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Recognizing Damage

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Although vibration damage to structures is usually described in terms of "cosmetic" and "structural" types, understanding the specific kinds of damage which can occur, their causes, their implications and how to address them is essential both to establishing and pursuing a construction vibration damage claim. On this page we'll give some tips, with illustrations, of how to recognize the various types of damage.

This document is part of the free Construction Vibration Damage Guide for Homeowners, available in part online or in full as a free downloadable PDF, minus ads and navigation and with substantial added content. An Executive Summary is available for those in a hurry. A broader view of its content can be found on its Introduction page. Appendix B of the CVDG, available in the free downloadable PDF version of the CVDG and in the CVDG Professional Edition, but not online, has a compilation of warning signs of possible construction-related vibration damage. This should help you in searching for and identifying possible damage.

Finding Damage

Most people don't go through their homes with any care or regularity looking for signs of vibration or other damage. Vibration damage can involve drywall or plaster cracking or other forms of distress for which you will have to look in order to note it. In our experience, it is the rule, rather than the exception, that homeowners with construction vibration damage will feel they have no damage from the nearby construction, until they look for it with an eye to the specific and diagnostic types of damage that are discussed below. A few small hairline cracks in drywall or plaster are not, by themselves, cause for concern about nearby construction damage. More than ten or so, of any size, constitute good reason to investigate further and document carefully.

Possible "Structural Damage" Indicators

"Structural" vibration damage is best evaluated by a civil or structural engineer with experience in viewing and evaluating such damage. If you make a claim, whether or not you have to litigate it, it's a good bet that the construction company or their insurer will want to send an engineer to evaluate the house for structural damage. Since that engineer works for the opposing side, you may or may not get straight answers, but you can express your concerns about specific types of damage and sites to the engineer for his opinion and evaluation. Eventually, you may have to bring in your own engineer for a second opinion.

In multiple discussions with engineers about vibration damage, I have learned that there are some simple signs to look for that might indicate that you should have an engineer check for underlying structural damage: (Click each thumbnail to view the full-sized image)

  • Cracks in the house slab or connected patios and driveways - These may not constitute structural damage; but, if they are not pre-existing, they are signs that should be discussed with an engineer in the context of structural damage to the house. Cracks in tile or grout can reflect cracks in the underlying slab. To the extent that the house slab and/or patios are monolithic pours (connected together and poured at the same time), information in the blasting vibration study USBM RI 8507 indicates that such cracks, if caused by construction, result from vibrations far in excess of any U.S. standards.3 Our CVDG Pro page, Inferring Vibration Levels, has more information on inferring vibration levels from damage patterns.
  • Misaligned doors and windows - Misalignment can be seen by looking at the door in the frame. If the door doesn't show a reasonably constant spacing all the way around between it and the frame, it has become misaligned. Some doors and windows may become difficult or impossible to open or lock, if the misalignment is large enough. Windows may become difficult to operate when misaligned. If you also see diagonal drywall cracks at corners of window and door wall penetrations (see below), these are additional signs that the house has undergone shear, possibly due to vibration, which is causing the misalignment. Checking the door and windows frames for plumb, using a level, can strengthen an argument that the house structure has shifted in response to construction vibration. Misalignment may also appear in plumbed (vertical) fixtures (TV mountings, shelving, e.g.) attached to the wall studs.
  • Mechanical system problems - If you suddenly start to experience plumbing failures underground (e.g. irrigation or waste line pipe shattered) or at the point where the house supply connects at the slab to the incoming line from the street, especially in the context of other vibration damage, it may be an indicator of possible structural damage. Problems with any other lines which go underground (heating, gas, etc.) may also indicate the possibility for structural damage. Damage to irrigation system solenoid valves can also occur due to very large construction vibrations. If you have such mechanical system damage, there is a very good chance that others nearby will have it, too, so keep your eye out for plumbing and heating firm trucks in your area.
  • Cracks in dry wall with vertical displacements - Most cracks in drywall are considered as "cosmetic" in nature. However, if you have cracks in which one side of the crack is substantially higher than the other side, this could be a sign of underlying structural damage. Also, any crack in drywall in which the failure is not along a join between sheets, but in the sheet itself, especially if it is jagged in appearance, may indicate a possible underlying structural issue requiring further investigation. (photo below)
  • Roof damage - Shingled roofs will usually show little sign of damage from vibration to the underlying trusses, because the shingles can hide it, although roof leaks are sometimes signs of otherwise invisible damage. However, tiled roofs have penetrations which are usually sealed with concrete "cones". If these are broken, it could be a sign of structural problems. Usually breaks in the cones result in water leaks, which are also signs of potential structural problems in buildings with shingled roofs.

Cosmetic Damage

Many houses beyond ten or fifteen years in age will have a few (less than ten) hairline cracks along drywall seams and/or at drywall corner beads, due to slight settling, changes in temperature and humidity, or simple aging of the drywall. Most times, the residents of the house will not even be aware that these are present, because they are usually hairline cracks which are not easy to see, unless one sets out to find them.8 Once people find such cracks, they can become more sensitized to them and look for others. The possible existence of unseen, pre-existing cracks is well-recognized, both in the scientific literature of ground vibration damage and by contractors. For this reason, you will almost certainly hear that your damages were all pre-existing and that you had simply not seen them in the past.

Because limited minor cracking can occur for reasons other than construction vibration, the timing of the damage is important in connecting it to the construction work. On the occasion of our damage, the witnessed and videotaped construction vibration produced over 300 immediate cracks, plus damage to concrete block property walls and a monolithic poured concrete patio, in one day! Additional cracking appeared later, as the job continued over strenuous objections from me and others whose houses had been seriously damaged by the same construction.

When looking at your home for "cosmetic" cracks (either before or after start of construction work), here are some locations you should check and ways to begin to differentiate vibration cracks from settling (or aging) cracks:

  • Linear hairline drywall cracks at corner beads and at sheet joins - These are common in both settling and vibration damage. They take on a nearly line-like appearance, as the crack is directed along the corner bead edge or sheet join. Mostly, the cause can be differentiated only by the timing of appearance and the number of cracks which appear in connection with construction. In my experience, vibration-related cracks tend to be longer and more numerous than those caused by settling. They also tend to expand with time. Because settling and vibration cracks of this sort look so similar, documentation of the time and circumstances of their appearance is important.
  • Diagonal cracks at corners of wall penetrations (windows, doors, etc.) - There are some characteristics of vibration cracks which settling cracks rarely share. Cracks at drywall corner beads and sheet joins can occur from normal settling, temperature cycling and construction vibration. However, cosmetic drywall cracks from vibration often appear at the corners of windows and doors, running roughly diagonally from the corners. Corresponding cracks often manifest themselves outside around wall penetrations in rigid finishes like stucco. These diagonal cracks are due to the house being placed in shear (i.e. sections of the house moving in different directions or speeds with respect to one another) by vibrations. These shearing vibrations are known in the field as "racking" motions (see Figure 13 in USBM RI 85071). They are different in nature and consequences from the so-called "mid-wall" vibrations ("bending") which lead to pictures rattling on vibrating walls, although racking and bending motions often occur together. Such racking cracks rarely appear house-wide in normal uniform settling and are often indicative of vibration damage, especially when seen in multiple structures in a given neighborhood.
  • Drywall nail or screw "pops" - These appear as places where the "mudding" over the screw or nail is either raised, has multiple small radiating cracks or is missing entirely (see photo at left). If widespread and significant in number, they also imply shear forces, likely due to vibration.
  • Cracks in drywall with vertical edge-to-edge displacements - As discussed above, these cracks often appear in situations in which the house has been subjected to shear, due to vibrations. The vertical displacements (i.e. with one side of the crack substantially higher than the opposing side) are indicative of the shear process and may signify some shifting in the frame of the house.
  • Damage to exterior finishes - Just as vibration damages drywall, it will also usually cause cracks in exterior rigid finishes like stucco. Cracks in stucco running diagonally from wall penetrations are indicative of vibration-induced shear, just as they are in interior drywall.
  • Cracks in exterior property walls - Particularly in the U.S. Southwest, exterior concrete block "tumbleweed walls" are common dividers at property lines. These are also damaged by extreme vibration. This damage can take the form of both cracks in mortar or cracks in the blocks themselves.
  • Cracking of concrete - Similarly, there can be cracking in monolithic (poured at the same time) concrete slabs, driveways or patios (see at right for example of construction-caused slab cracking). As discussed in the USBM study, RI 8507, cracks in monolithic concrete, mortar or blocks can be good indicators of the intensity of the vibrations2, since it requires vibration intensities well above any standard in the U.S. to break mortar, concrete blocks or monolithic concrete.3,5,6

    The OSM also provides guidance on these matters in its Blasting Guidance Manual,5,6

    "Cracks will not normally appear in concrete below perhaps 10.0 inches per second, a velocity that is not only far higher than OSMRE regulations permit, but that would normally cause undisputed and quite extensive cracks to occur to plaster, gypsumboard and brickwork. Damage to concrete is therefore normally accompanied not only by exceptionally high velocities, but also by other, and obvious damage." (emphasis added)

The OSMRE Blasting Guidance Manual provides substantial advice, very similar to that offered here, for identifying damage and associating it with vibration events.4 The CVDG Pro page, Inferring Vibration Levels, has more information on inferring vibration levels from damage patterns.

Other Property Damage Causes

Construction may cause damage for reasons other than vibration, per se. Breakage of gas or water mains (e.g. see video frame capture of a flooded street from a construction-broken water main at left7) can lead to damage to property that will require fixing. If any excavation must be done on your property to further the construction (e.g. connecting meters to water mains), that is sometimes poorly cleaned up, if at all. If you have damage of these types, they should be included in your damage repair claim.

Continuing Damage

The types of damage seen here may continue to appear for many months after the construction ends. Most engineers advise waiting at least six months before fixing any construction damage. The reason for this is that the adjustment of the home to stresses placed on it by the vibrations isn't fully completed when construction or vibration ends. At right is shown a diagonal construction vibration-caused crack beginning at the wall penetration corner at the lower right of the photo. Its length was marked by the contractor's engineer "expert" the next business day after this damage was done, resulting from pounding on pavement with an excavator. Extension of the crack over time well beyond the initial marking is clearly visible in the photo.

Thus, you may continue to have newly appearing or worsening damage after construction is finished. Such worsening of damage doesn't necessarily mean the house is experiencing damage from some new source. It may be just the slow resolution of the underlying stresses brought about by the construction vibration. In my case, it was well over a year after construction end that damage mostly stabilized.

Damage Age

People sometimes come home from work and find damage that they think is new, which they attribute to nearby construction. Only occasionally are the damaging events or operations witnessed while the damage is occurring. Time of damage onset is usually vital to establishing causation. It is often estimated in litigation contexts by "experts", based on appearance of crack edges, using assumptions and judgments which are scientifically questionable.

For example, the paired photos above show the same drywall crack 3 days after creation (top - early in the construction job) and 139 days later (bottom - 37 days after end of the construction work at this location). There is no difference in the shared portions of the crack edges discernible to the naked eye, in spite of the relatively long period between the photos and some extension of the crack with continued construction vibration. Thus, any meaningful deductions about the timing of this well-documented crack based on its aging with time are impossible by mere visual inspection.9 The hazards of estimating crack timing by inspection, with additional examples in different types of building materials, are discussed in more detail in the CVDG Pro's chapter, Estimating Damage Age. Documentation as close to the time of crack formation as possible is the best way to protect yourself against such unsupportable opinions.

Noise Issues

Construction almost invariably results in noise issues ranging from minor discomfort, to, in extreme cases, potential health issues. While noise issues are outside the scope of the CVDG, homeowners should be aware of their possible contributions to nuisance and inconvenience during the construction. The FTA Noise and Vibration Manual has extensive information on noise impacts that homeowners may need to read. Vibration monitoring equipment has the capability to record sound as well as ground vibration, so any vibration monitoring done will often include sound data (see photo at left for an example setup including a microphone for sound measurement).

Talking with Neighbors

If you see significant damage appear suddenly, during a construction job adjacent to or nearby your home (within hearing distance),10 you should talk with your immediate neighbors about any damage they might have. If only one house is damaged, the construction contractor can blame the damage on the house or you; if several are damaged that argument gets increasingly difficult to sustain. Chances are, your neighbors will not have looked for damage nor will they know of any, so you will probably have to tell them what to look for in their own houses.  Seeing and documenting the damage is not difficult, once you know where to look and how damage appears. The CVDG will help you and them know for what they should search.

Your neighbors may also have a better idea of what was actually done during the construction, if they are at home during normal construction working hours. Learning from neighbors and documenting damage in their homes is a crucial issue which is discussed in more detail on our page, Recording Damage.

This is, by no means, an exhaustive listing of all the kinds of vibration damage which can occur. Instead, I suggest it as a starting point for those who may feel that they have construction vibration damage and want to know for what they might look to find.

1. Structure Response and Damage Produced by Ground Vibration From Surface Mine Blasting, USBM RI 8507, p. 18
2. Ibid., p. 44
3. Ibid., p. 45
4. OSMRE Blasting Guidance Manual, pp. 121-122
5. OSMRE Blasting Guidance Manual, p. 121
6. "When major, structural damage, such as the collapse of brickwork, extensive and serious cracking threatening structural integrity, or concrete cracking is found (apart from the small drying-out or temperature cracks to be found in virtually all concrete) then either the ground motion exceeded 3 or 4 inches per second, or some other reason exists for the damage." OSMRE Blasting Guidance Manual, p. 112
7. The contractor who created the flooded street shown in the photo, by breaking a water main, broke another water line literally in front of the author. This occurred on January 3, 2017 in a new project a few blocks away in which the same contractor was performing a water main replacement and road reconstruction, very similar to the job referenced several times in the CVDG. The author documented the ongoing break, which was confined within a large, deep hole dug to access the line, with a cell phone camera.
8. Cracks in drywall become more difficult to see under conditions of high humidity. The humidity is absorbed by the drywall. It swells slightly, closing the cracks. For this reason, it is often best to look for cracking in the winter, when the humidity in most homes tends to be lower.
9. Viewing this well-documented crack, plaintiffs' experts said, correctly, that it was recent and caused by construction. Defendants' experts said that it was old and pre-existing. Neither conclusion was scientifically justifiable based on inspection of the crack alone.
10. Effective distances for construction vibration given throughout the CVDG are guidelines only, as both sound and ground vibration can travel differently in materials and environments. These approximations are given for those who don't seismographic data on the vibrations available to them.

This is a chapter from the Construction Vibration Damage Guide for Homeowners (CVDG), a 100+ page free document with over 200 color photos, diagrams and other illustrations. It is available at http://vibrationdamage.com as a series of web pages or in full, web navigation and ad-free, as a downloadable PDF document, with additional content not available on the web. The free version of the CVDG is licensed to homeowners and others for personal, at-home use only. A Professional Edition (CVDG Pro), licensed for business use and with over three times as much content, can be ordered from our Order the CVDG Pro page, usually with same-day delivery. You can comment about this page or ask questions of Dr. Zeigler by using our Visitor Comment form. If you would like to discuss vibration damage issues and view additional content not found in the CVDG, Join us on Facebook. Please Like us while you're there.


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