While the signs of a damp issue are usually closely related (surfaces damp to the touch, water spots, condensation), there's one that stands out from others – salt efflorescence.
Dry, but damaging and unsightly, salt efflorescence can be as tricky a problem for property owners as it is for building surveyors. With the ability to interfere with a damp meter's measurements as well as be confused with another damp issue, salt efflorescence can be difficult to diagnose accurately.
In this article, we'll take a complete look at salt efflorescence in building inspections, covering:
Salt efflorescence occurs when salts present in building materials of structures or the ground they're in direct contact with (think: basement floors) are drawn to a surface by moisture.
These salts can be naturally occurring, or they may have been added during the construction process. When damp evaporates, it leaves behind crystallized salt deposits on the surface of the material. Commonly found on brick walls and stone masonry, salt efflorescence can also affect other porous building materials:
In the sense of, “is efflorescence harmful to human health?” not really. Touching the substance will not hurt a person.
However, salt efflorescence affects both the aesthetics and structural integrity of buildings. The white powdery streaks created by this process make surfaces appear stained or discolored, detracting from the overall appearance of a building's facade. In addition to its unattractive appearance, salt efflorescence can adversely affect mortar joints and brickwork by weakening them as salts accumulate in these areas over time.
Moreover, if left unchecked, salt efflorescence can corrode steel components and other building materials.
Salt efflorescence can have a significant effect on the accuracy of moisture meters.
When salt efflorescence is present in these materials, it can skew the readings of a pin-type damp meter. As salts accumulate in a material's surface, they attract water molecules from the surrounding environment. Not only does this increase a material’s water retention, but it also makes water molecules present more conductive.
During a reading with a pin-type meter (which measures moisture by measuring the electrical resistance between its probes), the presence of salt makes a material seem more inundated by moisture than it is.
The problem of salt efflorescence affecting moisture meters is compounded by two factors: accumulation and masonry mortar.
First, as more salts accumulate on a material's surface over time, their ability to attract water molecules also increases – resulting in even more inaccurate readings from a damp meter.
Second, the mortar used in masonry construction often contains higher levels of sodium than other building materials – meaning that areas with masonry are particularly prone to high levels of salt efflorescence.
Salt efflorescence and rising damp are two common forms of moisture damage that can occur in buildings. Closely related, they have a near identical presentation on building materials. They're often confused for one another, similar to how rising damp is sometimes mistaken for condensation.
Like salt efflorescence, rising damp occurs when moisture rises up through a wall from the ground below via capillary action. This phenomenon is caused by porous materials such as brickwork or plaster allowing moisture to penetrate into the building fabric. This often leads to visible signs of dampness and deterioration on internal walls – including salts left behind when the moisture evaporates.
Rising damp usually manifests itself as a white discoloration & salt efflorescence near the floor or base of a wall. It can also cause wallpaper to peel, woodwork to decay, and paint to bubble and blister.
The key distinguishing factor between the two is height. Rising damp will never present itself higher than 1 meter from the floor in a space because of vapor pressure.
Given its impact on moisture survey readings, the best way to avoid issues with salt efflorescence during a moisture survey is to accurately identify its location in a space or structure.
A moisture survey should include careful visual inspection of external walls and interior masonry, paying particular attention to any signs of discoloration or other surface damage caused by moisture penetration.
It’s also important to take into account factors such as the age of the building and local environmental conditions that may contribute to the presence of salt efflorescence.
In areas where there is a high concentration of saline in the soil or atmosphere (think coastal communities), or where buildings are located near a body of water, there is an increased risk for salt efflorescence. This should be taken into consideration when performing a survey.
If your pin damp test meter comes in contact with salt efflorescence, it is important to take measures to protect the device and ensure future accurate readings. First and foremost, it is imperative to clean off any salt residue on the device before continuing use. Thoroughly wiping probes with a water-dampened cloth or paper towel is sufficient for cleaning.
Beyond causing inaccurate damp meter readings at the point of contact, efflorescence resin left on a meter can spell other issues. Salt crystals on electrical contacts and components within the device can cause corrosion – damage that's irreversible.
Material Breakdown: Inspecting for Salt Efflorescence
Identifying efflorescence on internal walls is a straightforward process and can easily be incorporated into an initial visual inspection of a space.
A common and potentially damaging issue in buildings, salt efflorescence provides a unique set of challenges for building materials and damp meters – none of which should be overlooked.
With the ability to distort moisture readings and cause damage over time, it is important to identify and understand the signs of salt efflorescence in order to complete accurate surveys.
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