Vanishing edges, rooftop installation, and all-tile interiors place an ever higher premium on making sure that no water migrates where it doesn't belong. But the task of waterproofing is one that the industry is still fine tuning.

Sometimes it helps to solve a problem by first unpacking all its parts. By doing this, you can see some things in a different context or detect surprising connections between components.

The design/construction education group Genesis believes this will begin to help solve the ever-elusive waterproofing equation. It recently decided to form a new waterproofing technical committee to write a position statement on the subject.

“We’ve just seen too many failures out there to assume someone’s going to figure this out,” said Genesis Education Director David Peterson. “There’s not one product that fits all, and we need to come up with a set of guidelines that everyone can look at from a defensible position.

“There’s no entity that you could look at for help, no industry group for it.”

The mission

The position statement is meant to gather all information currently available regarding best practices for applying each type of waterproofing system, choosing the best product for an application, performing each construction stage to ensure success, and what types of systems can and cannot mix.

Genesis does not plan to write a standard. In fact, the paper will draw partly from existing standards developed by organizations such as the Tile Council of North America. The committee also will gather information from manufacturers of waterproofing products, tile and cementitious finish materials to see what is needed to ensure their products’ success.

Many decisions factor into a waterproofing system’s success or failure. The technical committee hopes to provide guidance for each of these choices. However, it doesn’t expect to come up with a formula for all projects, or even pools and spas that meet a specific profile. The task of determining the best waterproofing system, or combination thereof, involves too many factors and must be done individually, said Peterson, also president/CEO of San Diego-based Watershape Consulting.

“We need flexibility and options,” he said. “But we can definitely say, ‘This system will not work with this type of finish,’ for example.”

In addition to providing guidance in design and construction, the statement could help plaintiffs, defendants and expert witnesses during litigation, Peterson added. “I want a document where ... I can say, ‘Here’s the position statement from the industry. Here are all the supporting standards and documents,’” Peterson said. “... It makes it a little harder to defend one side or another when you don’t have [that].”

In compiling all the information, the group expects to reveal gaps in information, and to discover which long-held assumptions lack the data to back them up. “Then we can ask, ‘How do we get that? Is there someone willing to do tests?’” Peterson said.

But sometimes it’s just a matter of connecting the dots. While planning and discussing the Orlando presentation, some of the manufacturer panelists learned about common practices that could pose serious problems with their own products. Some didn’t realize, for instance, that plasterers often work in spiked shoes. Walking over a membrane-type waterproofing coat will poke holes, which could prove lethal to a product meant to remain monolithic.

Genesis doesn’t know yet if the position statement will take the form of a single document or a group of papers. However many result, Peterson expects to produce them in the same format as other Genesis position statements, which places as much emphasis on citations and explanation as to the guidance itself.

Currently, the committee has signed up a few waterproofing, tile and finishing materials manufacturers, in addition to some Genesis contractor members. More may join, and membership may change throughout the process.

The challenge ahead

The information is needed more than ever, as pools and spas evolve.

“Projects are just getting more and more complicated,” Peterson said. “Things have progressed even in the last five years, where what was working five years ago is not now. And the products are changing. ”

To say the least, many pool and spa contractors feel hesitant about waterproofing systems. This stems, in part, from some fairly recent catastrophic failures, including major delaminations.

“A lot of builders got burned out there having to replaster pools for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Peterson said. “… These builders did the best they could, given the state of information and the technology at the time.”

Partly to blame, many say, are certain manufacturers, who seemed to enter the market without thoroughly assessing how their systems would perform in pools and spas, and who have since left. “If they’re waterproofing showers, that’s one thing,” Peterson said. “But waterproofing a concrete shell in the ground where there may be groundwater is really different.”

When first joining the industry, manufacturers may not know the materials used to finish pools and spas, or how they respond to conditions such as expansion/contraction or hydrostatic pressure. Small tiles, with their many grout joints, will move differently than a monolithic coat of plaster. “[With small tiles,] expansion and contraction issues were not sheering the waterproofing products,” Peterson said. “Understanding that plaster is a really different thing took a little while.”

This industry represents small potatoes for many waterproofing manufacturers, so some will only invest so much in learning about pool/spa products.

With this position statement, Genesis hopes to better arm the industry to ferret out unprepared players. Designers and builders may better recognize when something doesn’t seem right, and manufacturers new to the market can receive guidance.

But there’s still the issue of installer error, which Peterson believes accounts for most waterproofing problems, whether from willfully ignoring standards and manufacturer instructions, confusion amidst the many components, or lack of information on system compatibility.

“We have multiple manufacturers and multiple subcontractors, all layering their stuff on top of each other,” Peterson said. “Any one of those things could be the root cause of the failure.”

But builders and their subs don’t necessarily discuss this and plan together. “The waterproofing guy knows what he needs to do, but he doesn’t know who’s coming after him, and he doesn’t necessarily communicate to the guy before him on how he needs to finish,” Peterson said.

Without all the information in front of them, builders are somewhat flying blind.

“You could do everything right, but if you’ve got a groundwater situation that you didn’t know about, it’s not going to matter that every layer was done perfectly, if you’ve picked the wrong system. There may be a system for that, but you have to know what it is before you get started.”

Genesis expects its position statement to help communicate all these issues so contractors can make sound decisions. The group plans to finalize the committee by year’s end and at least have a game plan in place by February. But it will take several months to compile the information and make recommendations.

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