By Bill Mitchell
Originally written June 23, 2017
It was an unusually humid, warm, and very wet Spring in North Carolina. Now, officially two days into the Summer season, there’s very little sign of things letting up. It has rained in the Charlotte area every day for the last 10, and there have already been 3 “named” tropical storms. So, we’re off and running.
Make no mistake, all this wet weather makes for a potentially problematic environment for the traditionally vented crawlspace under your home.
The water table is at capacity in most areas. The ground is full- with so much precipitation, it’s literally holding all the water it can. This includes the ground beneath a home. As the soil releases this moisture away (in the form of evaporation), that moisture releasing into a crawlspace has nowhere to go. Damp air becomes trapped against the structural members of the dwelling and compressed into the crawlspace with no way of ventilating itself, raising humidity and causing wood moisture values to elevate. Once the moisture content of the wood gets to 20%, mold will form quite rapidly.
Compounding this problem is the presence of colder air in the crawlspace. A crawlspace will typically be a constant 65-75 degrees in summer. We all know that our outside temperatures in summer are much higher than this, and humidity values are consistently through the roof as well. Albeit under the roof, the crawlspace and it’s environment are still under constant attack from the elements. It’s a fight against nature all of the time.
This diagram illustrates the what happens in the crawlspace when we cool air that is 80% humidity just FIVE DEGREES! And, don’t think of this diagram as theoretical, it’s something that actually happens constantly beneath our homes.
(Another neat tool to see how a crawlspace is affected by humidity and temperature can be found here. You can see just how quickly mold can form in a space when temperature and dew point are not effectively managed.)
“So what do we need to do?”
At a minimum, a home needs a good vapor barrier. What’s a “good” vapor barrier? A .6mil poly plastic (we prefer .10mil) covering 100% of the crawlspace soils is a must. No matter what a salesperson or contractor will try to tell you, the thickness of the plastic is irrelevant in keeping out moisture. A product’s thickness is only important as it speaks to it’s durability. The thicker it is, the tougher it is and, therefore, will hold up better against wear over time.
A “good” vapor barrier should also be staked to the ground to prevent movement as you or workers crawl in and out of the crawlspace on the material. The seams should also overlap 6″-12″, where possible, to prevent unimpeded evaporation of ground moisture through these joints and into the space.
But, often, a “good” vapor barrier is nowhere near enough. And, ideologically, this is where we tend to part ways with some of our competitors in the industry. We don’t like to seal a space. Components of a crawlspace structure are meant to breathe. The house requires it.
We believe in controlled ventilation of the crawlspace using a proven, engineered system like Atmox. This system utilizes low-voltage fans (using far less energy than large dehumidification units that are essential in encapsulation systems) and a computer controller that measures dew points inside and outside of the home to decide when environmental conditions are favorable to import dry, healthy, and helpful air. Vents (and other penetrations or openings), not in use by the Atmox system, are sealed off completely, creating a tight space that keeps the free exchange of damp, humid air from outside the house to a bare minimum. This keeps the crawlspace structural components too dry for mold to form, and keeps the environment healthy and stable consistently over time.
As an added benefit, the import of fresh air into the space reduces or eliminates smells and odors associated with off-gassing encapsulation liners or musty odors from the trapped, stale air beneath the structure. Customers with sensitivities to these smells rave about the benefits of bringing fresh air into the house envelope. No more dirt smells. No more musty smells. No more “plasticky”, cat urine smell from the sealed liner.
So, with a “good” vapor barrier on the ground, a controlled ventilation system beneath the foundation of the home, and sealing up auxiliary vent openings and porous air leaks in the foundation, the Atmox is able to maintain the clean, dry, and stable environment that we need in our crawlspace. This adds value to the home and, best of all, can do so for less than half the cost of an encapsulation in a crawlspace.