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settlement cracks in wall and ceiling and popping ceiling fan
17 April 2004

Q. We have a problem with settlement cracks in the wall and ceiling of the living room of our 20 year-old house. Ten years ago I repaired the cracks using fiberglass tape and spackling. The repair lasted five years. The photo shows the crack on one side of the wall and there is a corresponding crack on the other side of the wall and adjacent ceiling. What is the best method to use to repair these cracks? I am also concerned that they may not just be cosmetic. Any suggestions?

A. The split in the drywall you repaired ten years ago that reappeared five years later is showing up at a narrow butt joint of two sheets of drywall at an opening that just happens to have the exact drywall seam configuration on the wallís flipside. Youíre lucky it worked out for you that the seam is close enough to the corner of the opening to open the seam rather than create a diagonal split that normally runs at approximately a 45-degree angle from the corner molding of the opening towards the ceiling. Itís easier to fix this split than the diagonal tear.

The cause of the split is natural movement of building materials. As your house ages, the natural wood components tend to move, swell and shrink at minute rates in response to changes in their environment. I donít like to use the term settlement because that suggests whatís moving is doing so due to a weakness of the bearing beneath. Thatís not whatís happening. The changes your house is experiencing include both moisture from humidity changes producing slight swelling and shrinking to a slight sagging of floor joists over time in response to the constant pull of gravity. The last change is called creep and simply means that lumber placed to span a given space can sag towards the center a bit over time. It doesnít signal any sort of structural trouble other than it annoys people. Extreme examples of this sort of sagging are a normal fact of life in historic homes and buildings. The outside walls are square and plumb but walking the floors inside is almost an exercise in urban hill climbing. Doorframes are all akimbo and everything looks out of square even to the most oblivious eye.

The first repair you did with the fiberglass tape and drywall mud that gave you five good years service could probably be repeated and you may even get more time out of it. To do the job right youíll need to remove all of the old tape and drywall compound to begin building it up as new. The trick is using a wide drywall knife and feathering out the joints about six to eight inches from the center where youíve placed the tape.

I prefer fiberglass joint tape for this type of repair. Standard drywall comp ound is OK but since the job is small the fast drying stuff will work too. For the really intractable, constantly reappearing cracks I suggest using a water-based latex tub and tile caulk to fill the crack and feather the joints. The material stays supple and with luck will move along with the drywall. Drywall compound is brittle and will only crack in response to any movement.

Q. I have a ceiling fan in my bedroom and occasionally it makes a popping/cracking type of sound. Rarely do I use the fan- just the light and it doesn't matter if the light is on or not when this happens. What does this mean?

A. Your fan motor is telling you something is very wrong with it and if I owned it Iíd take it down and take it as apart as far my skill level would allow and if I couldnít see what was wrong then rather than push my luck Iíd toss it out and get a new one. I have heard of pet hair getting inside of those motors causing small shorts that crackle and pop and that may be it but this is something I would not ignore. Itís a lot cheaper to replace this fan than deal the mess and hassle of cleaning up after a fireóif you survive it.

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