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Handyman Q&A

Poor Attic Ventilation Creating Quite the Crackup


Question: The drywall in my house separates from the ceiling and opens a gap of a quarter-inch in the winter. In early spring the gap closes completely and stays that way until late fall. The drywall tape comes loose from the wall, and the gap is most significant on the walls toward the interior of the home.

There is negligible or no separation of the tape along the walls around the perimeter. The problem is severe on the second floor but nonexistent on the first floor.

At first I thought it had something to do with settling, as I had noticed considerable settling of the soil outside. A specialist inspected my home and told me that the foundation slab was in perfect condition and settlement was not a factor.

I have had contractors look at the problem and received two standard responses. One is that the workmanship of the original builder was poor and the tape used was of poor quality. The other answer is that this is related to humidity. During the winter the air inside the house is dry and it causes the wood in the joists to buckle.

But most contractors are perplexed that this happens only upstairs and not downstairs. They also seem surprised that the gap is as wide as a quarter-inch.

Do you know what is going on? More important, do you know how I can fix it?

Answer: What you describe is a classic case of seasonal expansion and contraction. The problem stems from excessive dampness, due to poor attic ventilation or a poorly insulated attic. The moisture content of the framing members (rafters and ceiling joist) in the attic above the second floor increases during the damp season and, thus, they expand.

This expansion causes the roof-ceiling framing to pull away from the wall framing, resulting in the gap between walls and ceilings.

The problem will disappear when the weather warms and the framing dries out. The reason that it is occurring on the second floor and not on the ground floor is because the attic area is subject to moisture and condensation more readily than the area between floors.

The condition is happening at the interior walls rather than the perimeter for a couple of reasons: Attic ventilation is usually better at the perimeter, which would prevent condensation and expansion. Another possible reason is that interior walls usually are not insulated. The heat in your home is, therefore, allowed to escape through the walls into the cool attic. Consequently, condensation occurs at the ceiling joist, causing expansion.

You can solve the problem by taking the following steps:

* Make sure your attic is well-ventilated. Add eave vents, gable venting, a ridge vent or turbine ventilator.

* Be certain that household exhaust fans (range top, bathroom and laundry) do not discharge into the attic.

* Check to make sure that the attic is well insulated--R-38 minimum, and more if you live in a cold climate.

* Control air infiltration by installing gaskets at electrical outlets and switches.

Keep in mind that you will only minimize expansion by taking these steps. Some cracking at the wall-to-ceiling connection might continue. You can further prevent cracking by making sure the ceiling joists are securely anchored to the top of the wall framing with nails, screws or L-brackets.


Repaint Door, but First Do the Proper Prep Work

Q: I painted my formerly stained front door with gloss exterior latex, but the paint sticks to the door's rubber weather stripping. In fact, it pulls the paint off of the door. It also seems like it never dries. I sanded the door before I painted it until the surface was dull. What is the solution?

A: It sounds as if the latex paint is not compatible with the previously stained finish, or the door wasn't properly prepared for the fresh coat of paint.

For a long-lasting "nonstick" finish, we suggest you start from scratch. Sand off the gloss exterior latex-paint finish down to the previously stained surface. Apply a coat of high-quality oil-base primer and touch-sand it smooth when it dries. Vacuum the dust and apply two thin coats of high-quality oil-base enamel.

Although you could again use latex paint, we suggest that you use an oil-base finish. Oil-base paint is more abrasion-resistant, is easier to keep clean and will cling to your entry door. While we prefer oil-base paint for interior doors and trim, you can get away with using latex, provided the surface is properly prepared and you use high-quality paint. That it is sticking leads us to believe that the paint might be inferior or was applied too thickly. In either case, a light sanding and application of a thin coat of finish should do the trick.

Be certain the door is not closed until the paint has had an opportunity to fully dry--usually at least a week. This might mean removing the weather stripping until the paint has dried.

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