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A lingering smell under the floor; with Peter Fall.

Copper and cement together can cause problems, warns Peter Fall.

THEY arrived before the removal van and their hearts sank. The warm comforting home they had seen during the viewings was now a stripped-down shell of a house.

The walls and carpets were a patchwork of dirty marks outlining where the previous owners' pictures and furniture had once been. How could they have moved out and not cleaned through!

I've heard the story many times from clients, each looking back to their previous home, scrubbed clean to look its best for the new owners. But this house also had a smell, the pervading odour of cigarette smoke and cats. A smell they hadn't noticed when they viewed.

All that was last November and in the first few days the floors and walls were scrubbed to within an inch of their lives. All but the essential furniture was piled in the garage or the spare room and only moved into place once they were happy with the cleanliness. But the smell didn't go away.

Redecoration and new carpets were a big help, there's nothing like fresh paint to overpower a lingering pong, but it never went fully away.

An early project was to change the living room fire surround. Last weekend was the day to strip the room, in time for the builder to start. That's when the problem was found.

They lifted the TV cabinet to find the carpet beneath was not only wet but the base of the almost new cabinet was falling to pieces. They peeled the carpet back to find the concrete floor at that end of the room was saturated. The foam underlay dripped water and the paper lining simply disintegrated. And the smell was back.

Where had all this water come from? The affected area was next to the internal back wall of the room but the floor near the outside was dry. There were no exposed pipes nearby but there was a radiator adjacent. Some parts of the wet floor were perceptibly warmer than other parts. It had to be a leaking heating pipe under the floor.

The next day the builder arrived to start on the surround but was diverted to the floor. Careful exposure revealed copper pipes embedded into the concrete screed with pin holes spurting forth water once the heating pump was turned on. The cause of the leak was found . A fact that is not commonly known but should be by any competent plumber is that copper and cement don't get on together. Because of that, when you bury copper pipes into a concrete floor, you must always coat the pipe or isolate it from the concrete. Nowadays we have specially coated copper pipes just for this purpose but back in the 70s, when this house was built, the plumber was expected to wrap the pipes in a gungy tape called Denso. This was a time-consuming and messy job so needless to say if no one was watching, it got missed off.

The solution now is to cut off all the pipes that were run under the concrete floor and create a new system of pipes. These can go back under the floor, providing you isolate them from the concrete.

The smell, you can be certain, was a delicate blend of the wet concrete, rotting paper and saturated underlay. I don't think it had much, if anything, to do with little pussy.

? Peter Fall, a chartered building surveyor, is a former president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, tel: 0191 284 3467 or go to
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 4, 2012
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