The following are some questions that can come up during discussions on the unique needs of adobe:
Q: Does my adobe and rammed earth home need to be sealed?
A: This depends on several factors, but generally speaking, yes: adobe and rammed earth homes need to be treated with a quality water repellent formulated specifically for adobe, like the Silox Adobe Water Repellent. Click here for the Silox information and ordering page. For information on protecting and preserving your rammed earth home, wall or building, click here
The video below will help to explain this:
In helping to answer this question, the first and most important consideration is the style of adobe home you have.
Basically, there are two style of adobe homes: Santa Fe and Ranch. A Santa Fe style is what one typically envisions when they think of an adobe home: high scuplted walls with rounded corners and tops (parapets) with a flat roof. No overhangs except for a front and back porch. Most of these walls are not protected.
The photo above shows a burnt adobe home constructed in the Santa Fe style. Typically these adobe homes are stuccoed. But here in Tucson, Santa Fe style adobe homes are not usually stuccoed and the adobe is left “out in the open,” so to speak. The adobe that these homes are constructed of are known as “burnt adobe,” or adobes that are made in Mexico and fired in brick kilns, usually being orange or reddish orange in color. These homes usually must be sealed to maintain their longevity.
The Ranch style homes pictured above are more or less a long rectangular shape with a pitched roof. This often has overhangs of between 1′ to 4′ surrounding most of the house. In essence, most of the adobes on this style of home are protected by the generous overhangs (except for the gabled ends where there is little overhang), particularly is the overhangs are 4′ in width.
Like the Santa Fe style homes here in Tucson, these are not stuccoed and are also made from “burnt adobe.” Most of the time these homes, being protected by the generous overhangs (of at least 4′), do not typically need to be sealed…the generous overhangs and wide porches provide the best possible protection for the adobes.
There are always exceptions, of course. For example, if you have a ranch style home with generous porches and overhangs but have flowers and other water hungry plants that require constant watering and are planted next to the walls of your adobe home, your generous overhangs probably are not going to help you.
Adobes are like sponges; they absorb and retain moisture. One of the poorest design and landscaping choices an adobe homeowner can make is to plant water hungry plants of any kind next to your adobe walls. The water from your hose or drip irrigation system will be absorbed by the adobes, and depending on which side of the house receives the greatest amount of watering, this can be disastrous for your adobes.
Houses facing north receive the least amount of sunshine and stay damp longer than the south or west side of a home. Rose bushes planted on both the north and west side of your home right against or close to your house walls (always a bad design choice for adobe home owners) and receiving the same amount of water will be absorbed at different rates by the adobes, particularly during the summer months.
The adobes on the west side of your home, receiving the same amount of water as the north side, will dry out much quicker, while the adobes on the north side will retain the moisture much longer and thus are more prone to being damaged by the excessive moisture being absorbed into them.
Q: I recently purchased an adobe home but am not sure whether or not it was sealed. I want to make sure my new investment is protected. Is there a way to tell whether or not the previous homeowner had it sealed?
A: Yes. Here is a quick and simple test to determine whether or not your adobe walls have been sealed: take a small pan of water or a big cup, fill it with tap water, and toss that water against all four sides of the home. If the water beads up and bounces away (like water on a duck’s back; see picture below), or if the water runs off without immediately absorbing and turning the adobes a darker color because of the water being immediately absorbed, they are protected.
If the water immediately absorbs and you can see an obvious darkening of the adobes compared to the other adobes that did not receive water, you are overdue for an application of a quality water repellent. The picture of the mud adobe wall above perfectly shows this.
If your home was previously treated, it’s possible that the north side—the shaded side—may still show signs of being previously sealed while the sun facing sides, particularly the south and west sides, may not. The hot, intense desert sun degrades paint, water repellents, and stains at a much quicker rate on the sun facing sides of homes than the protected north sides. This is why you should perform this water test on all sides of the house. If all four sides of your house immediately absorb the water and darken the adobes, the home has probably never been treated.
Q: If I have plants around my house as you described above, will sealing those adobes prevent the water from damaging them?
A: Unfortunately, no. All “sealers,” and I prefer to use the more accurate phrase “water repellents,” (I go into some length on this in one of the chapters of my book) are intended for occasional, irregular water issues, like the occasional rains we receive in the desert regions.
But no “sealer” or water repellent is made to prevent moisture from entering into a surface that is receiving continual, regular moisture, like what you have when you have plants that you water as described in your question.
Even if you treat those adobes with a quality water repellent like the Silox Adobe Water Repellent, this will not stop the water from leaching into these adobes. A thorough application of a quality water repellent will certainly help, but it will not offer you the kind of protection you are looking for.
Q: What kind of sealer or water repellent do you recommend for treating my adobe?
Made especially for adobe. Excellent product. Click the bolded words above to be taken to the page for ordering information.
Q: Where can I purchase the Silox?
A: It is available for pick-up in Tucson. We also have a retail outlet in Phoenix, AZ and Sedona, AZ who now carries the Silox: Spectrum Paint Company, located at 23043 N. 15th Lane (Phoenix) and 65 Brewer Rd (Sedona). Call Gary at (623) 606-7493 for store information in Phoenix and Sedona.
If you are outside of Tucson, give me a call or text (520) 331-4004 or send me an email at email@example.com for ordering information. Click here for more information.
Q: I have been reading that any type of water-repellent that is applied to my adobe must be able to “breathe.” Does the Silox allow the adobe brick to “breathe”?
A: Yes. The Silox was formulated specifically for adobe and it does allow the adobe to breathe.
Q: I think my home might be built out of adobe, but I’m not sure.
A: If you have a smart phone, simply take a picture of it and text it to me at (520) 331-4004. Or, take a picture of it and email it to me at “firstname.lastname@example.org”.
Q: I don’t live in Tucson and my adobe house has some real problems. Do you do consulting?
A: Yes. Click here for information.
Q: You have written that having water-hungry plants—like rose bushes—around the perimeter of my adobe walls is potential disaster. Please explain.
A: This is true.
One of the worst things an adobe homeowner can do is to plant these water-hungry flowers or plants in a planter box constructed out of adobe where the wall of your home is incorporated into the planter box itself.
If you have spent any amount of time reading this website, you will learn that adobes are like sponges…they absorb an incredible amount of water. And water and adobe don’t mix; water intrusion into adobe is the #1 cause of their deterioration.
Adobes need to “breathe” to stay healthy. Inevitably they will get wet, and this moisture needs to dry out. If not, the adobes risk being weakened and damaged; the longer they remain wet, the greater risk they have of suffering damage and deterioration.
Adobes are a building material primarily intended for a dry, low humidity environment, exactly what you find in a desert area like Phoenix or Tucson. They are not meant for an area that receives a lot of rain, like in Hawaii, the northern United States, or places back East.
Since water is the number one enemy of adobe, places that receive a significant amount of yearly rainfall are not ideal for adobe construction. When you water flowers that need regular and consistent watering, especially thirsty ones like roses, even if you live in Tucson or Phoenix that don’t receive a high annual amount of rain, you are defeating the purpose of building adobe in the first place.
I see this problem frequently: damaged adobes caused by over watering of plants and flowers located mere inches from the walls of adobe homes. And like I mentioned above, planter boxes made from adobe where the back of the planter box is the wall of an adobe house is disastrous.
Inevitably, watering plants in any type of planter box where the back wall of the planter box is your adobe home is an almost guarantee that the adobes, particularly the ones that make up the back wall, will suffer an incredible amount of deterioration.
I always recommend my customers remove all water-hungry plants from the immediate area of their adobe walls; every wall, even the adobe walls surrounding your pool or which encloses your backyard. If you need to water these plants every day or three or four times a week, you will ruin these adobes.
When I write “remove all water-hungry plants from the immediate area” of your adobe walls, what exactly do I mean? This means a distance of, at the very least, two feet from your walls; a minimum distance of three feet is preferable.
I understand, though, that many homeowners enjoy their flowers and other decorative plants. No one wants to live in a house devoid of color and beauty on the outside of their home. My suggestions for those adobe homeowners who currently have water-hungry plants and flowers in these adobe planter boxes is to remove them and replace them with decorative cactus or other low water use plants.
The alternative, of course, if you simply must have these water-hungry plants in the immediate vicinity of your adobe walls is to plan on regularly spending money to fix the adobes that will inevitably become damaged. You can also insure that the slope of the soil causes the water to run away from the walls instead of toward them.
But again, it must be stressed that adobe and water don’t mix. If you want to preserve your adobe home from costly repairs and potential catastrophic damage, don’t plant water-hungry plants and flowers within three feet of your exterior house walls.
Q: My house is built out of rammed earth? Can I use the Silox Adobe Water Repellent to protect my walls?
The Silox is an excellent product for protecting rammed earth walls. One of the issues with rammed earth (and I don’t wish to suggest rammed earth is a poor building choice for homeowners; rammed earth is my favorite building material) is that it “sheds” small particles onto the ground.
This is not much of an issue if these small particles fall onto the dirt, but if you have expensive flooring on the inside of your home, like wood flooring, these particles can certainly damage the flooring if ground under one’s feet as they walk through the home.
The Silox solves up to 98% of this problem by “locking” in or “stabilizing” the dirt particles, preventing them from falling to the ground, saving your expensive flooring from potential damage.
Q: I have cracks in my adobe walls. Is this something you can repair?
A: Yes. Unfortunately, cracks are the only repair items not guaranteed by Adobe Masters. The reason is because we cannot stop the ground from settling or shifting underneath your home, nor can we control tremors in the earth or even earthquakes…all scenarios that contribute—or can contribute—to cracks in your adobe walls.
Repaired cracks are notorious for re-opening, sometimes within days of having them repaired. This is why I recommend that adobe homeowners with cracks in their walls not be overly concerned with repairing them. Unless the cracks are so large that insects and bugs are coming through to the inside of your home, allowing water to seep through, need to be done to insure the integrity and safety of the walls, or if you have an excess of money that you don’t mind throwing it away on a repair that you will probably have to have redone in a couple of years or less, wait until you get ready to sell your home.
Nobody wants to see cracks in a home they are interested in purchasing. Before you put the house on the market, have a professional like Adobe Masters perform needed crack repairs to make the home look in top shape. As long as you ethically disclose to the buyer that you had the cracks repaired, waiting until you sell your home to make this improvement makes the most sense.
Q. My outdoor patio floor and walkway is made from adobe pavers. Many of these are deteriorating. Two questions: can the damaged pavers be repaired and will the Silox Adobe Water Repellent protect them from further damage?
A. Though adobe pavers in an exterior application can be repaired, my over 30 years of experience in dealing with adobe counsels against undertaking such repairs.
Why I say this is because adobe is made out of dirt and the number one enemy of adobe is water. When water and dirt meet, the integrity and strength of the paver is compromised. Patios and walkways, especially in installations around pools, waterfalls, plant beds, ponds, sprinkler systems, etc. are particularly vulnerable to deterioration from water infiltration.
Adobe pavers should rarely—if ever—be used in exterior installations. The only possible situation might be underneath a spacious porch where the pavers are completely protected by the porch and no water is allowed to come in contact with the pavers.
Early in my restoration career and before I gained the needed knowledge and experience to properly understand the unique needs and limitations of adobe, I would attempt to repair deteriorated adobe pavers, including severely deteriorated ones that were wholly exposed to the elements. I learned that repairing these were usually a mistake because, again, adobe protects used in exterior flooring settings are not a wise choice, especially in areas where water is a regular occurance.
Repairs in these areas don’t normally last long and will soon fall apart. Another option is to remove the damaged paver and replace it with a new one, but there is potential problems with this choice as well. Few homeowners have left over pavers stored around their property from the original installation and the new paver may be little in comparison to the original in color, exact dimensions, texture, or composition.
If by chance the homeowner does have some original strays hidden away somewhere, these will probably not match the others: years will have passed since the original flooring was laid down, and the subsequent years and decades will have altered the color and weathering patterns seen on the originals.
There is always the potential of damaging the surrounding undamaged pavers in the attempt to remove the deteriorated one(s) for replacement, setting up a potential chain reaction of needing to replace a series of pavers when only several needed attention.
Will the Silox Adobe Water Repellent protect adobe pavers from deterioration? Yes, but not adequately. Adobe pavers, like most adobes, act like sponges when they come in contact with moisture, absorbing vast amounts of water. A speciality adobe water repellent like the Silox—for the most part—protects the surface of the block primarily from one side: the side it was treated; in most instances, this side is the only side able to absorb the water repellent due to the fact that most adobes are in house walls where only the exterior face can be treated.
This one side of the home’s exterior walls are the ones that need the protection because they are in contact with the elements on one side and are protected from the elements on all other sides—generally speaking. But adobe pavers, installed on the ground, are in contact with the earth, absorbing moisture from rain, run off from roofs, splashing from pools and fountains, sprinkler systems, etc.
If adobe pavers are treated with a water repellent after installation, only one side of the paver—facing the sky—is the only portion of the paver protected by a quality water repellent. But a tremendous amount of water and moisture may also be absorbed from the unprotected bottom of the paver in contact with the ground, allowing the adobe pavers to be weakened and suffer deterioration even though the sky portion is protected.
Further, water repellents are not capable of protecting adobe from the continual presence of water, i.e., standing or pooling water; they are formulated to protect the occasional presence of rainfall against vertical surfaces, not from puddling on horizontal ones.
Adobe is primarily a product of hot, dry geographical areas typical of the desert found in the southwest regions of the United States with relatively little annual rainfall. Adobe can withstand periods of intense rainfall if it is allowed to throughly and quickly dry out, situations that typify desert environments which makes building homes out of adobe an ideal choice if certain practices are followed.
Adobe is not meant for exterior applications where the material is in contact with the ground. One reason is because they are unable to easily and quickly dry out after a dumping summer monsoon. Laying on the ground, they remain wet far longer than what walls constructed out of earth normally fare. Since water is the number one enemy of adobe, the longer adobe is in constant contact with moisture, the more prone they are to deterioration and ruin.
A specialized adobe/rammed earth water repellent like the Silox is formulated to protect earthen surfaces from the occasional—even heavy—summer downpours; the Silox is not formulated to protect adobe and rammed earth from continual, long-term contact with water. This is done on purpose, because as I have written elsewhere, there is a necessary and critical difference between a “water repellent” that is safe for protecting adobe and a true “sealer” that will, long term, harm the adobe. In general, sealers can trap moisture in; water repellents allow moisture out. Breathability is key to the success of any product primarily intended to protect earthen surfaces.
After almost 40 years in preserving and protecting adobe homes, my response to a customer who calls me and asks, “What should I do to repair my backyard adobe walkway that surrounds my pool and barbecue? It is looking terrible!”
My response is, “Do nothing. Save your money. Enjoy it while it lasts, and when you can no longer stand looking at it or if it becomes a trip hazard, tear it completely out and redo it with concrete pavers.”
Q. “But what about stabilized adobe pavers, made with certain cements and/or other additives that the manufacturers claim will make them suitable for exterior applications, even in high moisture areas like around pools?”
A. Such products are, of course, more weather resistant than unstabilized products, but I have never seen a stabilized adobe paver—or any stabilized adobe—that is suitable for longterm use in exterior applications exposed to the elements.
Certainly there are boastful claims made by manufacturers of such products, but let’s see how they perform long term in typical wet/damp areas and then make our decisions based on unbiased and factual science. Until that day comes, I will advise all of my readers, clients and customers to stay away from all such earthen floor products.