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Question DetailsAsked on 1/26/2016

Long hairline cracks appear on ceiling after D.C. blizzard

Shortly after a blizzard, I noticed two hairline cracks in my ceiling. They are very thin, and appear to be in a straight line crossing multiple rooms. Home was built in 1959 and is one-story. In one of the cracked paths (which does a little zig-zag), I notice a small area where it appears to have been dealt with before, which would have been 12+ years ago.

I just had a new roof installed 6 months ago, but I'm thinking this may be unrelated. The cracks appeared (assuming I had not "not noticed" them before) after a major blizzard. I had a crew remove all the snow from the roof after I noticed the cracks. While the snow was still there, at one point I heard a brief creaking sound.

I am the furthest thing from a do-it-yourselfer; I need to know who to call in and what they should be looking for. Also, I'm wondering if now that the snow has been removed should I remain expensively holed up in a hotel in an abundance of caution, or can I reside in my own house while I figure this out.

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Most likely, since you did not mention major cracking sounds, broken framing, collapsing drywall ceiling, etc, your concern is most likely excessive - though very understandable, and until the snow was removed better safe than sorry.

Unless the rafters/trusses were replaced in your roof (and with lesser strength ones than before), just a reroof (shingles and maybe sheathing) should not have been a factor.

I am guessing, particularly since some of the areas in the blizzard had pretty wet, heavy snow in the 2-3 foot depth range, that your roof was likely loaded to near design capacity so it likely started deflecting the floor joists/trusses which support the roof enough to cause fairly straight (except where it might jog around walls or an access hatch opening) cracking along (typically) the long axis of the house - perpendicular to the attic trusses or joists, and generally near or at the centerline of the house.

Under that kind of load, some creaking and even popping sounds and minor nail screeching or wood cracking noise would be normal - indicating the load was redistributing within the framing. Unless you saw significant wide cracking of the ceiling, permanent deflection of the ceiling after the snow was removed, cracking or tilting walls, or see cracked or broken or detached members in the roof framing, is it likely no damage was done. Failing roof support wood framing almost always (unless there are defective connections) makes a LOT of noise for some time (hours or days) as it loads up before it breaks, and you would be almost universally be seeing significant ceiling deflection and cracking and possibly ceiling drywall collapse or breaking up before it reached failure load. In our area, where snow storms can dump up to 3-6 feet of snow in a storm and up to about 7-9 feet on the ground in late winter, even when roofs do partially collapse there is dramatic noise and severe disruption of ceilings, cracked and protruding joists, etc before a major collapse occurs, so your one creaking would not be aq cause for dramatic concern.

Since the snow load is off, which was probably about 3/4 of the total weight on the roof and support system at that time, I personally would not, barring seeing pretty significant physical signs of failure in the attic (or major swaybacking or offsets in the roof surface), have any concerns about moving back into the house. Barring major, clearly visible broken framing and such, even with a moderately damaged roof as long as significant snow load did not come back on it before it was fixed, basically if it had not collapsed by now (under the full blizzard load) it is very unlikely that it will under minimal snow load before it can be fixed.

If you are concerned still, or cannot get into the attic yourself to look around, the definitive answer on whether permanent damage was done would be a Structural Engineer for about $200-350 for a site visit - plus possible design costs should any major damage be seen.

A cheaper solution, which I would feel comfortable with in this sort of case, would be to Search the List under Home Inspection and find a home inspector who used to be a general contractor or framing carpenter to go into the attic and look at it, for probably about $100-150 range. If he saw no breakage or detached members, then you would most likely be good. If he did see problems, then the next step would depend on whether it was just a cracked member or so which could be "sistered" by a Carpenter - Framing to reinforce it to full strength, or major damage requiring a Structural Engineer to develop a repair plan for a General Contractor or Framing contractor to repair. In a vast majority of such cases as long as there is no significant visible roof surface swaybacking or any collapsed roof areas, and no clearly evident swaybacking or drooping of the ceiling or trusses/rafters, all is fine.

For future reference - with a house of that age, "safe" snow loads (in thickness on the roof) is likely in the general range of about 3 feet or loose powdery snow, 1.5-2 feet of "snowball/snowman" packing snow, about 1 foot of very wet slushy snow or other snow with significant rain on it, or about 3-4 inches of ice in areas where the snow has been rained on or melted to icepack or has formed an ice dam or glaciering - very ballpark numbers of course and assume normal construction and roof support in good though aged condition. Visualize what conditions you had, and figure for those conditions the thickness you had on the roof was probably a bit more than you want to be comfortable with in the future - especially considering that once it gets that thick you cannot control whether more snowfall will come before it melts or can be cleared, or if freezing rain or rain will fall on it towards the end of the storm.

Answered 4 years ago by LCD


I am the person who posed the question.

I have consulted with a structural engineer, on the phone, who is 99% sure there is no ongoing threat that would necessitate me vacating the house until repairs are done (an examination is on hold for a few more days pending an asbestos test on attic material - one sample negative, but I ordered a more extensive test).

However, the hairline cracks have gradually proliferated in the two weeks or so since removing the snow from the blizzard. There's still no sagging of the ceiling or the roof outside. Some of the hairline cracks have extended, and others have appeared on the ceiling; also, around the top of a couple of interior doors. No creaking. No snow since the original incident but very cold; I'm back at a hotel, since we're only dealing with a few more days. Any ideas?

Answered 4 years ago by Guest_9173066


Hmmm - like him I am quite confident there is no imminent hazard without cracking and tearing sounds or large cracks - assuming your house is not perched on a hillside or bluff that might be the cause of the cracking as it starts to fail.

With the snow load off but cracks still propogating, that largely eliminates that as a cause of the cracking unless the roof was very close to failure and broke the connections between walls and attic floor joists or trusses so the walls are continuing to push out under just the roof dead load - possible but very rare, and I have never heard of it happening without horrendous cracking and tearing noises in the attic well in advance of any failure. Also, cracking at the corners of the windows (presumably typical settlement cracks - diagonal outwards and upwards from the upper corners) makes it sound more like a setlement issue because a roof framing failure more commonly causes cracking along the top of the walls (especially outer ones) and sometimes a series of horizontal cracks across the wall as it bows out.

So - sounds like the remaining more common potential causes are:

1) termite or carpenter ant damage to the structure, causing gradual settlement and gradual structural movement as they eat away the structure

2) a foundation failure - remotely possibly related to the snow load if it was weak in the first place, but also possibly totally unrelated to that

3) general slope stability problem causing house movement

4) remotely possibly the storm and associated cold weather caused ground freezing that blocked shallow groundwater movement, so you are getting a buildup of groundwater pressure on the foundation, causing movement

5) ditto to above except possible pressure on foundation moving it due to freezing ground and/or groundwater close to the house

One thing you have not said is if you have contacted your homeowner's insurance company - generally they will not cover foundation, groundwater, earth pressure, or long-term structural design or progressive failure issues - sometimes insect damage - but since you are into a pretty significant cost here in temporary housing and inspection and any resultant repairs it might well pay to get them into the picture to see if they will cover some or all the cost.

Whether you do it ASAP so they cannot balk on costs incurred before they were called, or wait for the preliminary structural engineer inspection to see if it is from a cause that they might cover is a tough call - the first puts you ahead $ wise if covered loss, but risks them raising your rates even if it turns out to be from a cause they do not cover.

Either way - with the cracks continuing to grow without snow load, you do need to track this cause down - and if the upcoming storm starts dumping a significant amount of snow on your area I would gaet it removed before it exceeds about a foot or so (maybe even less if heavily rained or iced on) not wait for it to accumulate to several feet, to be on the safe side until the cause if determined.

Answered 4 years ago by LCD

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