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Removing Concrete Stairs

Hi, 

I have an old house in Massachusetts with concrete stairs that are crumbling. The bottom step has actually broken away from the other steps and there are deep cracks on the risers of the other steps. It looks like there is just sand under the step that has broken away. I want to remove them and have a small deck and set of wooden stairs built, but the stairs and platform look like they are attached to the foundation of the house. My son is afraid to use a jack hammer to break up the stairs for fear of damaging the foundation. Would you please give us some advice on the best way to demolish these stairs and whether this is a project that we need to leave to a professional? 

Also, if we need to hire someone to do this, what profession do we look for? We do not have any experience in this type of work. My son has used a jackhamer on pavement at his job, but is leery of using one so close to the foundation of the house.

I will appreciate any advice you can give us.

Thank you,
Linda


My first house, which was built in 1950, had a set of outdoor concrete stairs to a small porch. When I built an addition to the house I changed the location of the back door and I demolished the concrete porch. Once I removed the top slab, it was simple (fun, actually) to bust up the remaining porch, which was made from  cement blocks.

The normal approach to making foundations and stairs is to pour them separately. But I think I've seen pictures in books where people have made them in one pour.

My first approach would be to give the porch a few good whacks with an 8-pound sledge hammer (wear safety glasses!) to see if it breaks up. Hit the sides near a corner. If the sides were made from cement blocks, they will break easily. The top may be a concrete slab, which will be harder to break.

The trick to breaking up concrete slabs is to render them "unsupported" and hit them in the middle of their span. A concrete slab without reinforcement cannot span more than a few inches. A sidewalk, for example, can be easily broken by lifting one end with a crow-bar, putting a rock under the raised end, and hitting the middle with a sledge hammer. If your porch has a concrete top, it may be supported by sand underneath. If so, that sand can be removed so the slab has no support in the middle, rendering it vulnerable to a hammer blow.

You can rent a jack-hammer, but for a similar amount of money you can buy a 7-inch dry-cut diamond blade (about $50) for a circular saw. These blades last about 100 times as long as those $3 fiber-grit masonry-cutting blades.

I highly doubt you could damage a poured concrete foundation, even with one of those huge commercial-duty jack-hammers (unless you deliberately tried to). As you will only be giving a glancing blow to the house foundation, all you are likely to do is make a few small chips in that concrete. There is a very good chance that what appears to be well-connected is really just attached with mortar, or just weakly bonded concrete.

Even a basketball-sized chunk blasted from the house foundation could be patched with concrete patching material.

The worst case is the steps were made from the same pour as the foundation. (That will be evident when you clobber the porch with a sledge hammer... if the step material doesn't break away readily, they're well-connected. But if there is sand under the steps, I'll bet the whole thing is made from cement blocks.) In the worst-case scenario, you can cut the concrete with a saw, (which will only cut about 2-1/2" deep) and then break it up with a sledge hammer. Just use the saw as a means of making a "control joint" which is a weak line where the concrete will break when struck with a sledge hammer.

You won't be able to make a cut right against the house, so you may have a 2 or 3 inch thick remnant of porch protruding from the house. This could be removed by making successive cuts in the face, (like a grid pattern) and then chipping it away with a cold chisel.

SAFETY WARNING:

When hammering on concrete you absolutely positively MUST wear safety goggles. Those high-velocity chips of concrete can render you blind in a millisecond. Also, if you use a diamond saw for cutting concrete, you should wear hearing protection (as well as safety glasses), because the noise is very loud. A dust mask is a good idea also, unless there is a good breeze to carry away the dust.

If you decide to hire somebody, a carpenter with a little remodeling experience should be able to demolish the steps.


An Example:

The old concrete steps were no longer needed because I closed up the old entrance.

 

Nearing completion of the project, the location of the old steps was visible where the concrete paint ended. The masonry steps were attached to the basement foundation with only a little mortar and paint.

 

Basic Tools For Concrete Demolition:

  • A large (8 pound) sledge hammer.
  • A cold chisel and a small sledge hammer, at least a 32 ounce sledge, to drive the chisel.
  • A 7-inch diamond blade for a circular saw.
  • I recently bought a 4-inch diamond blade ($40) for an angle grinder. This tool is useful for making shallow plunge cuts in concrete, and for cutting ceramic tile.
  • A hammer drill with a carbide masonry bit is a useful tool. This can be used to drill a series of holes to weaken the concrete, which can then be broken with a sledge hammer. But this approach is tedious.

 

Bruce W. Maki, Editor.

 

 

 

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Compiled April 4, 2001