If you have noticed spreading formations of white, chalky powder across your basement walls and flooring, it is very likely that there are issues within your home that are causing water to seep into your basement, leaving behind efflorescence. Many people discount efflorescence as a minor cosmetic issue, but we urge you not to do the same. This is more of a warning sign than you might think. While efflorescence is not toxic in and of itself, it is not harmless.
However, efflorescence is very much a red flag for problems that could be looming just over the proverbial horizon. Understanding how efflorescence forms can help you to understand just what it could be warning you about, and help you to prevent avoidable damage and repair costs by catching the issue early.
What Is Efflorescence?
The word “efflorescence” comes from French and means “to flower out.” This is the perfect description for the white, powdery, or chalky formations that result from this process. Efflorescence formations tend to have an organic, rounded shape and can resemble flowers when allowed to spread. Despite the pretty-sounding name, efflorescence is a fairly unsightly issue that can lead to cosmetic damage. It also signifies some pretty serious issues at work.
As for what these formations are, efflorescence is simply a mineral residue, generally made up of a variety of water-soluble salts that are left behind when water evaporates. You can usually find this on walls, floors, and other surfaces that are made of stone, concrete, or brick. It will generally be a loose, powdery substance that can be wiped away, but if you have sealed concrete, it will look slightly different.
If you have sealed your concrete flooring or walls, efflorescence is still possible. It will simply show itself as a white, blush sheen underneath the sealant layer. Of course, efflorescence is not always white. The unique mix of minerals and salts in different areas can lead to slight differences in color.
What Causes Efflorescence?
There are basically two elements that are required to create efflorescence: moisture and salt. In fact, salt is the key ingredient. Water is present in all soil and can enter a home in a number of ways, but if there is no salt present, it will not cause efflorescence.
While there may be residual amounts of salt and minerals in most soil, there is rarely enough to cause serious efflorescence. It is far more likely that the salts that cause the efflorescence formations are dormant in the concrete, stone, or cement holding bricks together. Alternatively, there is a chance that the salts may be present in the water itself if you have particularly hard water.
What Can Efflorescence be a Problem Sign for?
At its heart, efflorescence is a sign that your property is struggling with dampness and that the water is bringing salt into your property. The actual source of this water can take many forms, which is why efflorescence can be a sign of so many different issues, including:
Foundation damage is one of the most likely sources of efflorescence on a basement floor. That’s because of the way it lets significant amounts of water seep into a property from the ground below. This not only leads to serious dampness but commonly leads to efflorescence because of the minerals and salts that unprocessed groundwater is more likely to contain.
The foundation issue most likely to cause efflorescence is settlement, but any issue that causes cracks in your property’s foundation is capable of causing efflorescence. Settlement is an issue that sees sections of a foundation breaking away from the structure and sinking, generally as a result of problem soils. Expansive soils tend to be the most likely to cause damage, but loose, weak, or unstable soil can also contribute to this issue.
Bowing basement walls can also lead to efflorescence when they start to crack. The process of bowing is generally caused by the presence of excessive lateral pressure, generally caused by overly saturated soil around a property. The weight of the soil and water, often compounded by the swelling of expansive soil, can overwhelm basement walls and cause them to buckle and lean inward, eventually cracking and even collapsing.
When bowing walls crack, therefore, it is very common for them to start letting water into the property. The generally higher salt or mineral content of groundwater often leads to efflorescence, but the salts can also be picked up as the water passes through the concrete or brick of the walls.
Seepage is a relatively benign, but very inconvenient, process that takes place because of the porous nature of concrete and cement. When the soil around your property’s perimeter is extremely saturated, the pressure of the water can lead to damage (like bowing walls), but sometimes seepage will occur instead. This is most likely to happen when a property has very poor foundation drainage in place.
Efflorescence is a common result of seepage because of the high chance that water passing through the concrete will pick up salt and minerals from the rock aggregate used in its creation. Many people seal concrete floors and walls to prevent seepage, but this will not prevent the exterior layers of concrete from taking on water. If you see a whitish blush under the surface of your concrete, this could well be what is happening.
Leaking Window Wells
Leaking window wells are more likely to cause stains and cosmetic damage than efflorescence, but there is a chance that efflorescence will form around damage in the window sill or frame if you live in an area that has particularly hard water. This issue is pretty easy to recognize, however, because they have so many other effects. As such, most people notice a leaky window well before efflorescence would have a chance to form extensively.
Finding out which of these issues is most likely to be at work in your home, or whether another issue or combination of issues is more likely, is a matter of learning to read the other red flags and problem signs within your home.
Additional Problem Signs to Look For
When you see efflorescence in your property, it is important that you do not ignore it. While we recommend that you call a professional straight away, we understand the desire to investigate personally first. If you decide to investigate the causes alone first, however, you should look for the following signs of damage.
If you see cracks that are actively growing in size or depth in your property, this is a sign that the efflorescence in your home is likely to be connected to ongoing pressure and structural instability. The placement and depth of these cracks can help in diagnosing the underlying issues.
For example, the cracks that come with bowing walls are most likely to be horizontal or diagonal and will generally start where the bend or deviation is worst. By contrast, the cracks associated with foundation settlement may seem sporadic in placement and will generally affect your floor as well as walls.
Pooling or standing water is a bad sign no matter where you find it in your home (unless there is an obvious and benign source). The most common causes of pooling or standing water are internal leaks or serious structural damage. Internal leaks tend to be fairly easy to identify by the time there is visible standing water.
Where you find the water is a big indicator of the likely source. If you find it in the seam between your exterior basement wall and floor, for example, seepage, foundation damage, and bowing walls are all possible causes.
Efflorescence can be unsightly, but it does not generally have a strong smell. So if you have a musty-smelling basement as well as efflorescence on the walls or floor, this is a sign that you have a serious underlying issue with dampness and humidity. There may also be bacterial, fungal, or mold growth at work, depending on the smell, and there could even be pest infestation of some kind.
If you have tried cleaning your basement thoroughly and airing it out but the smell will not leave, it is time to call in a professional.
Mold and Mildew
Mold and mildew formations can look similar to efflorescence, especially when the mold is white or grey, but on closer inspection, you will see that they are very different. Whereas efflorescence is the evidence of past dampness and water, mold requires ongoing dampness. Efflorescence also tends to be dry and powdery, whereas mold can be fuzzy and soft to the touch.
Mold is also actively toxic in many cases, so you should avoid getting too close to formations that you think may be mold. You should also limit the time you spend in their vicinity, especially if you have respiratory or immune-compromising health conditions.
Pest infestations can take root for a number of reasons, and while an infestation of larger animals like rodents in conjunction with efflorescence may be a coincidence (or a sign of generally poor health in your property), insects can and often do gain entry into a home through the same small cracks as water.
If you find signs of infestation like droppings, shed exoskeletons, or visible nest formations, you should contact a professional quickly. After all, infestation is incredibly unhealthy and potentially damaging.
Visibly Uneven Floors
If you have visibly uneven flooring in your basement, this is a strong sign that your foundation is damaged in some way, especially if your basement flooring is concrete. If the uneven flooring in your home is the floor above your basement, the joists that support it could have been damaged or moved by shifting in your property’s structure.
Either way, it is a serious issue that will not stabilize or rectify itself alone. As such, you should call a professional to avoid further damage and even the collapse of the flooring in question.
Sticking Doors and Windows
If you notice your basement doors and windows have started to stick and jam without any obvious reason, it is very likely that there are foundation issues at work in your home. Jamming or sticking doors and windows tend to be a result of frame deformation when the structure of a property shifts.
You should try cleaning and oiling the hinges before you assume that there are foundation problems to contend with.
Each of these problem signs can give you an idea of what other issues or underlying causes may be at work behind your property’s efflorescence. A professional opinion is needed to ensure that you get a good idea of what forces are at work and what work is needed to repair your basement.
If you have noticed a white, powdery residue on your basement floor or walls, there are a few different potential issues that could be causing this.
Efflorescence or Plaster Residue?
There are some benign reasons as to why you might find pale or white powder on your property’s floors or walls. If you have been doing work in your basement, for example, or you have recently installed plasterboard or drywall, it is very likely that any white or pale power you find is from this process. This is especially the case if it is evenly distributed throughout the room.
If, however, the powdery substance in your basement is limited to certain areas and is found in a flowering formation, the most likely cause is efflorescence. This powder or crystalline substance is not dust or plaster residue, but rather a mineral residue carried into your property by water. When the water evaporated into the air, it left the salt and minerals behind in this formation.
The Causes of Efflorescence
As we said, efflorescence is caused by a combination of water and salts or minerals. The salts and minerals themselves are often found in the water or picked up as the water makes its way through the concrete walls or flooring in your basement. In this way, the water is really the carrier for the substance that causes efflorescence formations.
The actual source of the water, however, can take many different forms. Unless you live in an area with very hard water, however, efflorescence is more likely to be caused by water that is seeping into your home from outside. As such, issues like foundation damage and seepage are far more likely to be the underlying cause of the white powder in your basement.
Efflorescence is not dangerous or toxic in and of itself, but it represents a danger to your health and your home.
Efflorescence is more of a symptom of structural damage and dampness than a cause of it. Nonetheless, it represents a real danger to the structure of your home. The same forces that cause efflorescence can cause issues like wood rot and spreading cracks in your concrete walls and floors. This can lead to shifts in the structure of your property and even uneven or sinking floors.
At the more serious end of the scale, the same issues that can cause efflorescence may also lead to bowing walls, sunken concrete slabs, and flooding in your basement. Over time, this could even lead to damaged walls collapsing (although this would require you to ignore the signs of damage for a long time). These issues may seem bad enough, but there are others that can be more damaging to your health and well-being.
As water is one of the key components of efflorescence, properties that have efflorescence at work tend to also have issues with dampness, even if it is sporadic. Properties that are damp or humid often have many issues that can directly impact your health, as well as your home. Issues like wood rot and mold formation, for example, can have very serious consequences.
Unlike the powder created by efflorescence, mold and wood rot can be actively toxic. Of course, those most at risk are those who are already vulnerable: the elderly, very young children, and people who have underlying health issues at work. For example, those with respiratory problems and underlying immune-compromising conditions are highly at risk. Even healthy people can experience negative side effects, however, with issues like headaches, dizziness, and skin irritation being the most common.
While efflorescence is more unsightly than dangerous, the issues that it represents can be worrying for both your home and your health. As such, it is best to address the underlying issues quickly. Waterproofing is one of many options.
Structural Repairs Come First
Waterproofing is a good way to prevent the recurrence of efflorescence, but it will not treat the underlying causes. First and foremost, you must deal with the source of water in your basement. Whether this is a result of a leaking window well or there are foundation problems in your home, you should contact a professional to have the structural integrity of your home assessed and the underlying causes of this issue identified.
Depending on the nature of the damage in your home, repairs could be quite lengthy and invasive. In fact, if there is more than one issue at work, you could be dealing with a complex set of invasive repairs to return structural stability to the property. As such, we do not recommend that you attempt DIY repairs. There are far too many things that could go wrong.
Waterproofing Has Many Benefits
Once the structure of your home has been returned to full health, there are many benefits to waterproofing your basement. Obviously, waterproofing should prevent the recurrence of efflorescence and staining in your basement, but this is a minor benefit in comparison to the many other benefits it can offer you. One of the most important is the way it can stabilize the interior climate of your home.
Basement waterproofing often includes an upgrade to your insulation as well as improvement to your drainage systems and the installation of a moisture barrier. This contributes to a generally lower level of humidity and more stable temperatures in your basement and property. This will lead to higher energy efficiency in your property and even lower your energy bills over time.
Expert Basement Waterproofing Services from Ohio Basement Systems
Even if there is no serious damage to your property’s structure, efflorescence highlights an issue with dampness and water incursion that must be dealt with. In this endeavor, basement waterproofing is probably the best solution for you. If you are looking for waterproofing experts in Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio, or you just want to know how you can repair your home, Ohio Basement Systems should be your first stop.
Our team of specialists has experience in both foundation repair and basement waterproofing. Don’t hesitate to book a free inspection appointment with one of our specialists. They will find out exactly what is going on in your home and provide you with a written estimate for all associated repair costs. This will enable you to make an informed choice about what is best for your home.