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Best Kept Secrets of Home Maintenance – II

lintel collage

If you’re like most homeowners, you probably don’t know what a lintel is, let alone that they need to be maintained. A lintel is a beam supporting masonry above an opening in a wall, such as a window or door opening. Lintels may be made of wood, masonry or steel. The focus of this article, the second installment of the Helpful Home Inspectors’ Best Kept Secrets of Home Maintenance, is steel lintels. Lots of homes in our area have brick or stone walls with steel lintels.

According to the Brick Institute of America (BIA), these steel lintels will require periodic maintenance to avoid corrosion.1

Corrosion, also known as rust when the term is applied to steel lintels, causes the lintel to expand. The expanding lintel exerts pressure on the surrounding brick or stone work, resulting in cracks and movement. I see this a lot, even in homes that are otherwise very well maintained. rustyThat’s why I’ve included maintaining steel lintels near the top of the list of Best Kept Secrets of Home Maintenance.

It has become a fairly common practice around here to cap the lintels with aluminum and seal them with caulk. Looks good, but this practice may do more harm than good. By trapping moisture within the wall assembly, we promote rather than inhibit rust. Again we turn to the BIA for guidance. They advise that proper consideration must always be given to moisture control wherever there are openings in masonry walls. There must always be a mechanism to channel the flow of water, present in the wall, to the outside.1 A lack of flashing and weep holes in the original construction may limit the flow of water to the outside (a good topic for a future blog post). Capping and caulking may make matters worse.looks good, but

The BIA does not provide specifics on how to maintain steel lintels. So, what’s a responsible homeowner to do?

When I find evidence of rusty metal lintels, I generally recommend that they be cleaned, primed and painted to reduce the risk of further deterioration that could require costly repair. Use high quality paint specifically formulated for use on exterior metal surfaces. Expose any metal lintels that are capped in aluminum or are similarly concealed. Repair any damage to the surrounding masonry.

By the way, painting the lintels with the same paint used for the exterior wood trim won’t get the job done.  I often see the rust bleeding right through the paint.  

If the lintels are allowed to continue to rust and deteriorate, they will eventually need to be replaced – a process much more costly than paint. If the lintel is rust thru paintsagging noticeably or if damage to the lintel or the surrounding masonry is severe or if problems recur despite maintenance efforts, the lintel may need to be replaced. In that case, the use of galvanized steel lintels and/or improved flashing techniques may serve to extend the life of the new lintel. Discuss these options with your masonry contractor.

During a professional home inspection, a Pennsylvania home inspector will inspect the readily accessible, visually observable components of the wall structure and cladding. If he or she finds evidence of rusty metal lintels, it will be noted in the home inspection report.

I hope this is helpful.

1 Brick Institute of America (BIA)  Technical Notes on Brick Construction #31Bmore than paint

15 Comments

  • Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Great article, but to be clear, should a metal lintel be caulked with silicone caulking between the metal and the brick? Thank you so much, Judy Kane

    • Alan
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Judy:
      Thanks for tuning in. To promote the flow of water, present in the wall, to the outside, do not apply silicone caulking between the metal and the brick.

      I hope this is helpful.
      Alan

  • Janell
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I just bought my first brick house. It’s only a year old and the lintels are already rusting. They were painted with the same Latex exterior paint that the rest of the house was painted with. What should I do now to fix this problem? What paint do you recommend…specific brands would help. I usually use Sherwin Williams paint in general.

    • Alan
      Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Janell:
      Congratulations on your purchase. For an answer to your question and one posed by Adam about rusty lintels, I turned to Lori Thoman. Lori is a second generation painting professional with 30 years in the field. She is the principal at Thoman Interiors of Media, PA and a decorative trades instructor at Williamson College of the Trades. Here is what she had to say. “The best way to maintain any surface is to apply the proper primer on the area first. Therefore, if any lintels are previously painted and are showing signs of rust and peeling, I know the proper primer was not applied on the raw surface. For the handyman with all the gadgets a power sander or grinding tool to remove all the existing paint will do. For the home owner who may not be as well-equipped, a good paint remover will do. The key is to start from scratch, get the paint off, sand it down and apply a product called STIX. You can find this at Riccardi Bros. or a Ben Moore store. Use this great primer for metal, then top coat with a good exterior trim paint. If you can’t find this product, a good exterior oil primer will also do the trick.”
      I hope this is helpful.

  • Adam Phelps
    Posted November 12, 2016 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    How do you recommend cleaning the lintels if rust is present? Sanding/grinding or something else?

    • Alan
      Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Adam:
      Thanks for your inquiry. For an answer to your question and one posed by Janell about rusty lintels, I turned to Lori Thoman. Lori is a second generation painting professional with 30 years in the field. She is the principal at Thoman Interiors of Media, PA and a decorative trades instructor at Williamson College of the Trades. Here is what she had to say. “The best way to maintain any surface is to apply the proper primer on the area first. Therefore, if any lintels are previously painted and are showing signs of rust and peeling, I know the proper primer was not applied on the raw surface. For the handyman with all the gadgets a power sander or grinding tool to remove all the existing paint will do. For the home owner who may not be as well-equipped, a good paint remover will do. The key is to start from scratch, get the paint off, sand it down and apply a product called STIX. You can find this at Riccardi Bros. or a Ben Moore store. Use this great primer for metal, then top coat with a good exterior trim paint. If you can’t find this product, a good exterior oil primer will also do the trick.”
      I hope this is helpful.

  • Terry Kilborn
    Posted February 24, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Our lintels have started to show rust. They have never been painted, and they are red, same color as the brick. We are going to have them cleaned up and painted with the appropriate paint. Our question is…what color are they supposed to be? Paint them a brick red or paint them white like the window?

    • Alan
      Posted February 24, 2017 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Terry:
      What matters is that you use a high quality, rust inhibiting paint specifically formulated for use on exterior metal surfaces. Color is strictly a matter of personal preference. Brick red, white, lime green…it’s really up to you. Most of the lintels that I see are a rusty metal color.

      I hope this is helpful.

  • Terry Kilborn
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you!

  • Peter
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    My lintels are exposed on the underside and easy to paint, but it is very difficult to get paint between the top of the lintel and the brick on the top surface. What should be done in this case?

    • Alan
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Peter:
      What you’ve described is a common condition. In this case, I think that the best you can do is the best you can do. Clean, prime and paint the exposed surfaces.

      I hope this is helpful.
      Alan

  • Shazia
    Posted July 1, 2017 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    My lintels are covered by trim. My contractor is suggesting we remove the bricks over the window, install new flashing and wick and then replace the bricks to stop water from entering the interior. Does this sound like a good idea to you? Your advice would be much appreciated!

    • Alan
      Posted July 9, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      Shazia:
      This sounds like a good idea, but I can’t know if it will solve your problem. Missing or improper flashing and drainage at brick veneer is just one possible source of water intrusion and may or may not be responsible in whole or in part for the water that is finding its way into your home. How confident are you of your contractor’s opinion and expertise? Before proceeding, you may want to seek a second opinion. If you do go ahead with this proposal, given that your lintels are covered by trim, ask the contractor to take the opportunity to inspect the lintels and perform any needed maintenance.

      I hope this is helpful.
      Alan

  • Aaron
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Alan,
    I have a gap between my lintel and the above brick. Should this area be filled with grout or just prime and paint the best that I can?

    • Alan
      Posted July 9, 2017 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      Aaron:
      The answer to your question may depend on several variables, including the size of the gap, the condition of the lintels, the condition of the surrounding masonry and the presence or absence of flashing and weep holes. You may do best to seek the advice of a local masonry contractor. At one extreme, a hairline crack is probably best left alone. At the other extreme, a large gap may be an indication of a failing lintel.

      I hope this is helpful.
      Alan

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