Tag Archives: rising damp

Housing Horror Stories

Editor’s Note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

You know that point in a horror film when the demented axe murderer sneaks up on the unsuspecting teenagers and you’re thinking, “Turn around! Turn around!” Haven’t a fair number of us been saying that about the frightening Auckland housing market for the last five years?

Why is it just now – when the axe is in mid-swing – that Finance Minister Bill English has turned around?

For anyone with beyond intermediate school maths skills it is obvious that the so-called “Rock Star Economy” was mostly the result of artificial house price inflation in Auckland and the Christchurch rebuild. Even Freddy Kruger knows this.

Maybe the “Rock Star” in question was Marilyn Manson.   Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 9.28.10 am

But now that the housing Ponzi scheme has so much momentum behind it that it threatens the nation’s economy, leadership is finally saying, “Oh, this is a little scary.” As with the enamored teenagers, government may have waited too long to turn around.

Like the plot line of most slasher movies, Auckland’s housing bubble has been totally predictable, yet the “unsuspecting victims” walk blindly into the path of danger. Additionally, the story line is a bit like a self-fulfilling prophesy: Now that the Nats have ridden the artificial rock star economy for years they can turn around and redirect policy and finances “to provide assistance to middle-income families if interest rates rose” (Isaac Davidson, 24-10-15, Wanganui Chronicle). Instead of free-market this sounds like market manipulation.

At the end of the day – aka “the witching hour” – its just another frightening aspect of housing in the land of the long white cloud, which drops a considerable amount of precipitation onto the compacted clay soils that surround far too many dwellings with poor drainage and inadequate sub-floor ventilation.

Dramatic musical interlude.

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Zombie-like, water vapour rises from the earth underneath unsuspecting households to stalk its living prey. Under normal conditions, each square metre of ground releases 0.4 litres in a 24-hour period. This translates into 60 litres per day for a typical 150 square metre house with a raised floor.

Rising damp is a major issue for hundreds of thousands of Kiwi homes yet it does not seem to be taken seriously. Very few health professionals appear to recognise the issue of cold and damp homes and what to do about it. “Turn around! Turn around!”

Just a reminder: Zombies and Mould are not normal conditions for a home.

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While I renovated my own House of Horrors – a Monster Mash-up to be sure – I spend most of my time these days visiting others. A few recent examples include one with a $1,000 monthly power bill and another with a $4,000 bill to replace mouldy blinds. Its enough to make you Scream.

Then again, both of these homes are contributing significantly to GDP so it must be a good thing, right? So too do hospital visits contribute to GDP. After the housing bubble pops, perhaps asthma and diabetes could be central to a new economic policy.

As someone who grew up in the Northern Hemisphere, it is difficult for me to adjust to Haloween as a spring holiday. I remember trick-or-treating in the cold, dark rain, not the bright sunshine. I get the same feeling when I look at poorly designed homes facing the wrong way. Perhaps they were designed by vampires who need to live in the dark.

Recently I had a look at a Jekyll and Hyde home. In other words, during beautiful spring and autumn days with light winds and fair skies, the house would be a fabulous place to live. That is the Jekyll.

But Mr. Hyde haunts the house during the rest of the year primarily due to poor design, which makes it uncomfortably cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. Heating and cooling the structure effectively would mean Frankenstein power bills.

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The good news is that as a village we can choose to take up our pitchforks and torches to drive the beast of substandard housing from our midst and put and end to the Scary Movie.

Damp Homes and Health: Ya Don’t Say…

Editor’s note: Here is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.


Six weeks ago I contacted Chronicle editor Mark Dawson regarding a significant health threat to many families in our community. I knew that damp homes, mould and respiratory illness would be major issues for the rest of winter and far into the spring. Slightly tongue in cheek I titled the email, “Health Epidemic Looming!”

I was fishing for a headline to rival “GASSED!” but had to settle for a sidebar for my weekly column:

“Our soils are super-saturated and likely to remain so for at least the next 4 months.

Rising damp will be a major issue for many homes for the remainder of winter.

Rising damp can account for 30-60 litres of moisture inside a home per day.

Cold, damp homes make people sick.

Sick people miss school and work.

“We can be proactive about addressing the issue now by:

Bringing attention that damp homes will be even worse this winter.

Installing a ground vapour barrier is cheap and effective.

If you are unable to install a ground vapour barrier then other effective strategies should be involved.”

Good on the Chronicle to helping distribute information sheets on moisture and condensation in homes, and on how to prevent rising damp. These materials are still available at the Chronicle offices in Guyton Street. They are the most up to date and accurate materials in the nation at this time, and have been written to be easy to read.

Good on Doug Davidson and the River City Press for helping raise awareness about the health threat to our community, and for making the information sheets available at the RCP offices.

Considering the attention the issue of unhealthy homes has received from local media as well as national media – lead by the infamous Duncan Garner – it raises the question as to why our local health care community has failed to recognize this significant and foreseeable problem.

On second thought, I should not say the issue has gone unseen by health care professionals. As reported in the Chronicle (3rd August), Phil Murphy of the Whanganui Regional Health Network said, “Nationally, Wanganui’s child health doesn’t compare well. That’s because of the type of population here – typically high needs, low income and poor housing, which is particularly relevant when talking about respiratory illness.”

So far so good. What’s the next step?

Apparently, the solution to the problem of unhealthy homes in our city is to make a map. I’m all for collecting data, but this approach really seems like treating sick children like statistics rather than human beings living in shitty homes. If this is the best strategy we can expect from the health providers in our city, no wonder a Chronicle headline the following day (4th August) read, “DHB changes are ‘short-sighted’.

You don’t need an “app” to know where the shitty houses are in Whanganui.

To be fair, the article on the 4th was about a completely different issue, but isn’t the headline a telling reflection on the article that appeared on the 3rd?

Mapping unhealthy homes while doing nothing about them is like tracking northern white rhinos while letting poachers shoot them. Cecil the lion was well monitored, but he ended up dead by a bullet from a trophy hunter.

If we want to have a serious discussion about children’s health in our community we need to address the elephant in the room. In so many cases the child’s own bedroom is ‘the elephant in the room’. Mould is not a normal condition of housing and we should not tolerate it as so.

The only way for us to move toward a healthier community is to take a holistic approach to the well being of all its members. Anything short of a holistic, cooperative approach to community health will end up being unsuccessful and costly.

Six weeks ago I told Doug Davidson that there was no doubt in my mind that hospital visits due to respiratory illness would be up this winter. I’m sure the DHB has a tidy graph showing just that. What’s the next step?

For my part, I’ll be scrutinizing the WDHB board candidates a lot closer next year than I did in 2013.


Peace, Estwing

Dealing to Damp Indoors

Editor’s note: Another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, cold and damp homes have considerable impact on many aspects of our society. The good news is that every home can be made healthier with careful thought and directed effort. A few dollars doesn’t hurt either.

Often times, sorting the warmth is easier than sorting the dry. In other words, there seems to be much more confusion about managing moisture than managing heat. I have received a number of emails recently regarding indoor humidity, so this seems like a good time to address the topic.

The best way to minimize indoor humidity is to manage the sources of moisture themselves. In many homes, there are four to five major sources of water vapour: cooking, showering, airing laundry indoors, and using an unflued gas heater. For homes with raised floors (piled), rising damp can be added to this list.

Steam from cooking and showering can be effectively managed by using extractor fans vented to the outdoors and not into the ceiling space. For bathrooms, it’s a good idea to put a 10-minute delay timer on your extractor fan.

Moisture coming off of wet clothes and unflued gas heaters is best controlled by avoidance. Put another way, try not to do either if at all possible. Whenever you are able, try to dry your clothes outdoors on the line. If the weather does not cooperate, airing them in a shed or under a deck or waiting for a sunny, windy day would be preferable.

For homes that are built on piles, rising damp can be the largest source of internal moisture by a country mile, accounting for 40-60 litres per day depending on the size of the structure, soil type, drainage, and subfloor ventilation. Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 3.38.24 pm

Dealing to rising damp can be as easy as laying a ground vapour barrier (aka damp-proof membrane) or – in my case – improving drainage around the perimeter of the structure, increasing subfloor ventilation and then installing a ground vapour barrier.

Over the last six months I have spent hundreds of hours and dollars on all three of these. I finished the work two days before the recent deluge arrived. Ironically, the lowest moisture reading ever recorded inside our home (so far) was the day 88 millimeters of rain fell on our roof.

The combination of drainage work, builder’s polythene and more vents has reduced the indoor humidity from a very unhealthy 85% when we arrived to 64% – a level just within what is considered healthy. There is no sign of mould and we can literally feel the difference in the air.

Dehumidifiers are brilliant, and we have used one up until recently. It’s there at the ready should we need it, but like a positive pressure ventilation system installed in a roof cavity it only removes the damp that is already inside our home. Like modern medicine, treating causes is better and more cost effective than treating symptoms.

The following tips come from “Reducing Moisture and Condensation” available free at: http://www.ecodesignadvisor.org.nz.

  • Keep beds and furniture at least a hand-width from external walls.
  • Wipe condensation from windows as soon as you see it.
  • Leave wardrobe doors slightly ajar to allow air circulation.
  • Regularly check for mould behind curtains and furniture, and in corners.
  • Spray a mixture of 70% white vinegar and 30% water on mouldy surfaces, leave for 15 minutes to an hour, and then scrub. Be sure to rinse off the vinegar afterward with a sponge. This is extremely important as mould will grow back on the vinegar residue if not rinsed properly.
  • Wash or dry clean affected curtains.
  • If there is no extractor fan in the bathroom, open windows when showering or bathing.
  • Flush your home with fresh air once or twice each day for 10 to 20 minutes by opening windows and doors. During winter months the best time to do this is around mid-day when outdoor temperatures are highest. It is better to fully flush the home with fresh air than to leave windows ajar all day and night.
  • Only consider a positive pressure or dilution ventilation system as a last resort. They are not suitable for all houses and can cause more problems than they solve.

Peace, Estwing

Rising Damp is a Real Problem

I hang my head in shame. For the last three months I have felt like a negligent parent, having subjected my family to unhealthy conditions.

At the end of July we shifted from a warm, dry home to a cold, damp home. The new house has a large wood burner and a mammoth woodpile that was included in the chattels. During the first weekend in August I topped up the grossly inadequate ceiling insulation with R 3.6 blanket batts and figured that – along with burning heaps of dry firewood – would get us through until summer.

Unfortunately there were two factors I did not fully appreciate: 1) the winter weather would stretch into November; 2) the profound impact of rising damp.

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 With the extra insulation and a fantastic heat transfer system we have been able to heat our home to healthy temperatures – 18-22 in living spaces and 16-18 in bedrooms – but high humidity inside our home has had a greater impact than I ever would have guessed.

Having never lived in a damp home, the conditions were a shock for us. My wife and daughter had persistent coughs that came and went for many weeks. I managed to escape illness, but one morning recently I pulled open the bottom drawer of a low boy to find a pair of board shorts covered in grey mould. That was the last straw! Screen shot 2014-11-21 at 6.53.20 PM

In actual fact, I knew all along that rising damp would be a problem in this home, and I bought 200 square metres of heavy-duty polythene back in August. But controlling the ground moisture was not as simple of laying the polythene under the structure – there were other issues that also needed to be addressed.

A lack of proper drainage around the perimeter of the home meant that excessive water was flowing underneath the structure. This lead to a handful of the treated piles rotting far short of their intended lifespan.

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So the larger picture included drainage work, selective re-piling and laying polythene. Of these three jobs, the logical one to start with is drainage. In first aid treatment we follow the mantra: “First stop the bleeding, then treat other injuries.” The same applies to water damage and a home: “First stop the source of water, then make repairs.” Screen shot 2014-11-21 at 6.52.48 PM

While I have been slowly remediating the drainage problems, we have embraced a number of techniques for limiting the unhealthy effects of raising damp in our home. These are simple techniques that almost anyone in Whanganui can afford to do whether they are homeowners or renters.

The first crucial step was to improve sub-floor ventilation. I did so in a rather crude manner by breaking out a few pieces of Hardie Board with the intent of repairing it later. Air moving under the home picks up moisture from the ground and carries it away. Many NZ homes have inadequate sub-floor ventilation.

Another technique that is used by many people to dry their homes is to air them manually by opening windows and doors. But like many things, there are more and less effective ways to do this. The most effective way to air your home is to open it up for 10 to 20 minutes at the warmest time of the day. This is much better than leaving windows slightly open 24/7.

Finally, in order to avoid mould and mildew growth in our home we have taken a few simple steps with our furniture. I raised the low boy mentioned above with wood blocks to encourage airflow under it. Similarly I created a simple timber ‘spacer’ to move our bed away from a cold, south-facing wall. This allows airflow while keeping our pillows from falling through the gap. Win-Win.

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Peace, Estwing

Reducing Moisture in a Home

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

No, it’s not the Tasman Sea but something even closer to home.

Many Whanganui residents wake up each morning between May and September surrounded by water as condensation covers every window of their homes. More than just a nuisance, weeping windows can indicate conditions within a dwelling that are, to put it bluntly, unhealthy.

In some homes, high humidity can be as much as a concern as low temperatures in terms of comfort and health. We all know that cool, damp homes are common across New Zealand.

Research by Beacon Pathway found the following:

• New Zealand homes are on average 6 degrees Celsius below World Health Organization recommended minimum temperatures in winter.

• 45 percent of all New Zealand homes are mouldy.

• New Zealand has the second highest rate of asthma in the world, and an excess winter mortality of 1600, a much higher rate than other OECD countries.

• 300,000 New Zealand homes have an unflued gas heater.

• The air inside New Zealand homes can be more polluted than outdoor air.

• Cold, damp homes pose serious health risks, particularly for the most vulnerable groups in the community who spend the most time at home.

Like many problems in our lives, it is more important and effective to treat the cause than the symptoms. In other words, addressing the causes of moisture inside a home is better and cheaper than investing in expensive ventilation systems, which in most cases make homes colder and drier.

The main sources of moisture within a home are as follows: cooking, showering, rising damp, unflued gas heaters, house plants, and airing laundry indoors.

Addressing each source can be done differently. For example, polythene can be fitted under a home – directly on the ground – to effectively reduce rising damp in the same way wearing gumboots keep your feet dry in a muddy paddock.

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However, polythene will do nothing for the damp clothes airing in your lounge. The strategy to address this problem is simple: Don’t do it.

Water vapour released by cooking and showering can be addressed in two ways: cap it or vent it. In other words, cooking with pot lids or installing a shower dome hold steam in, while extractor fans vent steam outside.

That said, we also use certain cooking techniques that reduce steam (and energy use) by over 90%. This win-win combination, however, does require some thinking outside of the box – specifically by cooking inside of a ‘straw box’.

In a strange twist of fate, our straw box contains no straw, but instead is stuffed with Op Shop blankets and tea towels. Either way, the function is the same: insulation. Here is how it works. Screen shot 2014-06-27 at 7.33.12 PM

One of our favourite recipes is 10-Watt Pasta. We take 500 grams of pasta and put it into the ceramic vessel of a slow cooker. Then we boil about 1.75 litres of water in the electric kettle and pour it over the pasta. Last we place the pot, pasta and water into the straw box for 22 minutes, which happens to be the exact amount of time it takes to make an excellent sauce with fresh veges from the garden.

Compare this method of cooking pasta to the traditional way, and you’ll see where that 90% reduction of power and moisture comes from. I suspect it will be highly unlikely for anyone else in Whanganui to adopt this cooking method, but for those with damp, cold homes, it’s worth considering.

Peace, Estwing