Inside the Envelope: When Damage Goes Beyond the Visible

In the aftermath of a storm or fire, property loss can be devastating to look at. However, what is going on beneath the surface of the structure may be even harder to see—literally.

A building envelope is what separates the inside of the structure from the elements. It includes the roof, walls, windows, doors and foundations. When the envelope is permeated during or after a severe weather event or a fire, water and smoke can travel through the interior of a structure, often going unseen until further damage is done.

Here are some possible causes and telltale signs of hidden damage in various loss situations.

Heavy rain damage
Water seepage from heavy rains and floods can enter through cracks and get trapped within walls and ceilings. Pooled water, without early detection and remediation, can lead to rot and mould. Beyond the obvious health implications, the deterioration of wooden supports, like beams and joists, can impact overall structural integrity. This type of damage may only be visible when physical signs, such as water stains and peeling paint, appear on interior finishes.

Also, water can cause electrical issues. When water—or just humidity—makes its way into a property’s wiring between the sheathing and the wire itself, it can trigger corrosion. While the wire may look like it is not affected, there is no guarantee it has not been compromised. Then, years down the road, it can cause a short. In severe cases of water damage, all wiring, breakers in the electrical panel, outlets, and sockets may need to be replaced.

How can you detect the presence of water to mitigate the damage? A professional can use an infrared camera or moisture meters to trace the water in walls to expose any pools. If an area remains wet after a week, drywall should be removed to visibly inspect for signs of mould, which can take three to four days to start growing.

Fire damage
Fire can cause significant and highly visible damage. And, where there is fire, there is smoke—yet another cause of hidden problems. Water used to put out a fire can carry smoke residue down inside walls and affect a structure’s electrical work. Just as with water and humidity, the smoke residue can find its way into and corrode electrical contacts. If there has been a significant amount of smoke, all the wiring needs to be replaced to avoid future unwelcome surprises.

One sign to look for is smoke flares. During a recent fire at a 5,000 square home, smoke went into the basement, got pressurized, and came back up through walls. The SPECS appraiser noticed smoke flares around the holes of the electrical sockets. Even at the side of house—far removed from where the fire occurred—he could see flares emanating from floor vents, as well as from the floor and wall junctures. This was a clear indication that smoke had penetrated the interior walls.

Another non-visible problem from smoke residue can be the smell. In one case, a house was cleaned and smoke sealed the property after a fire. The only signal that it was not properly remediated was the lingering smell of smoke. When the smoke has infiltrated a property, SPECS advises contractors to go over and above when cleaning and deodorizing.

The water used to douse the flames can be another culprit behind hidden damage. Just as with heavy rain, water sprayed on walls and roofs can permeate the envelope, leading to the same problems caused by rain or a flood. When an exceptionally large quantity of water is used to fight a fire, the property’s foundation can also be compromised. An appraiser may suggest engaging a geotechnical engineer to examine the soil and look for possible foundation damage.

Hail damage
After a hailstorm, damage to the roof is especially hard to see. At first glance, it may look like shingles are intact. Some may appear dark or even wet, but the real issues arise when the force of hail makes small punctures to a shingle’s underside. To spot these punctures, shingles need to be examined closely and even lifted. In certain cases, thorough on-roof inspections are required by some provincial Occupational Health and Safety legislation.

The faster the inspection can be done, the better. When hail damage is not properly identified, and quickly remediated by an experienced professional, further severe weather events, like heavy rains, can cause water to permeate the envelope. Leaks and cracks can occur, and the damage may spread to interior finishes.

With hidden damage, knowing what signs to look for requires a trained eye that can see beyond the superficial. After all, the goal of a comprehensive inspection isn’t to make problems appear worse than they are. It is to ensure even worse problems don’t appear at a later date.

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