The Shifting Truth: How Kentucky's Expansive Soils Lead to Foundation Cracks

July 21, 2023

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Cracks in concrete basement walls or cinder block crawlspace foundations are a common - and alarming - issue for many homeowners in Kentucky. From hairline fissures to wide gaps, these cracks enable water intrusion, compromise structural integrity, and can even lead to collapse in extreme cases. If your Kentucky home's foundation is showing signs of abnormal cracking, it's critical to understand why it's happening in order to determine the right solution.

Expansive Soil and Foundation Cracks

The root causes of foundation cracks vary based on the region and geology, but Kentucky's problematic expansive soils are a major contributor to cracking foundations. Expansive soils are clay-based and prone to shrinking and swelling cycles that shift and stress overlying structures. This issue isn't unique to Kentucky, however. The states surrounding Kentucky, including Tennessee, Indiana, and West Virginia, also contain areas of unstable expansive soils that lead to cracked home foundations.

In Tennessee, the Memphis area is especially vulnerable, with the clay soil wreaking havoc on foundations there. Parts of Indiana struggle with the same issue, particularly neighborhoods built on clay-heavy soil. And in West Virginia, the entire southwest region of the state is prone to expansive soil conditions thanks to the clay deposits and former riverbeds that characterize the landscape there.

foundation crack in a Kentucky home foundation due to settling and expansive soil

The Science Behind Expansive Soils

Why are these soils so unstable, leading to cracked concrete and shifting home structures? Clay shrinks and hardens during dry conditions. But clay absorbs and expands when wet, putting outward pressure on foundations. Areas with heavy clay deposits experience dramatic seasonal soil moisture changes, as well as longer wet and dry cycles. The clay expands and pushes foundations upward in wet seasons, then contracts and pulls away from foundations in dry spells. This cyclic expanding and contracting literally pries homes' foundations apart at the seams. Cracks form, foundations sink and shift, and extensive structural damage can occur if left unchecked.

Combining this clay-based soil with the moderate humidity and seasonal rainfall patterns in Kentucky and nearby states creates the perfect storm for foundation issues. Homeowners in these areas must be vigilant about the identification and repair of foundation cracks to prevent worsening or catastrophic damage. Proper drainage, foundation maintenance, and moisture control techniques can help mitigate the problems caused by unstable, shifting soils.

10 Tips for Kentucky Homeowners on How to be Proactive

If your home is built on expansive clay-based soil, it's important to take preventative measures to minimize foundation damage. Be proactive in managing moisture levels around your foundation year-round. Maintaining proper drainage is key!

  1. Install gutters and downspouts to direct water away from your foundation. Make sure to keep gutters and downspouts clean and make repairs quickly
  2. Slope the grade around your home's perimeter at least 5% within 10 feet of the foundation to improve drainage
  3. Use landscaping with native drought-resistant plants and trees to help dry out swelling soils
  4. Inspect the foundation and soil around your home's perimeter during wet and dry seasons for changes
  5. Apply water or irrigation to foundations during drought to stabilize moisture in shrinking clay soils. Be sure also to research foundation watering systems if living in extreme drought regions
  6. Seal minor cracks quickly with caulk or epoxy before they worsen
  7. Address standing water issues in basements and crawlspaces right away
  8. Consider professional basement waterproofing if moisture problems persist
  9. Monitor floor levelness and walls/ceilings for signs of foundation shifting
  10. Maintain recommended moisture levels in crawlspaces and basements

This information was put together by our team at Louisville Foundation Repair Pros. Please reach out to us if you have additional questions about your foundation or require our foundation repair services.

If you'd like to learn more about the types of soil where you live, the Web Soil Survey website is a good resource to start with.

foundation crack in the concrete wall of a home in Louisville KY

Answering Your Questions About Foundation Cracks

How do you know if a foundation crack is serious?

Cracks over 1/4 inch wide, cracks rapidly expanding or worsening, and cracks accompanied by sinking, bowing, or shifting may indicate a serious foundation problem. Consulting an engineer helps determine severity.

What size foundation cracks are bad?

Cracks wider than 1/4 inch, vertical cracks, and horizontal cracks near the tops of walls are most concerning. Multiple 1/8 inch cracks in a wall or cracks showing deterioration also indicate underlying problems.

Is it OK to have cracks in foundation?

Small hairline cracks are typical, but larger, expanding, or compounding cracks indicate foundation issues. Cracks under 1/8 inch that don't grow over time are usually not problematic by themselves.

How much foundation cracking is normal?

A few hairline cracks under 1/8 inch are common as concrete cures. Up to 10 small cracks throughout a foundation may be acceptable if they do not expand. More or rapidly growing cracks are not normal.

When should you walk away from foundation problems?

If an engineer determines the issues are too severe for repair, or repair costs exceed 70-80% of rebuilding, it may be best to walk away. Homes damaged beyond stabilization or compromise safety may also be unsalvageable.

Are foundation cracks a deal breaker?

Not necessarily, if they are minor, stable cracks. Multiple expanding cracks, uneven floors, or cracks over 1/4 inch should be inspected by an engineer and may be deal breakers if repairs are very costly.

When should I be worried about cracks in my house?

Contact an engineer if cracks exceed 1/4 inch, you notice new cracks, existing cracks are expanding, walls are bowing or floors are uneven, or you observe signs of sinking like drywall cracks.

Are horizontal or vertical foundation cracks worse?

Vertical cracks are most concerning because they indicate sinking and unstable foundations. Long horizontal cracks near tops of walls also indicate serious structural issues.

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