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Fixing damp problems in your home

Date posted: 7 November 2013

On average it rains one in three days in the UK, so it's not surprising to find that damp problems are very widespread in our homes. Damp can encourage mould to appear on walls and furniture, and can cause window frames to rot. It also makes our homes feel cold and uncomfortable, and the NHS says it may be a trigger for asthma.

The sooner problems are spotted and dealt with the better, preventing a small issue from growing into a major damp problem -- which can affect the health and comfort of everyone living in the household. So, what are the signs of damp that you should be looking out for?

Damp problems are often visible on walls, floors, windows, doors and around pipe work or the roof. Damp spotted inside the house can often be linked to a problem on the exterior, such as a rotting window frame or a leaking gutter. Unwanted moisture in the structure of a home is either down to water coming in from outside, or condensation generated from within.

Most damp problems in buildings are caused by one of three things: condensation, rising damp, or penetrating damp.

Condensation is the most common cause of dampness in our homes. Normal day-to-day activities, such as breathing, drying clothes and cooking, create humidity in the air which, once it comes into contact with cold surfaces such as external walls and windows, condenses and leaves behind water.

Obvious signs of condensation include:

  • Water running down windows and walls. This causes deterioration in the property's décor if left unchecked, staining curtains, encouraging mould growth, and decaying window frames.
  • Mould growth on the surface of walls (wallpaper or paint) in poorly ventilated rooms.

Less visible condensation can also occur under suspended floors, potentially causing fungal decay in floor timbers. In addition, a different and rarer form of condensation known as interstitial condensation can occur within the structure of the building rather than on the surfaces of the walls, and can easily be mistaken for rising or penetrating damp.

Condensation can be exacerbated if the property is only heated intermittently, or is poorly ventilated. You can help to reduce condensation problems by adjusting some of your daily activities:

  • When you are cooking, cover boiling pans and use a cooker hood and extractor fan.
  • When you wash clothes, try to dry them outside rather than indoors. Alternatively, put your drying clothes in the bathroom with the door closed and a window open, or extractor fan on. If you use a tumble dryer, make sure the vent is going outdoors (unless it is a self-condensing model).
  • Ventilate rooms where a lot of moisture is created, such as bathrooms and kitchens. You could open the window a fraction or keep a trickle ventilator open. Close bathroom and kitchen doors when you are using these rooms to prevent moisture spreading to other areas of the house.
  • Leave space between furniture and walls to enable the air to circulate, and wherever possible put furniture against internal rather than external walls.
  • Consider installing double glazing if you don't already have it -- but make sure it is fitted with trickle ventilators.

Rising damp

Rising damp refers to water from the ground that enters the home by capillary action. Signs of rising damp include:

  • Staining, discolouration or crumbling or salt-stained plaster on the walls.
  • Peeling on the surface of the walls (either paint or wallpaper).
  • Rotting skirting boards and timber floors.

The problem can be identified or confirmed by a trained surveyor, and can be solved by installing a chemical damp proof course. This is a horizontal barrier in the walls designed to resist moisture rising through the structure by capillary action. To install a damp proof course yourself you can hire a damp injection pump from your local tool hire centre. Once moisture is located this machine will inject an effective chemical barrier below the rising damp and allow repairs to be made to plaster work.

Penetrating damp

Penetrating damp is caused by water coming into a building and moving through the walls horizontally, or from a higher to a lower level. Signs include:

  • Damp patches on walls, ceilings or floors, which spread or darken after heavy rain.
  • Damage to wallpaper, plaster, and exposed timber, and mould growth – if the problem is left long enough.

Usually caused by defects in the external fabric of the home, and more common in older buildings with solid walls, penetrating damp can be tricky to solve, usually demanding professional expertise. Broken guttering and down pipes, defective flashings, problems with the pointing, and cracked rendering are just some of the issues that can lead to damp penetration.

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