Masonry Steps; why you should regularly inspect and maintain them
It's spring now and some of you are getting back to using your front steps for the first time since the fall. If you have masonry steps you should perform a thorough inspection of them yearly. Homeowners and contractors often overlook masonry structures like steps thinking since they're made of stone, they'll last forever. This is not the case.
Pictured below is a set of masonry steps and landing in front of a thirty year old ranch style home in southern NH. The treads are bluestone and the veneer is a kind of porous lava rock - that I'm sure at one time was fashionable. Both the veneer and lava rock look to have been put on as an update sometime in the last twenty years. What you should notice right away, as the homeowner did, is that the left corner of the landing is broken and various joints need to be patched.
The house was recently purchased by a younger couple from an elderly couple. It appears that the previous owners used ice melt products on their masonry steps. Ice melt is a corrosive and deteriorates masonry.
After a closer look it was found that the tread stones were loose and the veneer was cracked and failing.
Pictured above is what was found underneath the tread stones.. What we see here is that the bonding agent, mortar has become water logged and instead of being firm like cement has become soft like sandy putty.
In the picture below you see a view of the bluestone tread stones from the side. Bluestone is a sedimentary rock which means it forms in layers. You will notice that the once dense rock is now cracked along it's seams. Instead of one strong stone we now have three weak and brittle rocks on top of each other. In a best case scenario with this type of failure, the bottom layer of stone would be secured by cement while the top layers are left to float free and break or slide.
There is no easy way to tell whether your masonry steps have failed like this. A good rule of thumb is that if it appears as if there is a problem, it's probably much worse underneath. A skilled mason can perform a few simple tests to tell if the structure is sound or needs repair.
In the case of these steps, the structure underneath has failed due to water damage. The steps will be replaced at a later date. For the time being the worst of the water damage has been removed and the tread stones have been reattached. The separated bluestone was glued together with epoxy and the joints were filled with mortar. The repair of these steps will last through the summer and safely support the UPS man and careful house guests.
If your steps are stone and cement in nature, they deserve a closer look. Look for cracks or holes. Use a screw driver or pick to check for soft spots in the mortar. Look for signs of standing water or excessive moisture. It's a good idea to have your masonry sealed every couple of years depending on it's exposure to the elements. A few dollars in maintenance will save you thousands in repairs down the road. Masonry can last a lifetime, but it must be properly built and more important, properly maintained.