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Renovation & Design

Dry soil can be difficult in winter months

Question: I saw an old article from the Free Press, dated October 2011, that you wrote about dry soil and I am trying to follow up on that.

I found your article very interesting and useful, but thought I would reach out, as the article was for late summer. What would your recommendation be for now? Should homeowners put top soil or planting soil against the foundation to stop water from getting into the opening between the ground and foundation? Should we leave the gap to allow for moisture to get into the ground around the foundation? Are there other issues that leaving the gap open may cause, like foundation cracking?

We don’t have any cracks in the foundation we are aware of, but want to be proactive in protecting the foundation.

Thanks in advance,

—Scott Nichols

Answer: Doing anything to combat dry soil during the winter may be a waste of time, but planning ahead can provide some relief for the future. Getting ready for the upcoming spring and summer always is warranted, even in the dead of a long Canadian winter.

I assume that my previous article was regarding dry soil and its effects on a home’s foundation. This is a frequent inquiry from readers, especially when they notice a gap between the soil outside the foundation and the concrete wall. This can occur almost any time in the late summer and early fall, but is most prevalent in years with lower-than-average precipitation. The advice for that time of year is not to try and fill in the gap, but to water the soil in that area on a regular basis, until the moisture content is replenished and it swells back up to fill in the gap. Unfortunately, the time frame for that option is well past, as the ground is now frozen solid and the garden hose has been drained and stored to prevent freezing.

Because the soil is frozen, particularly the first metre or more below the surface, there is no practical way of increasing the moisture content in the winter months.

There may be a significant amount of frozen water suspended in the soil already, but that will depend largely on the autumn weather conditions.

If there was a fairly wet fall, with an early freeze-up, then decent soil moisture is likely. If there was minimal rainfall from September to November, then dryer-than-normal soil can be expected. I am assuming that is the case, as you have described a visible gap around your foundation.

The one thing you must avoid at this time of year, and most other seasons as well, is attempting to fill up any gap that develops around your house.

If you try to fill it with soil in the winter, you may be left with nothing more than a muddy mess when the snow melts.

If you try to fill it with snow, that may melt in warmer weather and refreeze when the weather gets nastier.

That can cause a significant amount of ice build-up in the gap, which could lead to undesirable consequences.

Pouring any liquid water into this space will have the same concern, with even a higher likelihood of issues. The soil will not be able to absorb the liquid due to its frozen state and the moisture may work its way into any small cracks or gaps in the concrete, creating ideal conditions for further deterioration.

So, is there anything that can be done to lessen the effects of the shrunken soil in this area come spring?

Planning to rehydrate the soil as soon as possible once the weather warms is the best approach. This could even begin when the snow starts to melt, before the ground has fully thawed. If your yard is like mine, there will be areas where the grass will be bare and other spots where a metre of snow still remains, once the big thaw begins.

If the soil or grass is exposed next to the foundation, shovel the snow from the high areas onto the bare spots. Try not to pile it up directly against the foundation, for the reasons already addressed, but place it on the dryer soil or grass in the adjacent areas. This will not only prevent pooling in lower areas of your yard, it will help saturate the areas most vulnerable to shrinkage.

Once the snow is completely gone, and the grass begins to turn green, watering regularly around the foundation is the key. If the grass or low vegetation in those areas is deteriorated, placing a thin layer of topsoil, followed by grass seed, should help retain some moisture. It will also help prompt you to water if you are trying to grow new grass. Once the frost leaves the soil entirely, usually in early May, you should see the gap between the foundation and surrounding area disappear. Regular watering throughout the rest of the growing season will help maintain a decent soil moisture content, preventing the same issue from happening next autumn. If there is a wet spring or summer, little additional hosing may be required, but dry weather will only compound the effects of this past year’s drought.

Anything other than spreading existing snow on bare areas near the foundation may be useless, or even detrimental, to replenish soil moisture during the winter.

Planning ahead before the spring thaw, for regular soil replenishment and watering once the warm weather arrives, will be the most prudent thing to do at this time of year.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past-president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.

trainedeye@iname.com

 

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