Trinity College Foundation Testing Program Brings Precise Results To Homeowners

For homeowners in Northeastern Connecticut who suspect their foundations might be crumbling, testing for the problem can sometimes cost $4,000.

But now, thanks to a partnership between the Connecticut Coalition Against Crumbling Basements and Trinity College, a less expensive test is available.

Jonathan Gourley, senior lecturer and laboratory coordinator at Trinity’s Environmental Science program learned of the problem from his neighbors in Bolton. Gourley approached Christoph Geiss, the director of Trinity’s Environmental Science program, and the two realized they could use magnetic testing to determine whether the concrete contained the dreaded pyrrhotite.

“I heard about the issue, but I was like ‘something is crumbling people’s basements, what can I do about it?’” Geiss said. “For once, what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years might be useful.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said as many as 34,000 homes may be at risk for failing foundations in large part because of a mineral known as pyrrhotite that was present in the concrete aggregate used for the foundations that are now crumbling.

Pyrrhotite can be very difficult to test for, Geiss said. His and Gourley’s test involves heating the samples to see when the material loses its magnetic properties. Concrete including pyrrhotite becomes non-magnetic at 325 degrees and regular concrete at 580 degrees. They also test how much sulfur is in a sample — which confirms the presence of pyrrhotite in the sample as well as estimates how much might be present.

While the testing method has been around for some time, its application is new. Gourley said the tests they are conducting are much more precise than visual inspections done by engineers. He estimated that the lab processes about five to 10 cores a week.

“When you consider that a small amount of pyrrhotite can cause problems, it becomes very important to know,” Gourley said. “You don’t want a false negative from a visual inspection that isn’t as sensitive.”

Working with Gourley and Geiss are four Trinity students — Lexi Zanger, Sam March, Joe Ruggiero and Kevin Oleskewicz.

For Ruggiero, the problem hits close to home.

“I’ve seen this happening in my own neighborhood for the last few years,” the Manchester native said. “Three of my neighbors have it and it’s been a great opportunity to pursue research and do something for the community.”

Gourley said he has also been working with Tim Heim, president of the Connecticut Coalition Against Crumbling Basements. Heim collects the samples from homeowners and brings them to Geiss and Gourley for testing.

“This is something that businesses, schools and communities do in times of trouble and crisis. Trinity stepped up when a community was in crisis,” Heim said.

Heim said he is glad that there is a less expensive alternative for homeowners who already may need to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace their foundation if the tests come back positive.

The tests through Trinity cost $1,900 and can be reimbursed up to 50 percent through a Capitol Region Council of Governments program. Other tests can cost as much as $4,000.

“I think what was troublesome was the amount of money that people were being charged to get testing done and there’s a point where as a victim myself it was troublesome to see victims become victimized again,” Heim said. “Trinity has provided a test and a more affordable way to find out if you’re pyrrhotite positive or negative and if I were a homeowner or home buyer in Eastern Connecticut, I’d do this today.”

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