What to Do When You Find an Old Wet Concrete Slab
Some flooring contractors assume that an old slab is a dry slab and they don’t take the time to test for concrete moisture in remodeling projects. This assumption can be costly.
Excess moisture in the concrete slab can cause serious flooring problems, such as adhesive failure, discolored tile or grout, bubbles in sheet vinyl, and buckling of wood floors. An old slab under existing flooring can easily contain enough moisture to cause these issues for the new flooring.
It is easy to understand how the normal wear and tear of building use could cause a moisture problem. Leaky plumbing, appliances, or roofing can introduce water that is then absorbed by the concrete slab. Changes in property grading or failed drainage systems can allow outside water to drain toward the building and into the slab. Also, the under-slab vapor retarder can deteriorate over time and begin allowing groundwater into the slab. In fact, in older buildings, an under-slab vapor retarder may never have been installed in the first place.
But it surprises some contractors to learn that another possible source of excess moisture in an old concrete slab is the water that was used to pour and cure the slab during initial construction. You can’t assume that the slab was given adequate time to dry and in the right conditions before flooring was installed. You can’t even assume that the concrete slab was accurately tested for excess moisture prior to flooring installation.
Even if the current flooring isn’t showing signs of excess concrete moisture, that doesn’t mean the new flooring won’t fail. It might be only a matter of time before the excess moisture starts causing visible problems. Also, older flooring materials often had higher moisture tolerances. So, even if the slab was dry enough for the old flooring materials, it may not be dry enough for the flooring materials you are about to install.
To protect your customer and your reputation, never assume an old slab is a dry slab.
Check Early for Possible Moisture Problems
Only accurate testing will tell you whether there is a concrete moisture issue. However, a quick visual inspection of the existing flooring may help you alert your customer to possible moisture problems earlier in the project.
Check for buckling or shrinkage in wood flooring, discoloration in tiles and grout, and bubbles in vinyl sheets. Look for adhesive that is bleeding at joints or loose floor coverings. If possible, do spot checks underneath the existing floor covering. Is the adhesive dry? Is there a good bond between the concrete and floor covering? Do you see or smell mold or mildew?
Depending on what you find during your visual inspection, the customer may need to call in other experts, such as building and health inspectors.
Test for Success
Before installing flooring, always test concrete moisture to ensure the relative humidity (RH) levels are within the manufacturer’s specified limits.
Know the Moisture Tolerances of the Flooring Products
Flooring manufacturers specify requirements for concrete moisture levels. This is true for all components of a flooring system, from subflooring up to the floor covering itself. Installing a product in conditions that exceed the specified limit can result in a flooring failure and a voided warranty. The only way to be sure that the slab is dry enough to install the flooring is through accurate testing.
Use an RH Probe Test Method that Complies with ASTM F2170
For many years, the moisture vapor emission rate (MVER) method was commonly used in the United States. This method, also called the “calcium chloride” or “CaCl” test, is often considered less reliable than scientifically-backed tests that industry experts choose.
Also, testing with a concrete moisture meter alone isn’t enough. Although a concrete surface meter may help you find problem areas, it’s the moisture level within the concrete that really matters. Before a concrete slab is covered, moisture is constantly traveling from deep in the concrete up to the surface, where the moisture evaporates. If nonpermeable flooring is installed (flooring that does not allow moisture to escape), the moisture from the concrete gets trapped between the slab surface and the flooring. If the moisture is excessive, the flooring can fail.
That is why many flooring manufacturers now recommend, or even require, concrete moisture testing that complies with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) F2170 standard. This testing method has been proven to accurately predict what moisture levels will be at the slab surface once a nonpermeable covering is installed.
The ASTM F2170 standard specifies the testing method for finding the RH in concrete floor slabs using in situ probes. To purchase a copy of the ASTM F2170 standard, go to the ASTM website. Some of the key points of the ASTM F2170 standard are summarized here.
Conditioning: For at least two days before testing begins and during the 24 hours testing period, the temperature and RH levels in the room need to be at the conditions that will exist once the room is in use (“service conditions”).
Test locations (probe installation sites): Perform three tests for the first 1000 feet and at least one additional test for each additional 1000 feet.
Probe installation: Install each probe at 40% of the slab’s thickness for a slab drying from one side and at 20% for a slab drying from two sides. Thoroughly clean each drilled hole to remove dust that could cause false readings.
Probe equilibration: Allow 24 hours for the probes to reach moisture equilibrium with the concrete.
Ambient conditions at time of test: Read and document the ambient RH and temperature at the time of concrete RH testing.
Reporting: Record the RH and temperature readings from each probe site and the ambient RH and temperature readings, along with details about the testing location.
Calibration: Calibrate probes at least annually and within 30 days before use.
The Rapid RH® L6 Makes ASTM F2170-Compliant Testing Fast and Easy
The Rapid RH® L6 concrete moisture testing system was specifically designed to make it easy to take fast and accurate readings that follow the ASTM F2170 standard.
For simplified probe installation: Rapid RH L6 Smart Sensor probes are 1.6” in length (40% of a 4” thick slab). Each Smart Sensor pack includes extensions for thicker slabs so that you can easily install probes at the correct depth. Rapid RH L6 testing kits include an insertion tool, vacuum attachment, and other accessories to further simplify installation. For details, see Rapid RH L6 and 5.0 Smart Sensor Installation.
For fast and accurate readings: Taking a concrete moisture reading is easy with the Rapid RH Total Reader®. You simply insert it in the Smart Sensor, wait for the first reading to appear (about three seconds), and then remove it. The display toggles between the RH and temperature values. Once the Total Reader is removed from the Smart Sensor, the readings from that Smart Sensor will continue to display for about 5 minutes or until the Total Reader is inserted into another Smart Sensor.
Within an hour after installation, the Rapid RH generally gives readings within 3-5% RH of the readings you will see after your official readings at the ASTM-required 24 hours. This lets you start making business decisions sooner, and having any conversations you need to have without holding up the schedule. Because Rapid RH L6 Smart Sensors stay in place, you also do not lose time waiting for the probes to equilibrate between readings.
For monitoring of ambient room conditions: The Smart Logger™ tracks ambient temperature and humidity, even when you’re away from the job site. The Smart Logger monitor works in tandem with the Smart Logger mobile app.
For easy reporting: Forms provided with the Rapid RH L6 make it easy to record the information required by ASTM F2170. Or, you can download the DataMaster™ L6 app to your mobile device to greatly simplify ASTM F2170 reporting.
Calibration is never required: Rapid RH L6 Smart Sensors are calibrated at the factory and ready to use right out of the box. Also, Wagner Meters provides a NIST certificate for each sensor, which meets the ASTM F2170 requirements for calibration documentation. Because Rapid RH L6 probes are used only once, recalibration is not required.
When You Discover an Old Wet Slab …
If the Moisture Source Has Been Removed
If the moisture problem was caused by a water source that can be removed, such as leaky plumbing or faulty drainage, then flooring installation should not begin until the problem has been fixed.
Once the moisture source has been removed, then the situation is a lot like a new construction project. The concrete needs enough time to dry and in the right conditions. Be sure doors, windows, and the heating and cooling systems are working. If repairs required new paint and plaster, allow them to thoroughly dry. Ensure the room is at the temperature and humidity it will be once the room is in use. Once drying conditions are right, give the concrete slab enough time to dry.
Before installing the flooring, repeat the RH probe testing to verify the slab is dry enough for the flooring materials you are about to install.
If Moisture Control Is Required
If the concrete moisture source can’t be removed, as in a vapor retarder that is no longer intact or was never installed, then you will likely need to find a moisture control solution.
Use only products that are compatible with the finished product you are installing, per the manufacturer. When in doubt, contact product technical representatives for guidance. Provide them with the concrete moisture testing results so that they can give you project-specific recommendations.
Moisture control systems generally fall into three categories.
Some adhesives are more moisture-tolerant than others. When this is an option, it is generally the least expensive solution. Make sure to discuss your specific application with the appropriate technical representatives, especially in a slab that doesn’t have an intact vapor retarder.
A moisture membrane is a physical layer that is installed between the concrete slab and the floor covering. Membranes are designed to lessen the level of moisture that reaches the floor covering. These membranes come in rolls or sheets. They may be referred to as “vapor barriers” or “vapor retarders.”
Because wood flooring is particularly susceptible to absorbing moisture from its surroundings, the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) recommends always installing a membrane between the concrete slab and wood flooring. For specific recommendations, see Subfloor Focus: Minimizing Moisture – Part 2: Use of Vapor Retarders over Concrete Subfloors.
Moisture Control Coatings
Moisture control coatings are designed to minimize the amount of moisture that is in the slab from interacting with the flooring system on the slab. A broad range of products fall into this category.
The installation process can be as simple as a single roll-on coating or as complex as concrete resurfacing followed by application of two-part mixes. Some even require additional installation steps, such as the application of primers and sand broadcast layers. Installation and replacement costs for these systems can be high, which makes close collaboration with the coating manufacturer especially important.
Don’t Let an Old Wet Concrete Slab Cause Your Flooring Project to Fail
Never assume an old slab is a dry slab. No matter how old the slab, some of the water used to pour and cure the concrete could still be present in the slab. No matter how good the existing flooring looks, the concrete slab moisture could be too high for today’s newer, moisture-sensitive products.
ALWAYS test concrete moisture before installing flooring. For accurate testing, use an RH probe test method that follows the ASTM F2170 standard. For fast and easy ASTM F2170 compliance, use the Rapid RH L6 concrete moisture testing system.
If you find a wet slab under the existing flooring, do not start installation until the problem is resolved. When using moisture control systems of any type, protect your customer and your reputation by following the manufacturer’s guidelines.
Last updated on July 27th, 2020
Jason has 20+ years’ experience in sales and sales management in a spectrum of industries and has successfully launched a variety of products to the market, including the original Rapid RH® concrete moisture tests. He currently works with Wagner Meters as our Rapid RH® product sales manager.