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Steel vs. Concrete Piers for Foundation Repair – Which is Better?

Steel vs. Concrete Piers for Foundation Repair – Which is Better?

When foundation problems call for underpinning, foundation repair companies generally use one of two materials for the piers: concrete or steel. The question arises then, how do concrete and steel stack up to each other in some of the key factors that homeowners will value for foundation repair?

Ease and Duration of Installation

childers leveling technician hard at work installing helical piers

With steel piers, this answer is simple. Most jobs can be completed in a day or two and once they are load-tested, they are immediately ready to support the weight of the building.

Installing helical piers does not require extensive site work or heavy machinery. Small excavations will be needed where each pier will be installed in order to expose the foundation footing. At the end of work, these will be filled back in.

With concrete, it depends on what type of concrete piling is being used. For newly poured concrete pilings, it will require more extensive excavations and heavier machinery than is used for steel pier installation. It also will take up to a week to cure before the weight of the building can be transferred onto the piles.

For premade concrete press pilings, the installation looks more like a steel pier installation, except with perhaps even less equipment. Basically, they are a series of foot tall concrete cylinders that get pressed into the ground by using the building’s weight and a hydraulic system. Because the cylinders are pre-made, there is no curing time like with new concrete.

Longevity

If you want a pier that is going to be a permanent fix for your foundation, steel is your best bet. It is less likely than concrete to break down or lose strength underground than concrete.

Concerned about rust? Don’t be. While this might have been an issue with some early steel piers, modern manufacturing methods have made it so that all but perhaps the cheapest steel piers won’t corrode underground.

That’s why your reputable foundation repair product companies can offer lengthy product warranties on steel piers. For IDEAL, who we work with at Childers, that warrantee runs 30 years. Chances are, the piers will last well beyond even that mark.

Cost

Here is the big, at least initial, benefit to concrete. The materials are cheaper than steel. In the case of the press pilings, the labor costs will also likely be lower.

Cheaper doesn’t always mean less expensive, however, at least in the long run, for reasons that we will explain in the next section.

Still, if you are getting two quotes from contractors, one of whom installs steel piers and one of whom uses concrete, expect the concrete quote to come in lower.

Effectiveness

Concrete Push Pile - Active Soil Diagram

With steel piers, as long as they are installed by trained, experienced technicians, there shouldn’t be any effectiveness issues.

It doesn’t matter how deep you need to go to reach a load-bearing strata of soil. It doesn’t matter if the soil is wet or dry during installation. It doesn’t matter if there are obstructions in the soil. A quality contractor using quality steel piers can adapt to any of those conditions.

With concrete, that isn’t exactly the case.

First, the steel helical piers we use are so strong that they have a 2 to 1 safety factor. With concrete, that number is basically 1 to 1, meaning there is no real safety factor, no margin for error when it comes to strength.

Second, concrete piers don’t reach nearly as deep as is possible with steel piers. Unless your home sits five feet above bedrock, chances are concrete piles will be installed in the active layer of soil. That means that the piers could begin settling along with the rest of the building. Or hydrostatic pressure could deflect them. Or, if you live on the type of expansive clay soil common in our West Texas home, soil expansion could even begin to push the piles upward into your foundation.

If you are using press piles, the issue gets complicated by the fact that an obstruction underground could cause the piles to deflect and the installing contractor might not even know it, completely negating their effectiveness.

Also, using the weight of the house to push the press piles into the ground places stress upon the foundation itself. Given that the point of foundation repair is to remove stress from a damaged foundation, adding more to it during installation can prove counterproductive.

The price point on concrete piering systems might look nice initially, but if you are needing to replace them in a couple of years with something sturdier, it’s going to end up costing you more in the long run.

Our Recommendation: Steel Helical Piers

helical piers

Our IDEAL helical piers are not the cheapest foundation underpinning option. We fully admit this.

We don’t care.

Our goal isn’t to have the foundation repair product that is easiest on our end to install or which allows us to advertise having the lowest foundation repair prices in our area. It is, quite simply, to provide the best foundation repair solution possible for our clients. That is what we have built our reputation on.

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