Masonry/Brick Laying/Brick steps fall apart
QUESTION: Live in Massachusetts and 4 years ago our front steps, brick and blue stone, fell apart! We had them rebuilt and every year since the mason has had to come back and repair them. The blue stone does not stay cemented down and the mortar all cracks and falls out! Same thing again this year!!
We do not use any rock salt on them even though they are so dangerous in the winter, we tried sealing them one year, the area does not get a lot of sun.
What is this guy doing wrong? or what should he be doing that would prevent this from happening? I even asked for my money back to put in wooden steps but this guy says no!!
He is licensed and claims we are the only job he's done with this problem.
We can't keep doing this.....Please help!
Thanks for any help you can give me.
ANSWER: Thank you for your question Pat.
For your information, when mortar joints are directly exposed "upwards" (as in on top of the steps facing upwards)the mortar is highly exposed to water infiltration rather that those exposed "sideways" (as if you would face a brick wall). Even if you seal, after six months, you have to re-seal again and even this procedure does not guarantee that the mortar will not crack. Because of the high level of water infiltration, the mortar will always crack, no matter what quality of mortar it is.
The best way to solve this problem is to cover the steps with a concrete slab. I have a flagstone stairway entrance. The stone on top of the steps were in great condition, but the mortar had always to be redone due to severe cracking. Having practically no sun in that area, the humidity level was always high. The mortar always seemed darker that those installed "face" wise.
Knowing that concrete slabs do slightly deteriorate with time, I recommend that you do visit a brick and stone specialist to seek further advice concerning granite or silica stone slabs. They are more costly but can offer a longer lasting look without the hassle of sealing or repairing.
For the stones that lay on the ground (the row of stones on the side of your steps) these could be layered directly on compacted quarry sand, no mortar required. Again, any mortar in direct contact to the ground will always move and crack with time. You may seek advice for that step with a landscape specialist.
Hope this helps.
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: He is coming to repair them again in a month or so. Would it help if the mortar joints were redone to face sideways? He refuses to refund any money or make any changes in what it is made of.
I have many neighbors with these steps, although built by someone else, that have not had a problem and some are 20+ years old. Is there anyway that these can be saved?
I have checked with a bricklayer who does jobs for me. He suggests the use of a stronger mortar mix. This repair should last for a long time if the mix is done correctly.
You see, it is all in the mix. The quality of today's mortar is not the same as the past mixes. That could explain why the repair does not hold. If the bricklayer adds one too many quantities of sand/mortar/water for instance, that could ruin the mix.
What he suggests is that the bricklayer should use half S Mortar, half Portland Cement, combined with two buckets of sand. This mix is close to the mixes of the "older" generation bricklayers.
Remember, the main problem will always be the water getting into the mortar joints. Sealing the joints regularly could also extend the repair. That has to be done at least once a year. The best will always be to cover the steps with concrete slab or even a limestone slab as mentioned earlier.
It is also important to check what is going on behind the steps. If that space is full of residue, and that humidity is trapped into that area, no matter how many times you repair the mortar joints, the problem will always arise. Please check with your bricklayer if he did inspect that part before doing the job.
I understand that you are caught in a dilemma, please understand that if your neighbour's steps are doing fine, there may be factors that do differ from your situation. If the sun is present, their steps remain in a dry state more often than in a humid situation. It could also mean that water does not infiltrate behind the steps as in your case, and lastly, the quality of the mortar joints may different that yours.
I can only hope that you find an understanding with your bricklayer and that the final repair works out.
Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions.