Structural Inspection and Repair: Water, Wood, and Steel

April 11, 2022 | By: Owen Kavanagh

Structural inspection and repair are extremely important topics. Building materials require regular inspection, maintenance, and repair, regardless of whether they are wood, steel, masonry, or reinforced concrete. Structures require regular supervision, here are a few things to look out for.

Water Damage

Water is one of the most common causes for building damage. “The number 1 enemy is water.” explained Scott Weiland, PE, SE, with Innovative Engineering Inc.  “With regards to degradation, it can cause mold and indoor air quality issues, as well as corrosion, rot, and it can provide a breeding ground for subterranean termites.” Wood, steel, masonry, and concrete; water wastes anything away given enough time.

Working around and through water damage is a constant and ever-present concern for buildings and structural engineers. “Water intrusion makes up 40 percent of all building related problems, 70 percent of all construction litigation and most structural issues.” Weiland added. All building materials are affected by water, and these effects must be regularly addressed and planned for.

“90 percent of water intrusion problems come from 1 percent of the building exterior,” Weiland explained. “And that’s usually terminations and transitions.” These small portions of buildings can cascade into large and expensive problems. Getting your building waterproofed, and waterproofed correctly, can go a long way to protect against water damage and intrusion. “99 percent of water intrusion problems are attributable to human error,” added Weiland.  Even in the most hydrophobic of buildings, spotting water and other damage early is paramount in addressing these issues in a timely fashion. Regular inspections help with this, and structural engineers can aid enormously in the repairs.

Wooden Structures

Water is especially damaging to wood. Rot and degradation can cause serious and dangerous changes to wooden structures and supports. Moisture content over 20 percent can lead to rot, and a moisture content above 35 percent requires replacement, as the wood is too degraded to save. Water content can be measured using probes, coring, and moisture meters. Water degrades wood severely, and even a little bit of moisture can encourage termites to take up residence and devour the wood.

Termites have been found in every state besides Alaska, and they are a horrific pest that can annihilate wooden structures and supports. These insects can penetrate an opening as small as 1/32” and are a constant concern. Even the seasons cannot kill termites, they nest below the frostline and await their next opportunity to infest your building. Once infested, termite eaten wood must be replaced due to structural concerns and the enormous damage they cause.

The first step to a wooden beam repair is reinforcing the area the wood supports. Next, any rotten wood must be fully removed until strong, unaffected wood is reached. Mic together a wood filler solution and apply it to the affected area. Let the filler harden, then file and sand it to match the surrounding wood. Finish it with some primer and paint, and have the work inspected by a third party.

Steel Fatigue and Deterioration

Steel is another major building block in buildings and construction. Fatigue and water are the most prevalent sources of steel damage. Fatigue is the wear and tear the steel goes through as loads shift around on it. Think of a paperclip, if you keep bending it one way and the other, it will eventually break. Steel functions similarly, and fatigue can lead to weakness and breaks in the structure. Fatigued steel needs to be reinforced or replaced, especially if the steel is load bearing and important to the structural integrity of the building.

Water is a major concern with steel. Water corrodes steel with rust, and unaddressed rust can lead to section loss and structural deterioration. Surface rust above 10 percent can lead to section loss, and should be fixed as soon as possible. Rust expands 5 to 6 times its volume and can appear much worse than it is because of this.

Some rust can simply be brushed off, at which point a new rust and corrosion resistant coating will need to be added. Rusted steel, may require patching or replacements, depending on the amount of material lost. One of the ways to repair the cracks caused by fatigue can be repaired with plates, brackets, and stiffeners. These can be attached via bolts to either side, then cleaned and tensioned. This is followed by a primer coat of paint to keep rust out. Remember to document the location of the fix for future inspections and repairs.

This article is a brief overview of a few building materials and the possible degradation they face. Join me next week as I discuss masonry, concrete, and executing a repair. When performing building inspections or repairs, always consult with a licensed engineer. For more information, check out the Structural Inspection and Repair Guide, available for free under Books / Blogs on CRE Insight Journal.

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