Tilted, damaged, separating, or sunken concrete steps are a clear problem sign around any home. As well as being unsightly, they are potentially dangerous to anyone who might need to use them. This is obvious to most homeowners, of course, but many people don’t realize that unlevel steps are also a problem sign of deeper issues in a property. Paying attention to the signs of damage that are presented to you and acting on them swiftly could save you a lot of time, money, and stress in the long run.
Proper investigation when you first see signs of damage is one of the best things that you can do. This can help protect your home from unnecessary or avoidable secondary and tertiary issues. Concrete lifting, leveling, and repair services, however, are the key to returning your unlevel steps to their former glory. Here’s what you need to know
What Causes Unlevel Steps?
Unlevel steps around a property can be caused by many different factors, but it all really comes down to support and pressure. If the steps are under a lot of pressure, they may start to sink or separate from your property. Likewise, if they are not getting sufficient support from the soil, they may start to subside. These are the most common causes of unlevel steps.
Expansive soils are those that are heavily clay-based or otherwise made up of very heavy, absorbent materials. These types of soil can cause all kinds of damage to a property because of the ways in which they change when they are saturated or dehydrated. These kinds of soil swell when they are heavily saturated and can shrink dramatically when they become dehydrated.
This makes it incredibly hard to build stable and strong structures on them because the structures will always be subject to some form of pressure. This may be as the soil swells, or from a lack of support when it shrinks. This can cause steps to become unlevel, either because of damage that forms when the earth pushes upward or as a result of supporting its own weight when the earth shrinks.
Weak or loose soils tend to be lighter, less absorbent, and more prone to shifting when put under pressure. These soils have good drainage, but can be unstable when faced with a heavy load. If this is the cause of your unlevel steps, it is very likely that the rest of your property will also be affected in some way.
Loose, weak, or unstable soils can lead to a whole property shifting or sinking as its foundation moves with the loose soil.
Soil Washout and Erosion
All kinds of soil are vulnerable to washout and erosion in the right circumstances, but weak, loose, or light soils are at the most risk. That’s because they are not good at sticking together in the same way that heavy, expansive soils are. The processes of soil washout and erosion can cause steps to become unlevel because of the way in which they gradually remove support and leave gaps or voids underneath them.
As steps start to sink into the gaps left behind, they can crack, separate from each other, and become incredibly unsafe.
Finally, there is always the chance that damage, cracks, and unevenness in steps have been caused by a fundamental flaw in the concrete itself. This is not overly common, but it is possible. This can generally happen because of errors in the mixing or laying processes.
After all, concrete is really just a mix of rock aggregate, water, and cement. If the ratios of these materials are off somehow, or the mix is disturbed after it starts to set, the concrete can become weak. This will most often lead to cosmetic damage, but there are times when these errors can be severe enough to lead to structural issues.
Each of these issues can cause unlevel steps, but they might also cause wider issues within and around your property. As such, it pays to be aware of other problem signs of damage to your property’s structure .
Other Problem Signs of Damage
You do not have to wait for your steps to become uneven or dangerous before you act. There are plenty of early warning signs you can be aware of. If you keep an eye out for these early problem signs and act quickly when you spot them, you could save yourself a world of trouble later on.
If you see cracks forming and spreading through the surface of your steps, this is a sign that something is causing damage actively. Small, inert hairline cracks are not something that you have to worry about, of course. However, if the cracks become big enough to fit a credit card into, or you see them spreading over time, you should call a professional. This is especially key if they start to spread beyond the steps.
Stair-step cracks tend to be wall cracks that form in the mortar around bricks. The equivalent for poured concrete walls would be diagonal cracks. If you see either of these kinds of cracks forming in the walls around your steps, you should call a professional immediately. This is not only a sign of damage to your steps but is a sign of wider structural damage to your home. In fact, it could be a sign of foundation damage.
Spalling and Scaling
Cosmetic damage to your steps may not seem like a huge issue at first, but it can build up over time and lead to more serious damage. Cosmetic issues like spalling, scaling, pitting, flaking, and staining can all be a result of concrete defects or extreme weathering, but that doesn’t mean that you should discount them entirely.
Gaps Between Steps
If your steps seem to be attached firmly to the ground and your property, but there is a gap between the steps themselves, this is a strong sign of damage. While it may seem that this is not an issue, it is actually a sign that either the steps have sunk or something is pushing the part of your property that is connected to them upward. This is a serious issue that should not be ignored.
Gaps Underneath Steps or Sidewalk Edges
If you start to notice gaps underneath the edges of your steps or around the edges of your driveway and property sidewalks, you should book an inspection quickly. This is a sign that soil erosion and washout have been at work around your home for some time. These issues will lead to unlevel steps and sunken concrete slabs, but they can impact your foundation when left unattended for too long.
Exposed Sections of Foundation
When sections of your foundation start to become exposed, you should prioritize a professional inspection and repair process. This is a sign of advanced soil washout or erosion and will result in foundation damage (if it has not already). It is very likely, at this point, that you will notice unlevel steps, sidewalks, and driveways around your property by this point, and all of these issues should be treated as if they are connected, because in a way, they are.
Some of these problem signs are worrying because they hint at the possibility of wider damage to your property. Do not ignore this possibility; have an expert inspect your home to make sure that all is well. This might seem excessive, but it could save you a lot of stress and money in the long run.
Yes and no. Unlevel steps may or may not be connected to larger issues within your home, but they always present some risks to you and anyone else who visits your home. Furthermore, they can act as a warning sign for bigger problems on the horizon.
You Can Trip and Fall on Unlevel Steps
Even if unlevel steps are entirely benign and pose no threat to your property as a whole, they can cause serious accidents and injury to you and those you love most. Uneven, unstable, or damaged stairs are a danger to anyone who has to use them. No one is more at risk than those who are already vulnerable; the elderly, young children, and those who have issues with mobility and depth perception are most likely to fall. This is especially the case when there is no hand rail.
A fall on hard concrete steps can be serious for anyone, even if the steps are small, but for these people who are already at risk, the consequences could be dire. The elderly or frail, for example, could end up with broken bones as a result of a fall from unlevel steps. As such, it is a far better idea to have this damage dealt with sooner rather than later.
They Are a Warning Sign You Shouldn’t Ignore
There is also a very good chance that unlevel steps are a warning of active and ongoing issues around your home. If this is the case, you could have damage to your foundation or the structure of your property without even knowing it. After all, many of the same things that cause unlevel steps, sinking driveways, and sunken concrete sidewalks will also lead to foundation subsidence and settlement.
Weak, loose, or marshy soil, for example, can cause unlevel steps and foundation subsidence. In fact, in this case, your unlevel steps could even be a symptom of foundation subsidence or settlement. Likewise, if there are gaps forming under your steps as a result of soil washout or erosion, there are a number of foundation problems that could be co-occurring with your unlevel steps as a result
Unlevel steps can be a real pain, even when they are not connected to wider issues. However, we urge you not to ignore them. There are more options than ever for addressing unlevel steps these days.
In the past, replacement would have been the only real option for seriously damaged unlevel steps. This is still an option, of course, and it is a fairly effective one as long as you also address the underlying cause of damage. However, there are many drawbacks to simply replacing damaged steps or concrete surfaces. The most obvious, of course, is cost.
Replacing concrete steps and structures is incredibly costly and time-consuming. This is because it requires, first and foremost, the total excavation and removal of the old structure. Only once this has been completed can the steps be reconstructed. While these steps will look as good as new (because they are new), they will not be usable for quite some time. Concrete can take a long time to properly set. As such, this is really a last resort as far as most professionals are concerned.
PolyRenewal™ foam injection is by far the preferred solution for most professionals these days. This is a minimally invasive, cost-effective lifting and repair procedure that offers fantastic results very quickly. This is because of the way that the two-part foam uses its own expansive force to lift affected concrete surfaces and steps back into place before setting in a matter of minutes. The foam itself can be tailored to provide the precise level of expansion that is required.
Unlike older methods that use the same principle, like mudjacking, PolyRenewal™ polyurethane foam is lightweight, water-resistant, and inert. This means that it does not put too much weight on already weak soil, it will not leach chemicals into the earth, and it will not be affected by soil saturation. It will also render the steps usable within a few hours as opposed to a few days.
No, you cannot safely and effectively lift unlevel steps, sunken concrete slabs, or driveways alone. This is a specialist task that requires set tools and experience to ensure a quick and effective fix.
Structural Repairs are Tricky
Here at Tar Heel Basement Systems, we often tell our customers that structural repairs are out of bounds when it comes to DIY. This isn’t because we want to be restrictive, but because we have seen how quickly even the simplest of structural repairs can go wrong. There is simply no margin for error when it comes to structural damage and repairs, and while unlevel steps may not seem like much, they can be tricky to fix.
If you try to address these problems alone, you could quickly find yourself in over your head. Trying to use something like PolyRenewal™ foam alone, for example, may seem very straightforward, but there are many potential pitfalls. In fact, if you don’t mix the foam just right to begin with, the whole process could be a disaster from the get-go. As well as causing more damage to your home, it could be potentially harmful to you.
Professionals Know What They Are Doing
Professionals are called such for a reason; these specialists have the skills, tools, education, and experience to deal with unlevel steps, foundation damage, and any other issues that might raise their heads in your home. This is why they are able to offer you the best possible results at reasonable prices. While we understand the desire to save money and time, it really is better to call an expert.
After all, if you do decide to try a DIY solution first and it goes wrong, you will still have to call the pros in. The only difference will be that they will have to clean up the mess that the DIY work left behind before they can even begin dealing with the underlying problems and leveling your damaged steps. By the time they do all this, the process could have doubled in time and cost.
How to Deal with Unlevel Steps
Once you have noticed unlevel steps around your property, there is nothing you can do except deal with them. They will not get better over time, after all, and could in fact get worse if left to their own devices. Here’s what the repair process looks like for unlevel steps:
Once you have completed your own investigation and satisfied yourself that professional intervention or advice is required, it is time to book a formal inspection. This is where professionals step in and take over. A professional will begin with a full assessment of your unlevel steps and any other areas of concern.
This process is used to identify the nature and severity of the damage, but also to pinpoint the underlying causes and allow you to discuss your concerns and needs. During the inspection, a professional will be thinking about all of the possible solutions to this issue, keeping your budget and special requirements in mind.
Formulating a Repair Solution
While the inspector will have their own views as to what the best possible solution will be, it is important that you remember that you have the final say here. We do recommend that you take your inspector’s advice, of course, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and make your desires known.
Open and honest communication is key to getting the best possible solution and results from this experience. These days, the most common and permanent concrete lifting and repair solution is PolyRenewal™ foam injection. This is a minimally invasive and cost-effective product that is water-resistant and inert (meaning it doesn’t leach chemicals into the soil).
Lifting and Stabilizing the Steps
Once the repair process starts, the structural repairs will take precedence to ensure that your steps are level and safe going forward. This process should take no more than a day in all but the most serious of situations and will leave you with a functional and effective result.
At this point, your repair team will also take any measures needed to address and resolve the underlying causes of damage to your steps. This will happen either before or during the lifting and leveling process, depending on what is actually needed.
Once all structural repairs have been completed, you will be able to repair the look of your concrete steps. This will generally be some form of resurfacing. In any case, this is the last step in the repair process and focuses solely on the appearance of the steps.
Once all of this is done, the team will remove debris, clean up and go on their way. This means that you get the best possible results without any of the mess, stress, or fuss. Of course, you should never try to level, lift, or repair concrete steps alone. Structural repairs are incredibly complex and pose real risks when undertaken by those who lack the proper skills and tools.
Tar Heel Basement Systems is Here to Level Your Steps
Here at Tar Heel Basement Systems, we have been identifying and repairing the causes of unlevel steps since 2003. We have taken our time in curating a portfolio of high-quality products and services that give the best possible results at reasonable costs. This is just one of the reasons that we are widely considered to be one of the best concrete lifting and foundation repair experts in the state of North Carolina. If you have noticed damage or unevenness in your concrete steps, please do not hesitate to contact us to schedule your free inspection and repair quote.