How does a ceiling fall?
June 7, 2016 12:43 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for information about leaky roofs and ceilings. Our roof has water leaks in the rain. The ceiling is made of acoustic tiling and the tiles are starting to pull apart and crack. The ceiling is stained with water damage and leaks when it rains in three locations in the house. How long will it be before the ceiling collapses or the tiles start to fall? If you've ever been in this situation, what was the timeline and what different events occurred as the ceiling went from "OK" to "On the Floor"?
posted by sockermom to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It really depends upon the rate of water entry.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:46 PM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

It probably depends somewhat on how the tiles are held up and what they're hiding. There might be old plaster or sheetrock ceiling under or above them, however you want to describe it. So there's no real way of knowing how soon anything could fall down. What kind of roof is it? Is there an attic between the roof and the rooms with the acoustic tile ceilings? How big are the holes in the roof? Too many variables for us internet friends!

I am in the process of saving a currently unlivable old house with a leaky roof. Chunks of plaster fall off the ceiling. You wouldn't want one to fall on your head.

Sometimes small leaks in roofs can be temporarily fixed by applying a liberal swath of roofing tar over the leaky place.

Good luck!
posted by mareli at 12:52 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

In my one experience the ceiling sagged a LOT before ending up on the floor, but it was also plaster (and destroyed by leaking plumbing upstairs). Unless it's raining a lot for a long time you're probably more likely to get chunks falling off of individual tiles before you get a whole ceiling collapse. That said, it's also better to fix the leaks sooner rather than later.
posted by ldthomps at 1:14 PM on June 7, 2016

There is no "OK" level of water leaking through your roof. Do whatever you can right now to stop the leaking. Tarps at the very least.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:17 PM on June 7, 2016 [9 favorites]

Duuude. I know it's not the question you asked, but I gotta say that leaking roofs are not a thing you want to wait on, at all. Ounce of prevention = pound of cure type situation. Even if you have to borrow money, get your roof fixed. You do NOT want to replace your roof PLUS everything underneath it PLUS deal with mitigating a mold problem. Water in your house = emergency. Do not wait.

Qualifications: I have owned several properties, including rental property, in wet/rainy climates. Though FWIW, I always tend to freak out about water issues more than my (handy) spouse does.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:22 PM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

In my experience, those tiles can hold a surprising amount of water before finally reaching the breaking point - you do not want that amount of water dumping into your living area, especially if it is a surprise and you don't catch it right away.

Tarps, roofing tar/mastic, or whatever it takes - you need to stop the water from coming in, at minimum. Once that is taken care of, you can start looking at options for repairing the ceiling. As far as how long you should wait to take this seriously, I'd say "yesterday".
posted by _DB_ at 1:26 PM on June 7, 2016

I think the disintegration of the acoustic tiles will be gradual, and they will fall apart in pieces rather than crashing down in one big disaster. However, you want to know what is above them, and what they area attached too. If they are hiding an old plaster ceiling, you may want to take preventative action because that could result in 100s of pounds of rock-like stuff falling all at once. In the case that I remember best, the plaster sagged visibly over a 2ft or so circle before the collapse.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:27 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The ceiling in the bedroom of my 1961 house fell in before we noticed there was a leak. It fell on me when I was in bed and was truly was terrifying. I recommend you do something -- such as not standing under the leaking portion -- immediately. What happened? There was a problem with an old evaporative cooler that was dripping, unbeknownst to us.
posted by djinn dandy at 1:35 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing that there's no way to tell how long it will be before it becomes physically dangerous to be in the house, and the longer this goes on the more expensive it gets. If you own the house then it's long-past time to fix it. If you're just renting the house from some deadbeat absentee landlord who won't fix anything, then... well, how lucky do you feel?
posted by jon1270 at 1:44 PM on June 7, 2016

No way to know, and no way to know how much structural damage has already been done behind the ceiling. Water infiltration is just as bad for framing as for coverings—the inside of your house is made with materials that are not rated for exposure to water, and if left wet for any length of time they will often become damaged and need replacing. A roof leak that has started to make it through the ceiling has probably already been going on long enough to cause at least some frame damage, and that's only going to worsen over time.

This is going to get more expensive to fix the longer you wait, and the end result if it's just never dealt with is that your house will be ruined. Get that leak fixed right away.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:05 PM on June 7, 2016

One of my fondest memories of middle school was of the school janitor coming in to my Latin class and poking at a bulging ceiling tile until it crumbled and dumped many, many gallons of water *mostly* into the trash can under the leak but also all over the desks and floor.

Leaving aside the potential structural damage issues, one big disaster is definitely possible. Are they the kind of tiles that are in a grid system? Can you just take out the grossest tiles and put a receptacle of some kind underneath?
posted by mskyle at 2:07 PM on June 7, 2016

Response by poster: The landlord plans to raze the house when we move, so fixing it is not a possibility. I'm just trying to figure out how much time there might be before it becomes literally inhabitable (and what I need to look for beyond what I can already see), but it sounds like the answer is "sometime" but that it's not possible to say "a week" or "six months" or whatever with the limited information I have or am able to get. Thanks, all.
posted by sockermom at 2:17 PM on June 7, 2016

My level of concern is directly proportional to whether the tiles are older and contain asbestos. In many cases, asbestos is safe when undisturbed, and for that reason, left in place rather than removed. I would not want to be around when asbestos-containing tiles collapse.
posted by Dashy at 2:21 PM on June 7, 2016

What is your long term plan regarding how long you want to stay? I'd either be looking to move as soon as possible or get someone to tarp the roof (at your own expense if necessary) if you want to stay for a while.

Besides your tiles collapsing uncontrollably, if your attic space is insulated with vermiculite there may be an asbestos risk there. And a structure that is getting soaked regularly is going to develop mold. There is also a possibly of shock and/or fire from water getting into electrical systems and exposure to carbon monoxide if water rusts metal chimneys.

TL;DR: Already uninhabitable, move ASAP if not remediating.
posted by Mitheral at 2:59 PM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

If there is water leaking through your ceiling, I guarantee there is a significant, extensive amount of water damage and mold you cannot see - the plywood under the roof, joists, insulation, sheetrock. Since it's not your place, I'd just put buckets under the leaks and move ASAP. It will suck when your belongings get ruined by water gushing from the ceiling.
posted by gnutron at 4:38 PM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I want to add to the chorus telling you to move ASAP. I've lived in an apartment like that, and the accompanying mold is no joke.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:58 PM on June 7, 2016

If you're experiencing more problems than just a bulging ceiling - which is likely because the landlord plans to raze the house entirely - it's already past time to move.

Water infiltration into a house causes a number of problems. You also don't know how many ceilings are above the visible acoustic tile. If there's plaster above, as mentioned before, you're looking at hundreds of pounds of wet rock plus the waterlogged acoustic tile whenever the it detaches from the underlying substrate. If they installed acoustic tile over plaster, they may have used furring strips which will probably hold most of the plaster in place for a while longer than the acoustic tile itself.

As mentioned before, though, not just the surface of the ceiling is at risk. You're looking at problems from damp: rotting structural members, mold, insects, vermin, shock/fire risks, etc. These can cause further structural failures, illnesses, and other losses.

TL;DR: Very bad news. Already uninhabitable and well past time to move.
posted by bookdragoness at 11:15 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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