trench. Photo documented to monitor any possible movement

I also took measurements of the trench.  This way I can monitor if there are any movements of the cement slabs.

Whether cutting the cement or not was a big mistake, time will tell.  The down side of this, is that I now have a trench in the middle of what was a sound piece of concrete.  Not a big problem, the trench can be filled again with concrete.  In the meantime, I will fill or cover it with something.  When I do, I will add a picture to this page. 

When something else happens to the side of the house or the rock wall, I will update this page.
Sep 2, 2016 - I came up with a temporary solution to covering the trench, until I do something more permanent.....and I did not have to buy anything new.

I had a bunch of these little plastic garden fences that were taking up 1/4 of my shelf space in my backyard storage shed.  I did not have any future plans for them.   So I cut them up on my table saw and made a grid cover over the trench.
 


Plastic garden fence

NO, you cannot stand on them.  Yes, they can easily be kicked out of place.

I cut one set a little smaller and placed them on the bed of the trench.  The second layer is laying on top of the cement edges of the trench.

I still need to get a few pavers for the step edge to keep the soil in place.  You can see the light colored soil that ran out during some recent rains in the lower right corner of the picture to the right.


Two layers of plastic fencing


Temporary trench cover

 
To be continued.....if....when....
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