Jeremy had wrinkly feet.
It wasn't an age thing, after all he was only 36. It was that white “prune like” wrinkliness that you get after standing in wet shoes for an hour or two. The problem was his feet were always wrinkly.
“I've got wrinkly feet” he said.
“Try wearing wellies” I said.
“I do wear wellies” he said.
“Does it happen when the tide comes in?” I said.
“Yes” he said “and when the tide goes out.”
“Try standing above the high water mark.”
“I don't know anything about that, I am three miles away from the sea.”
“Are your feet ever dry?” I said.
“Only when I stand on the table” he said “upstairs.”
At this point the cryptic conversation was interrupted by a sort of gurgling noise.
“Sorry” he said “a bit of water in my facemask.”
”Facemask” I prompted “did I catch you at an aquatic time?”
“Oh no” he said “I'm just watching a bit of telly.”
I was rather bemused. “I'll come around and take a look.”
I jumped in the car and soon arrived in front of a low lying house. Jeremy met me at the gate and invited me in. I donned the diving gear at the top of the front steps and finned my way carefully into the living room where Jeremy's wife Enid sat on a sofa knitting.
Have a biscuit she gurgled, sorry it's a bit soggy.
I looked around the room, it was the worst case of rising damp I had seen for quite a while.
Rising damp is an exasperating but very common problem particularly in damper climes such as monsoon areas of the world and Lancashire. Generations have come up with ideas to solve the problem and whole industries have been built by smartartichoke salesmen who charge huge amounts of money for yet another “latest technological breakthrough” that is usually as effective as a draft excluder on a kilt.
Rather like a Jehovah's Witness who has decided to say a prayer in your living room, rising damp is rather difficult to get rid of.
It is all to do with that skin on the surface of water.
“Skin?” I hear you say. Well yes, it's like a skin. Water doesn't get on very well with its neighbours you see, in fact it gets quite stressed. Oh the middle bit is all right but that bit at the surface can't cope very well at all, it suffers a condition known as surface tension.
“Eee I've got a slight touch of surface tension today.”
“Have a nice glass of sherry and you'll soon be all right dearie.”
We all know that if you put water in a glass with dry sides the edge of the water curves down where it meets the glass, in a wet glass the edge curves up, it's a meniscus sort of thing. In a confined space such as a hole or a crack the surface tension pulls the water through. This is of course known as capilliary action and is what makes a wick work as in “this bloke going on and on about rising damp is really getting up my wick.”
In a wall that is permeable, such as one made of brick or light concrete batako, capilliary action allows water to soak up the wall like a sponge. It will rise as high as a metre above ground level.
How do I know if I have rising damp?
Take off your shoes and socks, now are your feet white and wrinkled? No? Ok look along the lower part of your walls. Usually in the lower 30 cms you will find blistering paintwork or damp patches. The blisters often peel off leaving concrete or a white chalky plaster showing. Depending on how serious the problem is you may find damaged paintwork up to a metre up the wall.
Damage may be particularly evident if the ground or floor level is higher on one side of the wall than the other.
Note that in Indonesia walls are generally concrete with a very thin skim of chalky white “plaster”. Do not be mislead this is not plaster as European people would expect, it is only a very thin skim on a very hard concrete render. Try putting a picture hook in the wall and you will quickly develop a rather distasteful absence of humour and a very a bent nail.
So how do we deal with rising damp?
First let us talk about what you don't do.
Rising damp is a common problem in the UK and other damp climates across the world. In many of these countries there are thriving industries providing “solutions” for rising damp. “Solution” is rather an abused word and it is amazing the number of snake oil salesmen who are drilling, wiring, squirting and coating their way through peoples houses, often at large expense and with a remarkably high level of failure.
The most common solution people use is to waterproof render the wall up to a height of a metre on both sides.
A wall has to breathe if it is to dry out. The waterproof coating does not stop the water rising inside the wall but it does stop it getting out. A good friend of mine waterproofed his walls to a height of a metre and the result was that the damp rose even higher and he now has damp patches as high as one and a half metres up his walls.
Another common “solution” involves the injection of silicone or other waterproofing substances into holes drilled in the wall. Sometimes these methods succeed but usually they fail because there is not a continuous barrier along the wall. These methods often also include injecting expanded polymers into the wall cavity – also not a good idea because it stops the air circulation inside the wall cavity. This is not relevant to us because to date I have not yet come across a cavity wall in Bali apart from house walls that back onto someone else's house in which case the cavity is usually disastrously filled with builders rubble, also not a good idea.
Another marketed “solution” involves installing a copper or titanium wire along the bottom of the wall and applying an electric current. A trial of this technique was carried out recently in Bali. Guess what – it failed.
So what can we do?
The standard way of preventing rising damp was commonly used by the Victorians (no, not people from Victoria, the other ones). More than a hundred years ago houses were built with a thin layer of impermeable slate right through the wall about two or three inches (those were those strange measurements the Victorians used) above the ground. Known as a damp proof course it was very effective and is standard building practice to this day although instead of slate a broad bituminous or plastic tape is usually used.
Unfortunately in Victorian times tourists didn't come to Bali and there has not been an enthusiasm amongst Balinese to go to the exotic climate of Britain. The Dutch colonialists didn't think it prudent for the Indonesians to learn about such technical knowhow as damp proof courses - heaven forbid they might start thinking they are a first world country. In Bali damp proof courses are not built into house walls and hence there is a common problem with rising damp which is evident in many, many houses.
An effective solution for installing a damp proof course in an existing wall involves cutting a slot through the wall and inserting an impermeable tape. Shims and wedges are needed to support the wall until it is grouted up. Unfortunately this system is not currently available in Bali.
Probably the best method to use in Bali is to install a sloof.
The bottom few centimetres of the wall are replaced using high strength concrete with waterproofing additives. This sloof must cover the full length and width of the wall to provide an impermeable band just above the floor. If the ground or a concrete floor are higher on one side of the wall the sloof must be continued between the ground and the wall to ensure a continuous barrier.
It sounds drastic but is surprisingly painless and not expensive - unless you have marble wall tiles of course. A sloof follows the sound logic the Victorians used.
As a final comment if you are building a new house and you specify a damp proof course don't expect one to be installed. Even if the builder did know what you are talking about suitable materials are unlikely to be available. The best bet is to specify an effective sloof at the building stage and check to make sure it is installed. As usual builders here have a built in poverty avoidance instinct which has an aversion to expense creating items such as sloofs.
Rising damp can be beaten but beware of smooth talking salesmen with fancy products and follow the techniques used by the Victorians and you can avoid wrinkly feet.