07 Mar 2018
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Water Water Everywhere!

There had to be a leak! You know that sound in the pipes – like the water is on in some other part of the house.  Must be a toilet running, usually that’s it. Nope, not it. Maybe one of those rusty hose bibs outside that we can never quite turn off. Not there either, so I go to the meter box in the alley to see if the dials are spinning and turn off the main supply.  At this point we are in Day 3 of a weeklong soaking rain, so the meter box is full of water and I start bailing. Not good, it’s filling faster than my cup can empty!  I try a bigger bailer – where is this water flowing from? Could be anywhere with this saturated ground.  I guess I’ll need to wait until things dry out to find this leak.  

Foolish Delay. Unfortunately, my practiced skills as a procrastinator will not serve me well here. Perhaps my next clue was the miter joint on one corner, now two, of our entry hall baseboard separating. Not a good sign, but it is still raining, and water has collected in our crawl space before during heavy periods. That must be it. I’d like to say that I got smart and called the plumber at this point, but I can figure this out myself! The curse of being a self-described handy man. So the minute the plane took off for my business trip (it might have still been on the tarmac), my wife was on the phone with our remodeler Dennis.  She saw her opportunity and seized it!

Good thing.  Our neighbors had to re-build their entire first floor last year when they sprung a hot water leak while on vacation – mold city.  Now it was our turn.  Mario eventually found the hot water leak under our entry hall, right under those now buckling oak floors.  Sure glad I flew out of town when I did, it was only gonna get worse – much worse.

The Aftermath. So now what? The baseboards have cupped badly.  Good thing we just upgraded our Weinig moulder at the mill – Darwin can quickly run the perfectly matched (sans cupping) replacement for me.  I know, it’s not fair, not everyone owns a custom millwork shop (but you can visit us anytime).  But what about that 1940 old-growth rift-sawn oak flooring that is starting to look like a washboard?  Can’t replace that so easily.

The Nature of Wood. So what is going on with this wood and water thing?  Why is the wood moving so much?  Well, I’ve heard it said often that behavior follows character.  In the case of wood, it is simply reverting to its natural state.  During its life, its primary job was to act like a straw, transporting water and nutrients from the roots up to the leaves.  My leak response delay allowed that Poplar baseboard and Oak flooring to soak up water once again, just like the good old days.  

Uneven Absorption & Drying. Now inhibited by nails, tongue & groove joinery, paints, stains and finishes, this water absorption is quite uneven.  Remember, the back side of that moulding is still raw wood, while the front side has been primed and painted.  The top of that flooring has been stained and finished, while the underside is raw Oak.  Raw wood has open pores and when it absorbs moisture – either bulk water or moisture-laden air it starts to expand or swell.  Unfortunately, only from one side.  And that is how the cupping occurs – one face of the board holds fast while the opposite side grows.

Those Beautiful Floors. I’m writing this awaiting my return flight home and haven’t laid eyes on our floors yet. Hopefully, they won’t look like the waves in my childhood crayon beach scenes.  I just have to remind myself not to over-react – patience may yet win the day (though it sure wasn’t kind getting me into this mess!!). Just as it absorbed from one side, so it must dry from one side, unfortunately from our swamp of a crawlspace.  As it slowly dries, that underside will shrink back to equilibrium and help the floor lay back down.  Could take many weeks, but if I jump the gun to sand down those buckled peaks and re-finish the floors, I may be very disappointed.  It would continue to dry and as it did those sanded peaks may shrink down into valleys – ugh!

So may you gain wisdom from my story of foolish delay.  Wood acts predictably when exposed to excess moisture.  We just need to understand what it has in mind, and prepare and protect accordingly.

Build to Last (and call the plumber!),

Dave Reichert

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