What scary noise is my home making?
January 6, 2010 8:39 PM   Subscribe

What is this muffled gunshot sound I hear occasionally in my home?

Once every couple of weeks, but occasionally more often, I hear a sound like a muffled gunshot in a stairwell of my nearly 103-year-old lathe-and-plaster home. It's a big, two-story Foursquare Style farmhouse (a one-off of this design). The main, slightly newer, part of the house sits on a limestone foundation over a crawlspace; the older part sits over a limestone basement that floods every spring until the water table settles down.

One relative who is fairly knowledgeable about such things noted the cracks in the plaster over some drywall and said we would need to put a jack under that load-bearing wall someday but that it wasn't cause for immediate concern. Well, I'm concerned. Does cracking plaster make a sound?

I don't know what has kept this place standing to even date and am concerned that this is a horrible structural problem. I am utterly alone in my worry; people keep telling me how well-built these old places are. But no one can tell me what that noise is. Is this perhaps just an ancient home settling?
posted by bryon to Home & Garden (19 answers total)
Those jacks are pretty easy to install, I'd look into it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:42 PM on January 6, 2010

This is a pretty wild shot in the dark, so to speak, but perhaps chunks of internal plaster are working loose and falling onto some semi-hallow (amplifying the noise) surface behind the walls?
posted by edgeways at 8:43 PM on January 6, 2010

I'd bet it's your house settling. What, specifically, it is? ...no idea... but I've lived in places that do that. Hell, I live in a newer 8 story building that does that!

posted by 2oh1 at 8:43 PM on January 6, 2010

Whenever I hear those sounds, I think it's either a gunshot, a car backfiring or fireworks. It could be the house, though as I remember hearing some of the strangest sounds when we lived in our old house.
posted by VC Drake at 8:45 PM on January 6, 2010

My house makes crazy sounds too. One of the especially scary ones is the old water heater when refilling(?) and heating. I think that means my hard water has scaled the inside, and it needs cleaned or replaced. My house is a rental for 6 more months, though. So, I deal with the banging.
Is it associated with bathing or other hot water use?
posted by grieserm at 8:48 PM on January 6, 2010

It could be the plaster, it could be the beams in the frame expanding and contracting from temperature fluctuations and then popping against each other at the joints (aka "settling"). It could be something else structurally that you're not aware of. Is it possible to have someone check out the area behind the stairwell with a flexible inspection camera? (This would involve drilling a hole to feed the camera through).
posted by Burhanistan at 8:51 PM on January 6, 2010

Grieserm, no, it isn't. This is in the part of the house farthest from any water. Often I'm alone during the day or the rest of the family is asleep when I hear this noise. But don't get me started on the noises the fridge makes.
posted by bryon at 8:52 PM on January 6, 2010

Older buildings, especially built with wood supports - in the wintertime, the change in temperature and humidity can cause shrinkage and old old old friction-connected connections can break causing loud 'pops' that can be quite low (in frequency) especially if the timbers are quite large. Usually, it's not a problem, structural-integrity wise; just something that old buildings do.

Not sure why it doesn't do the same when it gets warm again, but I suspect that the changes in the opposite direction are slower or that the 'grip' comes from the warm weather and doesn't 'set' when it's cold (or sets when it becomes cold).

The noises that your fridge makes... does it sound like a version of a really loud mechanical shudder? My old old fridge that came with my rental apartment does the same thing and I suspect that the compressor is on it's last legs dealing with partially evaporated coolant.
posted by porpoise at 8:58 PM on January 6, 2010

This, "The main, slightly newer, part of the house sits on a limestone foundation over a crawlspace; the older part sits over a limestone basement that floods every spring until the water table settles down." says a lot. First, you have portions of the house that were built at different times and are supported by different methods. The interface of these two sections are constantly being subjected to differing stresses. It is not surprising that one part of the house might be rubbing against the other or "tweeking" it a bit. Given that both parts of the house are fairly old, this is probably not a problem. Now, add in the fact that the basement floods annually. This probably is accompanied by swelling and shrinking of the ground under the foundations. In short, your house is constantly in motion.

Now, as to the cracks that your relative has observed. Are these at locations very near where the old and not-as-old sections of the house meet? This may indicate that one or the other of the foundations is sagging. If they are elsewhere in the house and not getting any bigger, it can just be normal movement of the structure due to seasonal heating and cooling.

I would take pictures of the cracks and then forget about it or a few months. Look at the cracks and see if they match the pictures after that length of time. If so, go back to sleep. If they are significantly bigger, call in a foundation expert for advice. If you can't get it out of your mind, call him in right away for either peace of mind or a structural solution.
posted by Old Geezer at 9:07 PM on January 6, 2010

What kind of heat do you have? If you have hot water from a boiler, and there's a bit of air in the pipes, it can make crazy loud bangs.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:33 PM on January 6, 2010

It absolutely could be a plumbing problem, perhaps a water hammer.
posted by procrastination at 10:14 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I second the cold theory. Your profile doesn't say where you live, but i suspect it is someplace cold.

contraction/freezing, etc.......my deck "pops" like that all the time.
posted by HuronBob at 6:34 AM on January 7, 2010

could be anything. Without further description, we can't tell. For example, it could be the heating system. A copper pipe could be binding as it cools down and contracts. The pipe breaks free making a loud bang. Or maybe you have steam heat. Water could be pooling in one of the pipes, so when steam hits it and condenses, the water is sucked into the resulting vacuum and bangs against the opposite side of the pipe. Or maybe you have an animal living in your attic. Or maybe a tree overhangs your house that occasionally drops limbs onto the roof. Long story short, no one here will be able to tell.
posted by malp at 7:00 AM on January 7, 2010

Look at the cracks and see if they match the pictures after that length of time.

You can also draw a couple lines across the cracks with a straightedge and a marker. Check it every so often and that'll give you an idea of how much it's settling, at what rate, whether it's seasonal, etc. Your flooding basement is also going to influence the soil settlement, since water provides a buoyant force when it's present in soils. Ideally, you want your soil moisture conditions to remain constant over time. That prevents a lot of cyclical settlement issues that can wreak havoc on your foundation, structure and interior finish.
posted by electroboy at 7:18 AM on January 7, 2010

Also, a walnut falling out of a tree onto a metal roof sounds like your house is being attacked with a trebuchet.
posted by electroboy at 7:19 AM on January 7, 2010

Furnace? Ours made some serious banging sounds whenever it felt like it until we got it fixed.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:00 AM on January 7, 2010

Is there a window in this area? In the cold winter where I live (and even in fairly new buildings), every so often I'll hear a loud gunshot sound--sometimes loud enough to startle me, and it's the glass/window frame expanding (or condensing?) because of the extreme temperature differences on each side of the pane. It really does startle me sometimes because the noise is loud enough that I expect to see a crack in the glass, but it's always fine. That's a testament to the level of sounds settling can make!
posted by Eicats at 9:38 AM on January 7, 2010

Furnace, and probably plumbing, would probably sound more often (daily rather than weekly.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:17 AM on January 7, 2010

A little more info: I live in northeast Kansas, and it's cold here. The heating system is two freestanding stoves, both on the main floor: one vent-free propane and one wood. The noise is coming from the west side (the front porch in the picture in the link) and the water pipes and faucets are in the middle and east side.

Porpoise: I have wondered whether it's some of the laths in the wall breaking. I know there are a lot of them, but that would, eventually, become a problem, wouldn't it? (As for the fridge, it makes a gurgling noise. I think it's normal; it's just weird.)

Eicats: There are three windows in the stairwell where I hear the noise; the glass or window frame expanding in the cold or when it's warmed a little by sunshine or chills further at night is another possibility. I, too, would expect broken glass, but your experience suggests that's not necessarily so. Thanks.

I'll try photographing or marking the cracks as suggested and see what I learn. Many thanks to everyone.
posted by bryon at 11:39 AM on January 7, 2010

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