Building leaks can be maddening when water makes its way from the outside in. It can drip through the ceiling, a light fixture or window frame. The water is usually fairly easy to clean up but unless the point of entry can be found and fixed, the drip, drip, drip goes on and on and on. Water travels like a hobo riding the rails: It jumps on and jumps off unpredictably. This is particularly true in common wall housing that share roofs, walls, ceilings and floors. Water can sneak in above one unit and leak mysteriously in a totally different one a great distance away, confounding both the occupants and those charged with the repair. To make matters worse, the leak often only happens during a storm and after hours at the time-and-a-half rate. ARGHHHHHH!
So what are some of the sources of these vexing drips and what can be done about them?
Roof Defects, Ponding or Flashing. The roof is the first place to suspect for leaks. When the rain stops, inspect the roof by looking for missing shingles, lifted seams or unusual ponding. Leaks often begin around flashing or where two roofs join, particularly if one was added on later. Leaf clogs can back water up beyond the valley flashing and penetrate the roof. This can also happen if the valley is too narrow for the amount of water running down it.
It is fairly common for water to leak around chimneys, especially on the uproof side. Check to see if flashing there is intact. Also check for "kick-out" flashing where vertical walls meet the roof and gutters. Kick-out flashing is designed to push water away from a vertical wall into the gutter. If it's missing, water will run down the wall and find a point of entry. It also is a major source of dryrot in rainy locales.
If the leak is coming down a wall from the ceiling, start looking up. Go into the attic space with a flashlight and backtrack from the spot above the ceiling toward the roof. Check both sides of rafters because water may run down them to the wall. Look carefully around all vent pipes going through the roof and around the chimney, if you have one. You can sometimes narrow the search by running a hose over the suspect area to see if the leak resumes.
Wind-Driven Moisture. When rain and snow rides the wind, strange things happen. With enough lateral force, moisture can be driven up through roof vents. If the moisture happens to be snow, temperature may have to moderate before the snow melts and begins to drip. If wind-driven moisture is common, a different style of vent may be needed. Wind can also drive moisture into openings in the siding, trim, doors and windows. Inspect these areas to determine if there are points of entry. Recaulk and/or flash as necessary.
Ice Dams. When snow builds up on the roof, ice dams can form as the snow melts, backing water up under shingles and causing leaks. Ice dams need to be removed to relieve the ponding. Products like Grace Ice & Water Shield under the lowest 3'-6' drip edge of a pitched roof help prevent leaks from ice dam backups.
Siding & Trim Flashing & Caulking. Caulking should be redone with every paint cycle and beefed up every year, especially around windows and doors. Use high grade flexible caulking with a warranty as long as the paint cycle to prevent premature failure. Of course, make sure it's applied properly. Siding and trim locations often lack metal flashing on the top edge which often leads to leaks, particularly if the building has minimal roof overhang to deflect rain. Caulking in those locations is no substitute for proper flashing. If it's absent, make it so.
Rain Gutter Overflows. Undersized gutters will often overflow during high volume rainstorms which could prompt siding or window related leaks. If such storms are frequent, consider super-sizing your gutter system. Clogging is usually the cause of overflows. Make sure offending trees are cut back to reduce gutter debris and provide more frequent gutter cleaning, especially to hotspots that are prone to clogging. Experiment with various products like Gutter Helmet or Gutter Guard that claim to help prevent clogs by deflecting leaves, needles and other tree debris.
As you sleuth out the traveling drip, remember that the enemy is elusive and persistent. Roofing contractors are pretty good at identifying the source and making corrections but it may take some trial and error, especially if the roof has multiple levels and transitions. With patience and persistence, you can send this freeloader packing.
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