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Bowed Basement Walls (Silver Spring)

Located just north of the District of Columbia and just east of Bethesda, Silver Spring is very possibly the oldest Washington suburb and saw its first major boom in the 1920s, back when the first Ford Model T cars made it possible for the growing middle class to commute to the city rather than live in a cramped apartment or a tenement. Silver Spring’s population would also explode during the Post War housing boom, but the community still has a fair number of larger, older houses on full-acre lots.

Living in these old homes can feel like living in a living piece of history, but there are some problems that come with old houses, problems that are also starting to affect houses built in the 1940s and later. Specifically, their foundations are starting to show their age, which usually happens once they reach the half-century milestone. You can see this age in the cracks, crumbling corners, and bowed basement walls in Silver Spring.

The Causes

Bowed basement walls in Silver Spring and other equally old communities are typically the result of a few different pressures in the surrounding soil. The quickest explanation is that soil tends to move around, if only at extremely slow speeds.

On the side of a hill, dirt and mud will very slowly move downwards, although it can move very quickly if there’s no grass or tree roots to anchor soil in place. This can place some lateral earth pressure on the basement wall facing towards the top of the hill, and if the pressure gets bad enough it can force the wall to lean or buckle.

Even soil that isn’t in any hurry can put pressure on basement walls. Because water expands and contracts with the temperature, wet soil will do the same thing as the weather changes, creating waves of pressure. Some soils, particularly clays, will also expand and contract depending on how much water they’ve absorbed. Construction companies surround basement walls with gravel and sand backfill in order to let water pass through and also absorb this pressure, but not every old house has this and it can only help so far.

The Effects

When you see bowed basement walls in Silver Spring, you’ll also see other things upstairs as the house starts to settle towards one side. As doorframes and window frames tilt, the doors and windows become harder to open and close. Wallpaper will start to collect thin folds at perpendicular angles, and the drywall panels behind them will begin to crack.

As for the basement walls themselves, they will begin to crack all along their length, especially cement block walls that are generally more common during housing booms thanks to their low cost and easy installation. In this case, the cost of convenience comes from the seams between the blocks, seams that aren’t there in walls made from solid concrete. And while poured concrete walls can also fail eventually, they usually take much longer to do so.

The Cures

Fortunately, if you notice bowed basement walls in Silver Spring early enough, you probably won’t have to tear the wall out and completely rebuild it. Instead, you can choose from one of several solutions.

• Steel beams can bear the weight better than concrete, but they can take up a lot of space and they might not hold as well as you like if you anchor them to the wooden floor above.
• Carbon fiber strips are surprisingly tough in the face of lateral earth pressure, and they’re flexible enough to conform to the bulging wall while still being thin enough to conceal behind drywall.
• Foundation anchors connect steel plates on the walls to anchors buried deep underground, either in a stable layer of soil or attached to bedrock. For bowed basement walls in Silver Spring and elsewhere, this is the most permanent solution short of rebuilding the wall itself.

If you’re worried about bowed basement walls, and if you live in Maryland or one of its neighboring states, then the contractor to call is AA Action Waterproofing. We’ve been in business for three decades, and in all that time we’ve never seen a basement, crawlspace, or foundation that was beyond our ability to fix. And, thanks to our free initial appraisal, you won’t have to worry about paying a cent until after you know what you’ll be paying for. But be sure to contact us right away, because the longer you wait, the worse your problem will become.