There’s nothing scarier than going up or down your concrete steps and feeling them wobble. Uneven, unstable concrete steps are a safety hazard that should be handled as quickly as possible. Not only is it against city code, but there is an increased chance of injury. Over a million accidents occur nationwide from falling down stairs every year. We can only imagine how many of those accidents were caused by uneven steps.
Every structure eventually sinks and settles because every structure is built on soil. No matter how dense and tough, soil is always moving, so the concrete it supports will too. This is especially true for concrete, which cracks and allows moisture to seep through and reach the soil underneath. Here’s what you can do to repair uneven concrete steps.
Uneven Concrete Steps: Solutions
The concrete steps that give you easy access to your home are small but important parts of your household. When other concrete structures crack or settle, you might not notice a difference in functionality. However, the same can’t be said for concrete stairs. Sunken concrete steps are an immediate safety hazard because even the slightest horizontal tilt greatly impacts the functionality of the structure.
As a homeowner, you shouldn’t fear going up and down your own steps. Repairing them should be your number one priority to avoid injuring either yourself or your loved one. But how does one go about repairing concrete steps?
The solution is concrete lifting. Concrete settles because the soil underneath shrinks and compacts together. Because the foundation loses its topsoil, a gap is formed between the concrete and the soil. The concrete then settles onto the soil, because it can’t hold any extra weight without the soil serving as a foundation. There are two methods used in construction that can repair uneven concrete steps:
- Polyurethane injections
Both of these methods involve filling the gap left by soil shrinkage and lifting the concrete until it’s even again. Despite how similar these two methods may seem, they are actually quite different once you understand how they work. Before calling a contractor and going along with whichever method they propose, take the time to read what mudjacking and polyurethane injections are all about and see which method works best for you.
Otherwise known as slabjacking, mudjacking is the oldest and the most established type of concrete lifting there is. This is how it works: Contractors drill openings in the sunken steps and siphon in a combination of concrete, sand, mud, and limestone.
The blend then fills the void between the depressed soil and the sunken stairs until there’s sufficient material to lift the steps. Once the contractor is satisfied with the steps’ symmetry, the openings are closed and patched up. In the end, the concrete steps should look like they were completely untampered with.
- Should You Choose Mudjacking?
Upon first glance, mudjacking sounds like the perfect solution to uneven concrete steps. However, you should know that mudjacking is an old, outdated method of concrete lifting. Modern concrete lifting methods, such as polyurethane injections, really highlight the flaws that come with mudjacking, such as:
- Long completion time
- Lack of effectiveness
- Lack of future-proofing
- Aesthetic failures
It all depends on the scale of the job, but mudjacking can take up quite a lot of time. The contractors have to create the cement mixture from scratch and make sure they get the consistency they want. It takes a while because multiple cement types, muds, and soils are used, so there’s a lot to keep track of to get the perfect mixture. Once the cement slurry is under the concrete, it has to dry completely before the steps can be used, which can take days.
Just because mudjacking has been used for decades as the go-to method of concrete lifting, that doesn’t mean it’s the most effective method. A mudjacking job only lasts between five and 10 years at best. The cement mixture that’s used is thick and rough, so it doesn’t always fill the gap completely before it dries and solidifies. Because the void remains poorly filled, settling is very likely to reoccur a few years down the line.
The cement mixture is also very heavy, so it places a significant amount of pressure on the soil, causing compaction. Compaction is defined by the displacement of air between soil particles when met with a great weight or pressure. Through compaction, the soil becomes denser, but it also shrinks and causes the concrete to settle.
As for aesthetic failures, the holes drilled into the steps don’t cover up easily. The cement mixture used in mudjacking is viscous, so very large holes need to be drilled in order for the slurry to travel under the concrete. This can cause some problems when it’s time to patch the holes up. The bigger the holes are, the more noticeable the patchwork is, so if you care about how your concrete steps look, this might discourage you from choosing mudjacking as a solution.
Utilizing polyurethane injections is the modern solution to lopsided concrete. But what is polyurethane foam and how does it compare to the cement mixture used in mudjacking? Polyurethane is a polymer held together by a plastic-like adhesive known as urethane. Polyurethane foam is expansive, flexible, and a lot lighter than cement. Closed-cell polyurethane is used for concrete lifting, which is firmer than the open-cell polyurethane used to make sponges.
Just like in mudjacking, multiple holes (that are smaller than those used in mudjacking) are drilled into the steps. The polyurethane foam is then injected into the openings until it lifts the uneven concrete.
- Should You Choose Polyurethane Injections?
The techniques used with polyurethane injections will completely eliminate the flaws presented with mudjacking.
Polyurethane injections are a more streamlined method of concrete lifting, so the time it takes to complete the work is a lot less than with mudjacking. You can use the steps as normal within 15 minutes to an hour after the job is done. Not only that, but any extra installations you would like to do on the stairs, such as rails, can be done hours after completion.
Not only are polyurethane injections faster than mudjacking; they are also a more effective method. Polyurethane foam is expansive, so as it fills the gap under the steps, it extends and reaches every single part of the gap. This leaves the steps completely supported, so the chances of future settling are exceedingly low.
Polyurethane foam is also a whole lot lighter than cement, so it doesn’t compact the soil further. Not to mention, closed-cell polyurethane is water-resistant, so the soil underneath experiences minimal swelling and shrinking once the concrete steps are lifted.
The holes drilled for this process are a whole lot smaller, so the concrete steps look pristine once everything is finished. It’s a less invasive, quicker, more efficient process that solves all the issues mudjacking causes.
Should I Fix Uneven Concrete Steps Myself?
When noticing uneven concrete steps, your first thought might be to fix it yourself. After all, there are numerous online resources available that seem to work for others. What these DIY resources don’t tell you is that they do nothing to hinder the damage caused by soil shrinkage. If the problem’s source isn’t addressed, the problem will never really go away at all. That’s why you should not try to fix the uneven concrete yourself.
- Calling an Expert Is the Only Way to Fix Uneven Concrete Steps
DIY solutions don’t last, so they’re a waste of time, money, and manpower. Even mudjacking, which is a professional method used by companies for years, is a concrete lifting method that lasts a decade at most.
Construction does not follow the same rules everywhere. As mentioned previously, the climate and seismic activity of an area determine the kind of soil used as foundations. Most materials used for structures are specially chosen to fit the area. DIY methods ignore these rules and try to find a quick solution for everyone, but this can be immensely detrimental to your home’s construction.
Many popular DIY concrete lifting solutions suggest using a mix of mud, rocks, and sand to fill the gap between the concrete and the soil. These materials make terrible foundations, especially when they are not compacted before getting chucked into the gap. There’s a reason professionals use polyurethane foam to fill the void instead of using more soil, and it’s because it cannot be compacted properly for concrete lifting.
The entire step would have to be detached and replaced, which is more difficult than concrete leveling. Because of the tremors North Carolina experiences on a monthly basis, loose foundations such as sand and gravel are not a good replacement for fillers used by expert contractors.
Concrete lifting requires a vast amount of skill and precision. Professionals understand that concrete isn’t as tough as it looks. Even if you tried to imitate the concrete lifting techniques used by professionals, you have to know how to handle the concrete in a way that doesn’t break it. If you do end up breaking it, the amount of money you’ll have to spend to replace the steps will be much more than calling somebody to lift the concrete steps for you.
Technically speaking, every kind of soil is able to cause settling. There are various types of soils that are used as foundations for buildings, both commercial and residential. Each has their own positive and negative characteristics. The sort of soil that is utilized for construction is usually picked by the site manager, not the owner of the property. The site manager chooses which kind of soil based on their own preference, the kind of property that’s constructed, and what the climate is like in the area they are working in.
Soil that is made of 10% or more clay is the kind of soil most likely to cause settling. That said, other kinds of soil either shrink and compact or erode in their own way based on their structural integrity. North Carolina’s state soil is called Cecil soil. The topsoil is loam but the rest is clay, which makes for a great combination of soil types for foundations. However, as you’ll see further, these two kinds of soils are able to cause settling despite their amazing properties.
- Clay Soils and Loam
Clay soils are those that contain hints of clay in them. The more clay present in the soil, the more it’s able to expand once it comes in contact with moisture. Just as it’s able to swell exponentially when wet, it’s also able to experience extreme levels of shrinkage once its moisture content dries up. You might be wondering why contractors still use clay soils, given their swell-shrink capacity, but they do have their advantages. Clay soils stick together very well, and they are easier to compact, so they become proper, solid foundations quicker than other kinds of soils.
As for loam, it’s considered the best kind of soil to use as a foundation. It’s a mixture of different kinds of soils, and it has just the right amount of clay to compact easily without the extreme swell-shrink capacity of clay-rich soils. This is why Cecil soil works so well as a foundation: A low-expansion topsoil that rests atop dense clay soil is a pair that holds up for years to come. That said, loam still has clay in it, so shrinkage is still going to occur.
- Sand and Gravel
Sand and gravel might seem like the solution to soil shrinkage, but even these kinds of foundations have their faults. Sand has no clay content, so it does not compact well. Because of this, it’s loose and shifty. North Carolina may not suffer major earthquakes, but the earth is constantly trembling. There can be an average of 10 small earthquakes in a single month, and this affects all foundations, especially the ones that are a bit looser.
Something very similar occurs if the foundation is made of gravel. The particles are too large, so water streams directly through it all. When the water evaporates, the gravel will stay in place, but there’s still a lot of room left over for shifting. Sand and gravel are not used as foundations in areas that experience frequent, strong earthquakes precisely for this reason. Settling caused by shrinkage can be fixed with polyurethane injections, but a shifty concrete can bring an entire building down.
When concrete settles, cracks, deteriorates, and splits, there are many possible causes. The circumstances leading up to concrete settling all play a role that affects the severity of the settling. The freeze-thaw effect is something that impacts concrete as much as soil shrinkage does, but the two incidents shouldn’t get confused.
- Understanding the Freeze-Thaw Effect
When rain falls on concrete, it can freeze over and turn into ice. When water freezes, it expands by about 9%. The expanding water creates pressure on the concrete’s pores, and if the pressure exceeds the concrete’s tension limits, it will break apart the concrete. This is how some concrete surfaces manage to deteriorate over time despite not settling. This, of course, happens in places where temperatures reach freezing levels.
Over time, the freeze-thaw effect does influence settling in the sense that, upon weakening the concrete and eroding the surface, the concrete gives way faster when it settles. However, it does not cause settling—at least, not as much as soil shrinkage does.
- How Is It Different from Soil Shrinkage?
Water that reaches the soil underneath concrete can freeze over and affect the soil. However, it doesn’t affect the soil the same way soil shrinkage does. When the water freezes and expands, it pushes the soil particles outward and separates them, similarly to how moisture makes soil swell up.
When the ice melts and dries up, shrinkage occurs. However, this process is no longer considered freeze-thaw. The moisture may have been ice at one point, but shrinkage does not take place when ice is involved, only moisture.
Just how bad can settling get when it comes to concrete steps? Things like driveway and garage floor settling are often overlooked because there is no immediate change in the pavement’s overall functionality. The same can’t be said for stairs. The slightest tilting can make you lose your balance, so as soon as you spot the following problem signs, you’ll want to call an expert for help.
If there is settling, there is an inherent problem with the concrete’s foundation. When the soil begins shifting and shrinking, the first thing you’ll notice is that your steps will begin to wobble slightly if you put weight on one side. That’ll be the side that has the most severe shrinkage.
As time goes on, the wobbling will get worse until you won’t be able to securely use the steps without fear of falling. Eventually, the concrete will settle. What you want to avoid is having someone be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and fully settle the steps mid-way through using them. The abrupt settling can cause a serious injury.
If wobbling is an indicator you can feel, tilting is one you can see. Most homeowners feel the difference in their settling steps before they see it, but if you notice any kind of tilting, your steps are very likely settling. Lopsided steps are uncomfortable to use, so it might not be long before you try to fix them.
Tilting can also be caused by poorly constructed steps, so the issue might not be related to concrete lifting at all. The good news is, reputable contractors will offer free inspections, so you can get an expert opinion on what’s going without worrying about it too much.
Who Should I Call for Concrete Step Repair?
As great as polyurethane injections sound, not a lot of contractors offer it for residential repairs. Concrete lifting with polyurethane foam has been around for a while, but there aren’t many contractors that have switched to this newer method. Many of those who have will only reserve this type of lifting for corporate clients.
The good news is concrete step lifting typically requires a very small section to be filled. It’s a worthwhile investment given how refined it is and how it protects your soil from further shrinking.
Also, there are many contractors that are committed to standardizing the use of polyurethane injections for residential repairs. All you have to do is find a local contractor that is willing to bring the best of the best in terms of concrete lifting to your home, and your steps will be even once more.
Call Tar Heel Basement Systems if You Have Uneven Concrete Steps
Tar Heel Basement Systems is a company that serves homeowners in Raleigh and Winston-Salem, NC. Since 2003, we’ve been providing homeowners with the best home repair solutions on the market. We utilize PolyRenewal™ for residential and commercial concrete lifting jobs. We want what’s best for every one of our customers, so we only offer the best. Our experts are always here for you, so don’t hesitate to contact us for a free inspection and repair quote if your property is having issues with uneven concrete steps.
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