If you noticed that the concrete in your basement has white, powdery stains, this is known as efflorescence. It’s a common problem in the world of construction, and to this day, contractors are still trying to figure out how to avoid the problem.
When talking about efflorescence, many wave it off as nothing more than a visual nuisance. Because of this, the discussions about efflorescence mostly focus on why it happens and how to remove it. However, the existence of efflorescence stains on your concrete indicates a much larger issue that needs to be addressed. If it isn’t, long-term problems can arise that threaten the structural integrity of your concrete.
In order to avoid such pitfalls, here’s everything you need to know about efflorescence problem signs.
How To Detect Efflorescence
When first encountering efflorescence stains, especially in basements, some homeowners confuse it for mold. However, efflorescence is not a microorganism like mold is. Efflorescence occurs when the soluble salts and minerals in the concrete encounter moisture. As the moisture evaporates, it brings the salts to the surface, where they gather and form a stain. Therefore, when you touch a concrete surface, the efflorescence stains are a bit powdery: What you’re feeling there are salts and minerals.
Efflorescence is caused by several things: the quality of the materials used, the humidity levels of the area the concrete is in, how porous the concrete is, how old the concrete structure is, the humidity levels of the place the materials were stored, and the amount of water used when producing the cement.
If you’re worried about efflorescence appearing on your concrete, let’s go ahead and look at what can be done to detect the problem signs before they appear. After all, prevention is often a lot less expensive and time-consuming than repairing.
- Visual Signs
Efflorescence is a process that takes a few years to occur, depending on the material used for the cement and the amount of water the concrete comes in contact with. If it’s been more than a year since the cement was mixed and you begin to notice small efflorescence spots on the concrete, it’s only a matter of time before more salts rise to the surface.
Another possible sign of efflorescence is concrete pitting. Concrete pitting is when the surface of the concrete begins to flake and fall off. Sometimes, small holes are formed on the surface as the concrete begins to deteriorate. This can be a sign of efflorescence for three reasons:
Concrete pitting occurs when the concrete was mixed inadequately. Efflorescence occurs for the very same reason. If the materials used in the cement mixture aren’t of good quality and pitting occurs, it’s highly likely that the minerals in the cement will have an easier time rising to the surface.
As the concrete pits and causes the structure to crack and break down, water has an easier time penetrating the concrete. Concrete is already an absorbent material to begin with, but if it gets even more porous, efflorescence is more likely.
And finally, the third reason concrete pitting indicates future efflorescence stains have to do with what happens when the salts in the concrete are misplaced. As the salts move about and rise with the evaporating moisture, it clogs up the pores of the concrete. Because of this, when moisture does accumulate, it has a harder time evaporating. During the winter, this is terrible for concrete due to the freeze-thaw effect.
When the water in concrete freezes, it expands by about seven to nine percent. If the pressure caused by the expanding ice passes the concrete’s tensile limit, it breaks the concrete apart, causing more pitting and cracking.
- Water Damaged Basement
Other signs that your concrete might develop efflorescence stains lie in the condition of the rest of your basement. If your basement is water damaged, there’s enough moisture to affect the concrete. Some things in your basement might show signs of water damage sooner than the actual concrete itself. For example, mold can start growing on wood.
If your basement has frequent leaks, high humidity, and a deteriorating structure, it’s only a matter of time before the efflorescence stains emerge. In order to prevent this from happening, you need to take active measures to waterproof your basement.
- Speak to a Professional
If you’re able to get in contact with the contractors who mixed the cement and built your basement, do so. Try to get information on the kinds of materials they used to make the cement mixture. If your basement was built a long time ago, it’s possible that they might have developed a different way to mix it, but it’s still worth a try.
The more carbonate and sulfate salts present in the mixture, the more likely it is to develop efflorescence stains. Calcium carbonate is the salt most likely to cause problems with efflorescence.
The most common type of cement used is Portland cement. Unfortunately, efflorescence is incredibly common with this type of cement.
The best way to determine if the stain on your wall is mold or efflorescence is by touching it. If the stain is soft and wet, it’s most likely mold. If the stain is rough and leaves a powdery, white substance on your fingers—it’s efflorescence, which is nothing more than salt. If you don’t want to touch it, you can always try to scrape the surface off. We recommend using gloves to touch the substance, or just making sure to wash your hands after.
It’s not advised that you try to smell the stain to determine what it is in case there is mold growth. Mold can be very dangerous, especially if you have respiratory issues or a weak immune system. Breathing in the mold spores can irritate the sinuses, throat, and lungs, and constant exposure can lead to further complications. Besides, the salts in the concrete are not like the salts in your kitchen cupboard. It wouldn’t smell like traditional salt, so smelling the stain will not give you any clues as to what it is.
- Test The Concrete
A great way to test how likely it is for your concrete to develop efflorescence stains is to purposefully try to bring out stains in a test. Spend the next week or two pouring water on a small spot on the concrete every day. Then, let the spot dry for a few weeks, but for faster results, try to dry the spot with fans or with a heater. If you notice that the spot is whiter than the rest of the structure or it has a powder substance, that’s efflorescence.
If you didn’t notice much of a difference or the development of efflorescence was minimal, consider yourself lucky: your concrete is strong and the materials used in mixing were of high quality. However, if a lot of salt rises to the surface of the concrete, you’ve got a problem on your hands.
Can Efflorescence Be Removed?
If you’re a homeowner who has been struggling with ugly efflorescence stains, you’re in luck. Because efflorescence is just surface salt, it can be easy to remove. Most of the time, you’ll find that efflorescence can be taken care of by simply brushing it off. The white substance at the surface of the structure is just salt, so it’s brittle and easy to break and remove.
Pressure washing is another common method used to remove efflorescence, but it might not always remove stains. Not to mention, it could bring up salt in other parts of the concrete if you aren’t careful.
If you’re looking to completely remove the efflorescence stains, this might prove to be a little more complicated. Sometimes, diluted white vinegar has been proven to erase concrete stains. However, as with many things regarding efflorescence, it’s hard to predict if it will work all the time. Sometimes, the salt components in the structure prove to be too strong for simple vinegar to handle.
If white vinegar doesn’t work, a stronger, acidic substance should be mixed with the vinegar, such as citric acid. After scrubbing the concrete, a strong alkaline product should be used to counteract the acidity of the previous products.
- Why You Should Consider Calling a Specialist to Remove Efflorescence
The substances used to remove efflorescence create a mixture that is harmful to the skin, so make sure to use the proper protection. If you aren’t sure about how safe it is to use, always contact a specialist that can help with the job. Sometimes, calling an expert can save you from a lot of trouble. Not only do they have access to the tools to do the job thoroughly, but it also spares you from having to mess with dangerous products.
There are many commercial products that can be bought to remove efflorescence stains, but you have to be careful when using them. If the structural integrity of your concrete is deteriorating, strong acidic products could further harm the soundness of the structure. A professional can determine just how strong your concrete is and whether or not it can withstand the cleaning procedure.
An inexperienced DIY fixer can make the stains worse by using too much water. Excess amounts of moisture only serve to bring out more salt to the surface. If you do that, even if you remove the initial stain, more efflorescence can develop a few weeks down the line.
Can Waterproof Paint Help with Efflorescence?
Waterproof paint is only effective if it’s applied immediately after the cement mixture dries and the concrete is put into place. If you already have a problem with efflorescence on your concrete, waterproof paint might make things worse.
Just because the efflorescence stains are visible doesn’t mean that all the moisture is gone from the concrete. By applying waterproof paint, you are trapping the remaining moisture in the cement. As mentioned previously, this can lead to the destruction of your concrete due to the freeze-thaw effect when winter comes around.
What Do I Do If Efflorescence Ruined My Concrete?
If efflorescence has completely taken over your concrete or you’ve moved to an old house and inherited this problem, there might still be hope. You can contact a specialist to assess the damage and see how much of the efflorescence can be removed, how much of the wall can be repaired, and what can be done to avoid this problem in the future. Many companies offer free inspections, so it won’t cost anything to simply ask someone who knows what they’re talking about.
If any part of the wall needs to be replaced or filled in, a professional will be more likely to produce a cement mixture that will not have the same problems with efflorescence. There are many commercial products used for concrete resurfacing, but these aren’t reliable. Many of those products use cheap materials, which is usually what causes efflorescence in the first place.
Next, you should be thinking of waterproofing your basement. The faster you’re able to fully waterproof the space, the better. To fully waterproof a basement means to encapsulate it and install a sump pump and dehumidifier. This might seem overwhelming, but it’s worth it to avoid the headache all homeowners feel when they have a flooded basement.
Basements are known to be constantly humid, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Even using just one waterproofing method can reduce the likelihood of efflorescence by a significant amount.
While efflorescence on concrete is an issue that can be fixed, it’s a lot easier to preserve and prevent when it comes to these issues. If you learn to understand how efflorescence comes to be, it’ll be much easier to do something about it.
Whether or not efflorescence can be dealt with or prevented depends on how the stain came to be. There are two ways in which efflorescence can occur: primary efflorescence and secondary efflorescence.
- Primary Efflorescence
Primary efflorescence is caused by the specific material used in the cement mixture and how the mixture was processed. If the cement was mixed poorly, efflorescence stains appear two to three days after the cement is poured. This quick turnaround typically occurs with cement that’s too porous. Because of how easily moisture moves about in porous concrete, it displaces the salts quickly. If it’s been less than a year since the concrete was made and it’s stained, it’s considered to be a result of primary efflorescence.
Dealing with primary efflorescence is extremely frustrating as a homeowner. You look forward to beautiful, smooth new concrete, only for it to develop stains a few days after creation. It’s incredibly difficult to prevent primary efflorescence stains because it highly depends on the materials used and the contractor mixing the cement.
- Secondary Efflorescence
Secondary efflorescence occurs when a dry concrete structure is exposed to moisture. Because the salts in concrete are soluble, they move along with the water particles as the moisture evaporates and rises to the surface of the structure. Unlike primary efflorescence, the salt content was already present, but the moisture is introduced externally.
This kind of staining typically develops a year after the concrete is made. Secondary efflorescence is a lot easier to avoid because it’s all about preventing water from coming into contact with the concrete.
Understanding how efflorescence comes to be is the best prevention tool. While it can’t always be stopped, knowing what goes into creating cement can give you an edge when it’s time to mix cement or alter your basement.
- When It Can Be Prevented
For any home projects that involve pouring cement, speak to the stonemason on the job. Even professionals who have been in the business for decades occasionally get a bad mix. The best thing you can do as a homeowner is to speak to the contractor about the kinds of materials that can be used to avoid staining. There are special admixtures used specifically to discourage efflorescence
If you’re worried about efflorescence on your already existing wall and want to avoid it, all you must do is waterproof the space where the concrete is. You can speak to a basement waterproofing expert on the best way to go about doing so. It’s important that full waterproofing measures are put into place. Waterproof paint is not enough to stop efflorescence stains, so it would be a waste of time and money to use it. The best thing you can do to ensure you have a sound, stable concrete structure in your basement is by encapsulating it and installing a sump pump.
- When It Can’t Be Prevented
If your basement has humidity problems, efflorescence is inevitable. Even if the basement is waterproofed eventually, the moisture has already made its way inside the concrete. Unless the cement was mixed to perfection with all the moisture-resistant admixtures available, the salt has already begun to move about.
Concrete that has suffered from structural damage or is decades old is also more likely to experience inevitable efflorescence. Because secondary efflorescence staining relies so much on the soundness of concrete, weaker, deteriorated structures are more susceptible to staining.
Every year, more and more homeowners across the country are waterproofing their homes because they understand the risks of having a humid basement. Things that were simple annoyances, such as humidity and mold, are now better understood to be health risks.
Because efflorescence also occurs due to water, you might be wondering if it’s just as dangerous as mold. Efflorescence does not cause the same health problems mold does, but it does indicate a larger problem.
- Why It Isn’t Dangerous
Efflorescence isn’t dangerous because it doesn’t cause the same health issues mold does. It also doesn’t eat away at other materials like mold does with wood. Mold growth can be a much bigger problem than efflorescence because of how difficult it is to get rid of. Mold is a microorganism that tries its best to survive and grow, so it can withstand a lot. Its persistence is part of what makes it so difficult to manage.
On the other hand, even if there is a moisture problem in your basement, it could take years before the salts rise in your concrete. Efflorescence is easy to remove, and replacing the structure is unnecessary once the stain is taken care of.
- How It Can Be Dangerous
Although there are no health risks associated with efflorescence, it can cause the deterioration of your concrete. As the water displaces the salt, it clogs up the pores in the concrete. Because of this, any remaining moisture in the concrete is unable to escape. Not only does this contribute to the humidity in your basement, but it also spells trouble during winter.
Because of the freeze-thaw effect, the water in the concrete will freeze and expand, causing concrete pitting. Concrete pitting typically only affects the surface of the concrete, but because the moisture is trapped inside due to the efflorescence, the internal structure is affected. In northern states like Minnesota and North Dakota (where the temperature can go below 40), this is a big issue.
Call Innovative Basement Authority To Check the Soundness of Your Basement Concrete
Since 2005, Innovative Basement Authority has been keeping the buildings in Fargo, ND, and Rush City, MN, stable and secure. We specialize in all kinds of wall repair as well as basement waterproofing.
If there’s efflorescence on your concrete, it indicates a much larger problem that needs to be addressed. Contact us today, and we can get a field expert out to your home for a free inspection. You’ll get a rundown of everything that can be done, as well as an estimate.