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Drought weakens St. Louis basements

Drought weakens St. Louis basements


ST. LOUIS • The severe drought is cracking walls throughout the metro area, leaving homeowners to face thousands of dollars in repair bills that insurance won't cover.

Basement repair firms in the St. Louis region say they are swamped with calls from customers whose foundations are shifting and cracking. Waiting times for repairs are running two months and more.

The problem lies in the clay-rich soil under much of St. Louis. The scorching, rainless summer drained moisture from the soil for several feet underground. The drying clay shrinks, undermining support beneath basements.

Trouble sometimes arrives with a bang. “People say they thought they heard a shotgun go off. They go outside and see a big crack in the basement,” says Tim Tucker, owner of of Perma Jack of St. Louis, one of several competing basement repair operations.

More often, the problem is silent. People notice cracks creeping up the walls of their living quarters, then notice fissures in the basement and outside walls.

The shifting foundation warped the door frames in Tim Mihu's duplex on Yale Drive in Granite City. “The doors didn't want to open and close. The front door, you couldn't get in and out of,” he said. “I noticed cracks around the window and doors. They were an inch or more wide.”

If the shifting is minor, a homeowner can simply patch cracks and replace broken wallboard, says David Graf, an architect and engineer who teaches at Ranken Technical College.

Bigger shifting may call for “mud jacking,” said Graf. Contractors pump pressurized concrete under the building, lifting it back into place.

Even bigger problems call for installing “piers” around the basement. Contractors drive the piers deep into the ground, sometimes to bedrock. Then they use brackets to attach the piers to the foundation bottom, and jack it back into place.

That's the solution that Helitech Inc. used at Mihu's duplex. “The day they did that, all the doors opened and closed correctly,” said Mihu.

Such repairs are costly. Costs can run $1,000 to $1,100 per pier, and most houses require multiple piers. The average job runs $3,000 to $5,000, says Tucker. But unlucky homeowners with massive basement shifting can see bills of over $30,000.

Basement contractors say homeowners policies generally do not cover basement and wall cracking.

Tucker, of Perma Jack, said the problem is the worst he's seen in 28 years in the business, surpassing the dry years of 1987 and 1988. At Belleville-based Helitech, business is double to triple the normal volume.

The soil is so dry that it cracks open, and shrinks away from the side of the house. The gap acts like a vent, speeding evaporation from the soil at the bottom of the basement. Then the soil below the basement shrinks away and undermines the house.

“If it sank at the same rate all around the house there would be no problem,” says Graf. But it doesn't. Dropping support on one end of the house causes the basement to crack. That sends more cracks creeping up into the walls of the living quarters and into the outside brick.

Vulnerability depends on the soil under the house. Clay tends to shrink more than other soil. That affects homes in areas like Granite City, built on a flood plain.

On the Missouri side of the metro area, the clays become worse the farther you move west, Thompson says.

Mavis Davies watched cracks gradually climbed the walls over her windows and cross the ceiling at her condo at Manchester and Geyer roads in Kirkwood.

“They are huge cracks and it really happened since March and April,” she said. “It got worse and worse.”

Trees near a building are a problem.

“A mature tree uses thousands of gallons of water,” says Dave Thompson, who started out riding a backhoe, but ended up as marketing director for Collinsville-based Woods Basement Systems.

Brick houses suffer more because there is more load on the foundation, says Meyer.

Homeowners can do a little to prevent damage. Use clean topsoil to fill in cracks next to the house, says Thompson.

“You don't want to bring in more clay,” he says.

There are mixed opinions about whether watering around the sides of a house can help. It's too late for that, says Thompson.

But Tim Meyer, territory manager for Helitech Inc. thinks watering helps if the home is on a slab or a crawl space where water can still penetrate below the foundation.

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