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Sinkhole fears drive some to secure homes before they are built

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Published:   |   Updated: February 23, 2014 at 11:35 AM

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Last week, a group of men who specialize in sinkhole stabilization pulled up to an expansive lot in Southern Hills and prepared to tackle their latest project.

The front-end loaders arrived, the trench-digging equipment unloaded and it was time to work on this 7,000-square-foot ranch home commanding a view of rolling hills and pine trees.

But the crew from L.R.E. Ground Services Inc. was not there to repair a sinkhole. The house had not even been built yet and engineering tests determined the property does not have a sinkhole condition.

Instead, they were there to secure the ground with "giant screws" before it was built to give the owner piece of mind that, in case a sinkhole ever did open, the home would be protected.

Jim Flynn, marketing manager with L.R.E., said more homeowners are now requesting the ground in and around their new home be secured with "helical piers" before they move in.

Though some say the precaution is overkill, it's an example of the extreme measures homeowners will take when building in what some have dubbed "sinkhole alley." Property appraiser data shows there are 6,500 homes in Hernando County that have reported sinkhole activity. Of those, 54 percent have not been repaired.

Flynn said helical piers may not be for everybody because of the cost. However, it is a viable option in this sinkhole-prone area and it is being embraced by more and more homeowners.

For years, hospitals, restaurants and other commercial businesses routinely paid for these piers to secure a site. But today, especially after the tragedy in Seffner, where a giant sinkhole opened under a home and claimed a man's life last May, more residents are requesting the service.

Flynn said not only do helical piers firm up the foundation, but also they add to a property's resale value because the process comes with a lifetime warranty that is transferable to any subsequent owners.

The technology has been available for years but is only now becoming popular, he said.

Ray Woolever, CEO of L.R.E. said securing a home's foundation with helical piers does not prevent sinkholes but it does stabilize the home, so that if one should occur, it would not fall into a void.

Of course, in cases of catastrophic sinkholes, such as the Seffner event, not much could have been done to prevent such a tragedy, he said.

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Flynn likens the process to a person seeking preventative health measures. Better to catch a potential illness before it happens, he said.

The installation of helical piers, he said, is taking proactive measures with the home because they stabilize and support the interior and perimeter foundation. Think in terms of giant underground screws securing the home in place, he said.

Steel tubes are hydraulically driven through heavy-duty steel foundation brackets that reach the depth of the load-bearing underground strata.

The weight of the home is then transferred through the piers from the original unstable soils to the bedrock or firmer soil, ensuring no further settlement will occur. The piers don't necessarily have to go down to the limerock, although they can.

The depths that L.R.E. is installing the piers in Southern Hills, for example, range from 9 to 29 feet. They are placed 6 feet apart and are being installed to limestone.

That may not be the case in other parts of Brooksville or Spring Hill and it would depend on the pre-installation engineering analysis.

Given the size of the Southern Hills home, workers installed 134 piers that went down about 25 feet into the limerock.

Work crews first obtain an engineer's report of the underground soils before determining the depth of the piers, so every home can be different.

An average 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot home in Hernando County would require about 20-25 piers and cost somewhere around $20,000, Flynn said.

The difference between piers and underpins is that the latter are installed along the perimeter of the foundation and must be driven to limestone. They don't help support the interior part of the home's foundation.

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"More and more residential homeowners/buyers, especially in Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas, are viewing pre-construction helical piers as an upgrade to their home, much like a pool," Flynn said.

While helical piers can be installed on existing homes, it is less expensive to do it during the pre-construction phase, he said.

Jaime Goujon, owner of Champion Foundation Repair, said her company maybe does two helical pier jobs per year because most people don't have the money to invest. She said the cost to do a typical home in Hernando County is closer to $30,000.

"If you can afford it, you absolutely should get it," Goujon said. "But most people don't have that $20,000 or $30,000."

Instead, people would rather use that money for other upgrades they can see, such as tile roofs or other amenities, she said.

Not many companies offer the service, she said, because it takes special equipment.

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Ana Trinque, president of the Hernando County Association of Realtors, said the installation of helical piers may be an attractive selling option to some buyers. However, for most, it probably wouldn't sway them to buy a home because the piers are not visible.

She likens it to a homeowner installing under-the-floor radiant heating, extra attic insulation or better quality wall supports.

Most homebuyers, she said, look at what they can see, such as carpeting, floor or wall molding or the painting scheme.

"Some people take so much pride in their home that they will go above and beyond the building codes and add extras that you don't see," she said. "But when it comes time to sell a home, all these added benefits you can't see doesn't reflect on the bottom line resale value. So it's personal choice."

Trinque said there is no doubt that the presence of helical piers under the ground is a benefit and should be played up when an agent is selling a home. For many, it would indeed be a selling point, especially given the attention sinkholes have received in Hernando County, she added.

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Bob Eaton, government affairs chairman for the Hernando Builders Association, said he has nothing against this pre-construction option available to those who can afford it.

"If somebody feels they want to spend their money to do something like that, they have every right to," Eaton said. "I personally think it's a giant overkill."

Eaton said the sinkhole threat is not as bad as the media would lead people to believe. The fears, he said, are unfounded.

He said he is convinced that people are being led to believe that Hernando County sits on the edge of a giant sinkhole and that every property is prone to being swallowed up, and it's not true.

The media, he said, perpetuates the sinkhole frenzy. He disputes data that so many homes here have some sinkhole activity. Drawing attention to helical piers, he said, just "fans the flames" of hysteria.

"All this does is perpetuate the notion that we have sinkholes on every street corner," Eaton said.

mbates@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5290

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