Capillary Action

Capillary action or capillarity, is an expression use to explain the upward movement of water in porous building material, particularly in the context of rising damp. However, a deeper exploration reveals that what is commonly referred to as capillary action is better understood as a form of molecular attraction. This page delves into the scientific underpinnings of this phenomenon, its implications in buildings, and why the term “capillary action” might lead to misunderstanding. The term ‘capillary action’ can potentially be misleading or serve as a misnomer. While visually it might evoke the notion of capillaries drawing liquid upwards—as often observed in a chemistry lab—the reality is that the force exerted is omnidirectional, acting equally in all directions, and with gravity is mainly downwards.

The Science Behind Capillary Action

Traditionally, capillary action is described as the ability of liquid to flow in narrow spaces or porous materials without the aid of, or against, external forces like gravity. The term draws an analogy from the capillary blood vessels in the human body. However, when dissected further, what’s actually happening is more accurately described as absorption driven by molecular attraction at the surface of the porous material.

Molecular Attraction

A more accurate description of what’s happening is the force of attraction at the molecular level, specifically absorption or molecular attraction at the surface of the porous material which attracts the polar bonds in water molecules. This attraction enables the movement of water through the pores.

Pore Size and Force Dynamics

The size of the pores in a material significantly affects the relative force of attraction. Smaller pore sizes exhibit a proportionately greater force of attraction than larger pores as the force of attraction is two-dimensional, being just the sides of the pores, as opposed to gravity, which is three-dimensional, affecting the entire volume of water. This concept is akin to how a small bead of water can sit on a spiderweb, defying gravity due to the surface tension and attraction forces at play.

Beyond the Upward Movement: Multi-directional Forces

The term “capillary action” might misleadingly suggest an upward force only. However, the force of attraction is equal in all directions. When gravity comes into play, the combined forces primarily direct downwards. However, in the absence of barriers, water can rise up to about 10cm up a wall. When a barrier, such as a damp-proof course (DPC) or damp-proof membrane (DPM), is introduced, water spreads out and rises higher, up to about 1.3m under normal conditions. This height can increase with vapour presence or very small pore sizes.

Groundwater: The Unyielding Barrier

Groundwater acts as a natural barrier, and unlike rainwater that can be drained away, managing groundwater requires community-level intervention, typically through pumping systems to remove it effectively.

Implications for Building Structures

Understanding the mechanics of molecular attraction and how it contributes to rising damp is pivotal for designing effective damp-proofing solutions in buildings. Accurate knowledge aids in selecting appropriate materials and designing structural elements that minimize the risks associated with rising damp, contributing to the longevity and integrity of the building structures.


The traditional term “capillary action” serves as an analogy to describe the movement of water in porous building materials. A deeper understanding reveals a molecular attraction force that operates multi-directionally, influenced by pore sizes and external barriers. By grasping these underlying principles, better strategies can be devised to manage and mitigate rising damp in buildings, ensuring a durable and comfortable living and working environment.

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