Sagging floors, doors that won't close and cracks that appear in interior walls can be symptomatic of a more serious problem. You may have undersized support beams, support posts that are rotting and losing their structural integrity, or undersized post footings that are settling. It's important to stop this problem and reverse it before it gets worse and becomes more costly to repair.
We'll show you how to identify two common causes of floor sagging, the best tools for lifting and shoring (temporarily supporting) a house beam, and the steps to safely replace a post. The actual work of repairing three to four posts and footings takes three or four working days spread over 10 days. Add to that the time to plan the work and obtain any required building permits.
Raising the main beam that carries the floors and interior walls of a house is complex. Don't tackle it if you're a novice. When you raise a house even 1/2 in., the effects can ripple through the building's framing, plaster walls, rigid piping and chimneys. For this reason, only specialty contractors should raise a beam or wall more than about 1 in. or undertake extensive floor leveling.
Floors sag because the posts supporting a house beam are failing and/or the footings holding those posts are undersized and sinking. Diagnose the problem by seeking the easiest solution first; go further only as needed. If your posts directly contact the floor, start by using a screwdriver to probe the base of your wood posts to reveal any rot that could have caused them to settle.
If the post isn't rotting, the concrete footing it's on is almost certainly sinking or has deteriorated. Compare the old footing's dimensions with an engineer's recommendations and current code requirements (see next section). To get at the footing, you'll have to saw through and strip off the concrete floor covering it, then dig down one side of the footing until you can measure its length, width and thickness (Photos 1 and 3). The 7-1/4 in. circular saw we used won't cut through slabs more than 2-1/2 in. thick. For cutting through thicker slabs, rent a 14-in. concrete saw fitted with a diamond blade. Hang plastic sheeting to block migrating dust.
Our floor sagging occurred because the post bottoms had rotted and the footings were undersized. Besides pouring new footings and restoring the posts, we added plinth blocks (Photo 12) to elevate the wood above moisture on the basement floor.
Posts and footings support the weight of your house, so you have to size them right. Consult with a structural engineer, local building officials and contractors who specialize in this work. Hire the professionals to review all aspects of your project and provide the calculations and drawings necessary to obtain a building permit (Fig. A). Look for listings in the Yellow Pages under “Engineers, Structural,” and interview those who do residential work and have experience with this type of project. You can expect them to:
- Evaluate soil and its load-bearing capacity.
- Examine your house to identify possible problems from jacking it.
- Calculate proper footing, beam and post sizes. Review your work plan. Show them the jack, shoring posts and spreader boards you intend to use to make sure they're sized to lift and safely hold your house beam.
Repair or replace posts or footings by raising the beam with a hydraulic jack and 4x4 post, then shoring it with adjustable steel posts (Photos 4 and 5). Buy a hydraulic jack and rent the shoring posts for the project. If you're removing and resetting more than one basement post, use one hydraulic jack and move from station to station as you install and later remove the shoring posts.
CAUTION: As a house beam is raised, any rigid plumbing, gas, electrical or heating lines in the basement connected to the beam, the floors or walls above could rupture. Before jacking the beam, release the connectors holding these lines and support them with lumber resting on the basement floor (Photo 2). To monitor the total rise during lifting, measure and write the floor-to-beam heights on the beam where hydraulic jacks will be placed. Then remove or cut any nails, screws or straps that join the posts to the beam.
Cut a 4x4 or 6x6 jacking post to fit between the jack piston and the beam. Place a 1/4-in. thick steel plate between the piston and the bottom of the post to prevent the piston from becoming embedded in the post. Snug the post up to the beam by closing the jack's release valve and pumping the jack handle up and down to raise the piston.
Center a shoring post on its spreader boards about 12 in. from the 4x4 jacking post. Then lower the post's screw head to its lowest position, raise the telescoping sections as high as they'll go under the beam and insert the metal pins to lock the sections together. Raise the screw head to its centered position under the beam and attach the top plate to the beam with duplex nails.
To avoid cracking the basement floor, lay two “weight-spreader” boards under hydraulic jacks and shoring posts (Photo 3). Place the boards flat and level to ensure a safe lifting base for the jacks and posts. If you have a concrete floor less than 2 in. thick, ask the engineer if you should substitute thicker lumber to prevent floor cracking. Check along the cut edge of the concrete floor for voids that would collapse under lifting pressure. If you find any, ask the engineer for remedies to the problem.
Jacks apply tons of hydraulic force to lift the wood jacking post and beam, so select a virtually knot-free Douglas fir or Southern yellow pine 4x4. Don't use 2x4s or weaker woods like cedar or redwood. Use a 6x6 if you're jacking houses with two or more stories. Once the spreader boards are laid and the hydraulic jack is set in place, cut the 4x4 to length. Measure the height between the support beam and the top of the jack's lowered piston, then deduct 1/2 in. and cut the post to length.
Snug up the 4x4 to the beam and position the shoring post (Photo 5). Now you're ready to lift.
Raise the house beam by pumping the hydraulic jack very slowly using short strokes. Raise it no more than 1/2 to 1 in. total to release the weight from each post. Measure from the floor to the beam to monitor the beam's rise. Have an assistant simultaneously raise the shoring post as tight as possible against the beam to provide backup load support. When the old post loosens, remove and label it for reuse.
I have never lifted a house beam without having the hairs stand up on my neck as I pumped the jack and heard the beam, floors and walls above groaning in response. Before lifting, double-check your equipment, visualize your plan and think safety. Follow these rules:
- Only use shoring posts rated to carry your beam load. Rent whatever type exceeds the load specified by the structural engineer.
- As the hydraulic jack lifts the beam, turn the handle of the shoring post to keep the post head tight to the beam (Photo 6).
- Only use shoring posts to support a beam while work is under way. Never use hydraulic jacks as shoring devices. Jacks may have defective internal seals that could leak hydraulic fluid and cause the jack to slip and drop the load.
- Raise the beam only until the post is released. Once the load is released from the old post, have an assistant remove the post. Then label both its top end and its location along the beam for exact repositioning later.
Excavate the footing hole to the specified size, digging the sides and bottom of the hole square and level. Scrape loose soil from the bottom of the hole until you reach undisturbed soil. If the soil caves in along the edges, install 1/2-in. plywood to hold the dirt back. Remove them while pouring the concrete.
If you have to replace undersized footings, it's time to excavate, place steel reinforcing rods and pour concrete for them. With the post removed, break out an undersized footing with a sledge and shovel (wear goggles and gloves) and pour the new one. Follow Photos 7 – 10 and these tips for building solid footings and plinths:
- During excavation, make a depth gauge to ensure a footing with uniform thickness and a level bottom (Photo 7).
- Suspend the reinforcing rod two-thirds down inside the footing for maximum strength. Buy 2-ft. lengths of 1/2-in. rebar at home centers.
- Select concrete with a minimum compressive strength of 4,000 psi (check the packaging, or order it that way). For maximum strength, add only the amount of water specified by the manufacturer.
- Mix and pour all the concrete for each footing in less than one hour so that the batches bond well.
- Save time by setting the plinth block on a still-wet footing once the concrete can support the weight of the block. To accommodate our 6x8 wood post, we used a standard 8x8 half-corner block. Make sure your plinth is at least as large as your post.
Install the post on a new plinth and footing only after the concrete has cured for seven days.
Wood posts are easier to work with, so stick with wood rather than metal. Home centers and lumberyards carry steel “mono-posts” and steel posts with telescoping sections, but you need special skills and techniques to properly support wood beams with steel posts. Consult with engineers and/or local building officials before using them.
Your local building officials may insist you install only new, pressure-treated 6x6 posts set on plinths. We had no such restrictions and reused our old wood posts because they were still tall enough after sawing off the rot (Photo 11). Most old posts don't have a square, level top. Don't change that. For the best contact and load transfer, reinstall the posts exactly in their original position under the house beam, with all those old irregularities fitting like a hand in glove. To prevent any moisture from wicking into the post from the plinth, lay sill sealer or galvanized sheet metal between the two (Photo 12).
In your excitement to reset the posts and finish the job, don't take risks. Use an assistant and lower the jack very slowly, leaving the shoring in place while putting weight onto the posts.
Complete the job by installing the specified metal straps and T-braces (Photos 13 and 14) to connect the plinth block, post and house beam all together—especially in earthquake- prone areas. Once that's done and the support strapping is reinstalled on all gas, electric, plumbing and heating lines, you'll have the satisfaction of completing a job that will last for the life of the house.