Forecast: Freezing Rain… With a Chance of Brick Damage

Ice storm.

Those two little words can cause a whole lot of panic and problems, as infrastructure succumbs to the weight of freezing rain. You can see the fallen tree branches, burst water mains, and downed power lines.  And, you can feel the bumps when you drive over the potholes created by ice having expanded in the cracks.

However, it’s what you can’t see or feel that should also give you pause. Damage to your residential or commercial property, especially to a brick exterior, may not be immediately obvious. In fact, it can creep up on you.

Most brick products used nowadays have a smooth face and are more resistant to water penetration, thanks to a manufacturing process where the outer surfaces of the brick are hardened through exposure to heat. However, small grooves in the face of older bricks are prone to spalling (breaking into pieces) when water penetrates, freezes and expands—exposing the softer inner portion. This type of damage was widespread during the 1998 ice storm in Quebec, when SPECS was assessing the facades of homes built during and prior to the 1950s.  If spalling is detected early, replacing the affected crumbling bricks in localized areas is an option. In the case of many of the Quebec homes assessed, the end result was replacement of the exterior brick surfaces.

Similarly, water entering, freezing and expanding in the grooves between the bricks can cause the grout to contract and deteriorate. As with the fixes for spalled bricks, there are some less drastic ways to deal with the grout problems if they are discovered early. Repointing—the removal of loose grout between bricks and the insertion of new grout in its place—can remedy deterioration. In more degraded grout situations, helical anchors can be installed to tie surrounding bricks together. Then, new grout is installed over the anchors.

When you don’t deal with such problems right away, they can lead to the structural failure of entire walls and even go beyond the bricks. Interior losses can and will occur if issues are not identified and repaired in a timely manner. Typically, when damage occurs to the exterior building envelope from rapid freezing, the building components are forced to rapidly contract and expand from their original condition. Then, moisture can enter into the interior building envelope, affecting inner finishes and elements. If water is allowed to sit and saturate around problem areas, the components and framing inside the building can develop mould and rot.

This begs the question: what can you do to prevent and mitigate damage? Freezing rain is a natural phenomenon, and even instances less dramatic than an ice storm can take their toll over time. Therefore, regular inspection and maintenance of a property’s exterior, brick walls and roof, as well as interior walls, is necessary: 

  • Ensure there water is properly shed away from your property, by sloping water away from building. Look for areas with pre-existing pooling of water. Investigate why water is being prevented from shedding away from building, and address any issues immediately.
  • Install proper flashings around the property to draw water away from exterior building components. This will ensure water does not saturate, finding its way behind exterior bricks and siding and into the interior building envelope.
  • Maintain gutters and downspouts in good working condition. Clean eavestroughs regularly to prevent any clogging and damage from ice damming. When eaves are clogged and freezing rain, snow and ice thaw too rapidly, the water is able to migrate up the roof slope—past ice and water shield protection barriers—and lead to interior damage.
  • Problem areas can be identified through regular inspection, as water staining will become visible if an issue is beginning to develop.  
  • Inspect for any cracking in interior drywall from the extra weight of ice on the roof.
  • If your brickwork needs repair, make sure any new bricks used are rated for your environment. And, if you do notice an issue with grout and need to repoint, ensure that the outside temperature is adequate for grout water reaction, as cold water affects the strength gains of the grout within brick units.

The takeaway: don’t wait for problems to come out of the cracks. Preventing and knowing the signs of freezing rain damage—as well as addressing any problems in short order—is the key to limiting the repair scope before the losses become larger and more costly.

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