Tongue and groove ceilings – they’re beautiful, but like many beautiful things, they can be problematic.
(Photo shows a thermal scan of a ceiling where cold air is leaking in through the gaps – those are the black streaks down the photo)
Unfortunately, T&G ceilings have become the single most discussed items on Ted’s Energy Tips due to their overwhelming tendency to be associated with water, mold, or moisture problems.
Does your ceiling drip water?
I’ve probably heard this a hundred times – “Help! Water is leaking from my ceiling! We had a cold snap and now it’s a beautiful day and now it’s raining in my house!”
The caller/writer then tells me that the roofer came out to check for leaks and couldn’t find anything. If they took it a step further, someone pulled off some of the ceiling planks, saw the real problem (condensation) and told them that they need to ventilate the ceilings. If they’re unlucky, they spent thousands of dollars, added ventilation, and the water problems became worse!
Why do ceilings drip when there’s no leak?
Boil a pot of water with a lid on it. Wait a minute then lift the lid. What do you see? Lots of water on the underside of the lid. There’s no ‘leak’ but yet the lid is covered with water due to condensation forming on it. This is exactly what’s happening inside your ceiling.
Under the right conditions, when water vapor in the air comes in contact with a surface cooler than the air, the water vapor becomes liquid water. If this happens enough, the water builds up and forms large drop of water. Those get large enough and, PLOP!, it starts raining in your house!
All too often, a T&G ceiling is constructed in a way that virtually guarantees water problems. The roof is installed over the rafters. Fiberglass is shoved between the rafters. T&G boards are nailed to the rafters. Bingo – you get mold, water “leaks”, and thousands of dollars of repairs which probably don’t even fix the problem.
Why don’t normal ceilings drip?
A typical ceiling is made of sheetrock or plaster, and all the seams are carefully filled in. That’s then painted, usually with several coats of paint.
While some tiny amount of water vapor can get through the paint and sheetrock, it’s a very small quantity. Small enough that, under normal conditions, natural air flow and moisture transfer removes the moisture that does get into the ceiling cavity above the sheetrock.
However, even these ceilings often have problems when holes are cut in them for recessed lights. This allows that air and moisture to move much more quickly into the ceiling where it can condense and lead to mold growth and wood rot.
The key fact – if air gets into your ceiling, even through small holes, it will carry water vapor with it which is very likely to lead to moisture problems.
Why are T&G ceilings so bad?
Water vapor is tiny. Really, really tiny. So tiny, that even the smallest crack is billions and billions of times larger than the water molecule. Tongue and groove ceilings may look ‘tight’ but to a water molecule, it’s like a wide open door! So that water vapor simply flows right up through those cracks and into the ceiling cavity above.
To Make matters worse, most ceilings are stuffed with fiberglass insulation, which doesn’t stop the water vapor at all. So the vapor keeps wafting up past the insulation until it reaches the underside of your roof. That roof deck is cold in the winter and on clear nights. When the vapor hits it, it condenses into liquid water. This is when the real problems start…
When it’s below freezing, the water freezes into ice. More water vapor enters, contacts the ice, and adds to the ice. Before you know it, the entire underside of the roof and anything else cold enough in the ceiling cavity, is covered with a layer of ice. This could go on for days, weeks or even months until the ice melts and it starts raining in your living room!
Even when it’s not below freezing, in most climates, it gets cold enough and there’s enough water vapor carried by the air for condensation to form inside the ceiling. The wood can absorb some of that moisture and slowly transfer it out. But with a T&G ceiling, the water supply inside the house is nearly infinite, so it keeps building up. Pretty soon, the wood is saturated and larger water droplets form. They’ll drip down, following gravity, until they find a place to leak out. That’s why the drips often form far away from where the condensation is actually occurring, which is often high up the ceiling.
Will ventilation solve the problem?
Builders are taught that roofs have to be ventilated in order to ‘flush out’ the moisture. The problem is, that doesn’t work with T&G ceilings. In fact, it often makes problems worse.
Why? As the air moves through the cavity, it has a tendency to draw more air from the inside of the house into the cavity. Some of that is flushed out with the air moving through the cavity. But when the water vapor carried by the air comes in contact with cold surfaces, it basically sticks. If there’s enough, which there usually is in a house during winter, then you still have the condensation problem.
How do you prevent water vapor from getting in the ceiling?
Take a step back. What ceilings work properly? We started discussing how a typical drywall ceiling usually doesn’t have moisture problems like these (unless you put holes in it). So the easiest solution is to build a normal drywall ceiling over which you install the T&G boards – purely for aesthetic purposes. Drywall is cheap. Replacing your roof is expensive.
What about plastic sheeting?
Drywall is cheap. Replacing your roof is expensive.
Some builders try to ‘cheap out’ by just putting plastic up, usually with thousands of staples, then nailing the T&G boards to the rafters, with thousands more nails.
Do you think a sheet of plastic with thousands of holes in it is going to stop the movement of water vapor, one of the tiniest molecules in nature, from getting into the ceiling? Maybe it will take 5 years to rot out the roof instead of 3. But eventually, you’re going to be spending many thousands of dollars for a new roof, just because the builder decided to take the cheap approach and save a little bit of drywall.
Ok, Ted, how would you build a T&G ceiling?
Glad you asked. Here’s how I did it when we replaced our sunroom.
We used high density spray foam. The foam completely fills the rafter bays, as in the photo above. Any remaining cracks are caulked. Then we installed the T&G ceiling to the rafters, like in the photo below:
We’ve had this ceiling for more than 10 years now with zero issues. It’s on the kitchen which gets humid from cooking, but still, no problems.
Would you do it differently if you did it again?
Good question! I might add a thin sheet of foil faced polyiso sheet foam across the rafters before installing the T&G ceiling to add another layer of moisture barrier and to reduce thermal bridging through the wooden rafters. In extremely cold climates, this would be highly recommended as you could still get condensation on the exposed rafters because they transmit the cold much more than the insulation. But in eastern PA where I live, it’s not cold enough to warrant that extra work for the minimal gain given this construction.
I already installed my ceiling, can I seal the wood or the seams?
In a word – no. That might slow the process slightly, but eventually you’re going to regret the decision when your roof rots out and your ceiling is filled with mold. Shortcuts don’t work with T&G ceilings. You have to do them right, or you’ll pay the price eventually.
Can I install recessed lights in a T&G ceiling?
If you’ve read much on this, or any other energy efficiency and building science website, you’ll know that recessed lights are nightmares. Yes, they look clean and some are even rated ‘air tight’, but those ratings are BS. They are filled with holes which let ample moisture through. That moisture will go into your ceiling and cause the same issues.
The compromise I’ll make is if you do a full foam job like I did and then install low-profile LED lights that don’t require reducing the insulation. Since the T&G ceiling isn’t an air barrier anyway, cutting holes in it to mount these lights doesn’t matter. The low profile LED lights look just like normal recessed lights but they don’t protrude into the ceiling cavity. Here’s an example of a ‘canless’ recessed light at Home Depot.