Critical Warning Signs, How To Detect Masonry And Mortar Failure

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This image shows the exterior wall of a building made of tan-colored bricks The bricks are arranged in a diagonal pattern creating a textured surface There is a small vent or opening visible in the wall and some dried or dead vegetation is hanging from the wall adding a natural weathered element to the scene The image appears to be taken outdoors with some trees visible in the background suggesting this is the exterior of a residential or commercial building
Cracking as signs of masonry and mortal failure

Imagine walking through your neighbourhood and seeing a once-beautiful brick home with crumbling mortar, flaking bricks, and a sagging facade. It’s a sad sight – and a costly one for the homeowner. But with regular masonry maintenance, this fate is entirely preventable. For Ontario homeowners, taking care of masonry isn’t just about preserving your house; it’s about preserving a piece of our shared architectural heritage.

Understanding and Identifying Masonry Issues

Masonry may seem indestructible, but it’s vulnerable to an array of issues, especially in Ontario’s harsh climate:

  • Efflorescence: Those unsightly white stains on your bricks? That’s efflorescence – crystallized salt deposits that can indicate moisture infiltration. Caused by water seeping through porous bricks or degraded mortar.
  • Spalling: If you notice bricks flaking, chipping, or crumbling (spalling), it’s often due to moisture seeping into the bricks and then freezing, expanding, and breaking the brick’s surface. Spalling can also result from improper manufacturing or repeated exposure to aggressive chemicals.
  • Frost Damage: Ontario’s freeze-thaw cycles can be brutal on masonry. When moisture seeps into bricks or mortar and then freezes, it expands, cracking or crumbling the masonry. Telltale signs include cracked bricks, loose mortar, and widening gaps between bricks.

Your Masonry Maintenance Checklist

Preventing masonry problems starts with regular DIY maintenance:

  • Annual Cleaning: Each spring, give your bricks a gentle scrub with a soft-bristled brush and a mild detergent solution (1/2 cup of dish soap per gallon of warm water). Rinse thoroughly with a hose on a low-pressure setting. Never use a pressure washer, which can damage bricks and mortar.
  • Drainage Checks: Ensure your gutters, downspouts, and grading direct water away from your masonry. Check for pooling water or signs of moisture infiltration after heavy rains.
  • Mortar Checks: Each fall, inspect your mortar for signs of crumbling, cracking, or widening gaps. If you can fit a dime into a gap, it’s time for repointing (more on that later).
  • Sealant Refresh: Every 5-7 years, have a professional apply a breathable, water-resistant masonry sealant to protect against moisture infiltration.

The Power of Professional Inspections

Even with diligent DIY maintenance, it’s crucial to have a professional mason inspect your brickwork every 3-5 years. They can spot hidden issues and nip them in the bud before they snowball into costly repairs. In Ontario, it’s especially important to schedule an inspection after a harsh winter or a season of extreme temperature fluctuations, which can accelerate masonry damage.

During an inspection, a professional will:

  • Check for signs of efflorescence, spalling, and frost damage
  • Assess the condition of your mortar and recommend repointing if needed
  • Inspect for structural issues like bowing, sagging, or separated bricks
  • Check for proper drainage and moisture management
  • Recommend any necessary repairs or preventative measures

DIY vs. Pro: Knowing Your Limits

Handy homeowners can tackle minor masonry repairs like replacing a few cracked bricks or spot-repointing small areas of damaged mortar. However, most masonry work is best left to the pros. Improper technique can worsen existing damage and even create new problems.

In particular, always hire a professional for:

  • Structural repairs (e.g., fixing bowing or sagging walls)
  • Extensive repointing (replacing mortar across large areas)
  • Brick replacement spanning large areas
  • Sealing or waterproofing masonry
  • Any repairs requiring scaffolding or specialty equipment

The Cutting Edge of Masonry Repair

When you do need professional repairs, ask about the latest technologies and techniques:

  • Laser Cleaning: This precise, eco-friendly method uses laser light to vaporize stains, paint, and grime without damaging the masonry underneath. It’s ideal for historic brick that may be too fragile for traditional cleaning methods.
  • Tuckpointing: For crumbling mortar, tuckpointing is a two-tone repointing method that gives the illusion of very fine joints, enhancing your brickwork’s appearance. Masons use a mortar dyed to match your bricks for the bulk of the joint, then apply a thin ribbon of contrasting mortar down the center.
  • Breathable Sealants: Modern masonry sealants are designed to repel water while still allowing bricks to “breathe” (release moisture). This prevents the moisture buildup that causes spalling and frost damage. Look for sealants with a 5+ year warranty against water infiltration.

Vetting Your Masonry Contractor

When hiring a mason, look for:

  • Proof of liability insurance and WSIB coverage
  • 5+ years of experience, with a portfolio of similar projects
  • Knowledge of Ontario Building Code requirements for masonry
  • Positive reviews and references from past clients

Key questions to ask:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • Can you provide proof of insurance and WSIB coverage?
  • What experience do you have with projects like mine?
  • Can you walk me through your repair process and timeline?
  • What kind of warranty do you offer on your work?

Winterizing Your Masonry

Ontario’s winters can wreak havoc on masonry. To prevent costly damage:

  • Schedule your annual inspection and any necessary repairs before the first freeze.
  • Ensure your masonry is properly sealed to prevent moisture infiltration.
  • Check that your gutters, downspouts, and grading direct snowmelt away from your foundation.
  • Remove snow accumulation from masonry surfaces to prevent refreezing and moisture damage.
  • In the spring, check for any new cracks, gaps, or spalling caused by freeze-thaw cycles.

The Bottom Line: Maintaining Value and Beauty

Well-maintained masonry doesn’t just boost your home’s curb appeal; it’s a smart financial move. Potential buyers will pay a premium for a home with pristine brickwork, while neglected masonry can deter buyers and drag down your property value.

More importantly, by caring for your masonry, you’re preserving a piece of Ontario’s architectural heritage. Our historic brick homes and buildings are a testament to the craftsmanship and resilience of generations past. By maintaining your masonry, you’re not just protecting your home; you’re honoring the legacy of those who built it.

So whether you’re tuckpointing a Victorian townhouse in Toronto or sealing a mid-century ranch in Windsor, know that your masonry maintenance matters. With regular care and a trusted masonry partner, you can ensure your home stands strong and beautiful for generations to come.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  1. How often should I have my masonry inspected by a professional?
    • It’s recommended to have your masonry inspected by a professional every 3-5 years. However, if you live in an area with harsh winters or extreme temperature fluctuations, like many parts of Ontario, you may want to schedule an inspection more frequently, especially after a particularly severe winter.
  2. Can I use a pressure washer to clean my bricks?
    • No, it’s not advisable to use a pressure washer on your masonry. The high-pressure water can damage bricks and mortar, leading to more severe issues down the line. Instead, use a soft-bristled brush, a mild detergent solution, and a garden hose on a low-pressure setting to gently clean your bricks.
  3. What’s the difference between repointing and tuckpointing?
    • Repointing is the process of removing damaged mortar and replacing it with new mortar to restore the structural integrity of your masonry. Tuckpointing is a specific repointing method that involves using two colors of mortar – one that matches the bricks for the bulk of the joint, and a contrasting color for a thin ribbon down the center. This creates the illusion of very fine joints and enhances the aesthetic appeal of the brickwork.
  4. How can I tell if my masonry needs to be repointed?
    • If you notice crumbling, cracking, or widening gaps in your mortar, it may be time for repointing. A simple test is to try fitting a dime into the mortar gaps. If the dime fits, the gaps are wide enough to warrant repointing. However, it’s always best to have a professional assess your masonry to determine the extent of the damage and the best course of action.
  5. Can I seal my masonry myself, or do I need to hire a professional?
    • While it’s possible to apply masonry sealant yourself, it’s recommended to hire a professional. Proper application requires expertise and specialized equipment to ensure even coverage and optimal protection. A professional will also be able to recommend the best type of sealant for your specific masonry and climate.
  6. What should I do if I notice masonry damage after a harsh winter?
    • If you notice any new cracks, gaps, or spalling in your masonry after a harsh Ontario winter, schedule a professional inspection as soon as possible. Catching and repairing winter damage early can prevent more extensive and costly issues down the road. In the meantime, remove any snow accumulation from your masonry surfaces to prevent further moisture damage.
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