Brick By Brick
What's the best way to remove snow from brick pavers without damaging them? The answer lies in the brick--and how the brick lies.
What’s the best way to remove snow from brick (clay)? It seems like a simple question at first glance—one that would certainly warrant a straightforward answer. However, it continues to be the most frequently asked question of Snow & Ice Manager readers, many of whom still opt to shovel these jobs by hand to avoid potential problems. This doesn’t surprise many experts in the brick industry because the issue is not necessarily as simple as it sounds.
Although their recommendations differ somewhat on issues such as whether to use deicing agents in the first place or the practice of sealing brick pavers, all of the industry veterans interviewed for this article agree that a landscape contractor’s preferred method for snow and ice removal on brick pavers must be evaluated and determined on a case-by-case basis—because so many factors are unique to each installation. They’re also in consensus when it comes to using rock salt or salt-based commercial deicing products—don’t use them because of the possibility of long-term durability problems and creation of efflorescence, a crystalline salt deposit on the surface and in the pores of concrete, masonry and other building products.
Unfortunately for contractors tackling these jobs, there’s no black and white answer. Why? It’s not just a matter of what’s fastest, easiest or even the most cost-effective. Instead, they must consider a host of other variables, including everything from the porosity, strength and design of the paver itself to the quality of the installation and expertise of the installer to the size of the surface being treated—not to mention the skill and experience of the snowplow operator, equipment accessories utilized and components of the deicing agent.
After 20 years of fielding questions from customers with specific maintenance questions relating to surfaces of all types, Don Schapper, president of Aldon Corp., a chemical company based in Montana and maker of a variety of sealing products, has developed its Web site (www.aldonchem.com) to help address such end-user quandaries. “There is so much bad information out there it’s astounding, and people get into all kinds of trouble because of it,” Schapper says. “It has nothing to do with the quality of the products. Sure, there are good products and there are bad products, but the misinformation is absolutely incredible.”
That’s why he always recommends doing your homework before tackling a project. “No matter what anybody tells you, no matter what you think you’re dealing with, do a small test area first,” he says. “People are well meaning, but I’ve had so many people tell me ‘the guy at the home center store told me to do this, and now I’ve ruined my surface.’”
Let’s take a look at what a handful of industry pros had to say about the most critical issues contractors should consider when weighing their snow removal options on segmental paving systems.
If installed correctly, clay paver manufacturers maintain that segmental pavers can be just as flat as their poured concrete counterpart. In fact, according to Ted Corvey, director of a paver business at Pine Hall Brick, an 82-year-old clay paver supplier located in Winston-Salem, N.C., research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh compares poured concrete with segmental pavements (both concrete and clay). He says results of that research have shown that when installed correctly, segmental pavements were as smooth or smoother than poured concrete. However, contractors often run into exceptions to this rule, facing snow removal on installations where pavers sit at slightly different elevations (called lippage or vertical displacement), making them more susceptible to damage by a snowplow’s steel blade. Although using a snow blower may be the least risky of the three approaches to snow removal on such slightly uneven surfaces, it’s not always the most practical choice when you’re dealing with a large area.
“The snow blower is not always the best answer because if you have a square 1,000 foot by 1,000 foot parking lot, all you’re doing is moving the snow from one place to another,” Schapper says.
Brad DeBausche, sales manager at Endicott Clay Products, a large manufacturer of pavers for the residential and commercial markets based in Fairbury, Neb., says the key to effective removal depends on timing—getting the snow off the surface quickly so that it does not become compacted or ice laden. Ideally, the principle behind commercial snow removal should be the same as residential, he says. “When you shovel your driveway or use a snow blower, there’s a skiff of snow left,” DeBausche says. “If using a plow, you should place little wheels on the blade so that it's not dragging directly on the surface. This will allow for any unevenness in the surface while leaving a minimal amount of snow. Minimal sunlight will melt what snow is left on that surface. Then to keep it from icing up, you need to use sand or any other commercial ice remover. Use of commercial ice melt products shouldn’t be a problem as long as they do not contain salt in their mixture. Where you get into trouble is when you use salt, as this can lead to efflorescence.”
He says most of the problems contractors face typically stem from improper installations where the bed underneath the pavers may be less than perfect. “If they’re laid correctly, the surface should be flat as concrete,” he says. “Where you run into problems is if you have something like tree roots moving up the pavers, then you’re going to have the same problem with concrete. If the ground swells and contracts and the installation is not done correctly, your pavers are going to move and start inching up. In that case, you just have to be careful how you do it.”
Obviously, any paver (concrete or clay) can be damaged by aggressive scraping with steel blades, which may catch, crack or lift them from their assembly. However, most experts agree that using a rubber- or vinyl-edged blade for snow removal goes a long way toward paver preservation. Shipping product to more than 35 states across the country, the Pine Hall Brick team recommends that operators equip snowplow blades with a rubber edge set at ¼ inch above the pavement. “All pavement systems—whether they’re concrete, asphalt or a segmental paving system—are subject to impact if the plow operator drops his blade abruptly,” Corvey says. “If that happens, there’s going to be some damage. You’re not going to get a perfectly smooth surface as though you’re running over kitchen linoleum, so having operators pull the snowplow blade up a bit makes a lot of sense.”
After removing as much of the snow as possible first with a plow or snow blower, Leroy Danforth, technical publications manager and part of the engineering and research department at the Brick Industry Association, Reston, Va., says it’s fine to consider chemicals—excluding those that include salt and bring the potential to effloresce with them. “If you throw a deicer down over 2 inches of ice, your effectiveness is not going to be very good,” he says. “But say you come by with your plow and plow down to 3/8 of an inch, you shouldn’t have any pavers that are raised more than that. Then you come back, use your deicing agent, and you’ve got most of your snow removed. You haven’t hurt your pavers because you’re keeping your blade up a bit, and you’ve gotten a greater effectiveness with your deicer.”
Schapper agrees a snowplow can be used effectively on pavers if it’s adjusted correctly. However, he says the issue is greater than the blade alone—you also have to consider the type of paver you’re dealing with. “You can’t assume that a clay brick paver is going to be the high-quality, high-density, low-absorption type [like those produced by many of the large brick manufacturers]. It could just as easily be a 100-year-old red common brick that’s like a little sponge,” he says. “If water absorbs into the brick and freezes, then the next day you get more snow and more melt, you start building up ice, and that ice is anchored down into the substrate or body of the brick. It’s not just sitting there on the top. Now you come along with a snowplow and you’re trying to whack that ice off and you’re pulling the brick right out of the ground.”
To test the surface for density, Schapper advises doing a simple absorption test with drops of water. If contractors are running into a water penetration problems, he says they should consider sealing the surface—a process that cannot only protect the paver for up to 20 years if applied correctly but can also serve as a supplemental revenue stream for contractors. “If water penetration and subsequent ice buildup is behind the problem, then you just stop the water penetration by properly sealing the surface. Common sense says if the surface is properly sealed, water’s not going in; therefore you don’t have near the problems.”
Working on the technical side of the brick business for more than 40 years, Harold Newman, vice president of technical services at Pine Hall Brick, prefers to use the term “waterproofing” rather than “sealing.” Although he says waterproofing isn’t necessary, he agrees it may be appropriate at times. “We certainly don’t want to take a stance that all pavement needs to be waterproofed, but there may be certain circumstances where that might be an appropriate measure to take,” he says. “It’s basically just a matter of weighing the benefits and costs involved, which is what we all do every day.”
In addition to plowing and blowing, some of the most common snow removal questions relate to treating the pavers with chemicals.
When considering this method, contractors should keep in mind that many chemicals used to melt ice and snow may contain salts, which can be detrimental to concrete and clay pavers, resulting in stains and/or the salt residue called efflorescence described earlier. Although it usually washes off the surface with water, the salt absorbed by the brick and its bed may continue to appear for years.
According to Joe Althouse, working in the Calcium Chloride Technical Service department of the Dow Chemical Co., Ludington, Mich., most deicers do not chemically attack pavers. He says it’s strictly a matter of porosity and strength. “When deicers are used on any material that is porous, melt water soaks beneath the surface of the material. If this melt water re-freezes beneath the material surface, which is likely in many winter scenarios, the strength of the paver must be great enough to withstand the pressure created by the expanding ice formation. If the paver is not strong enough, it will crack and flake.”
Receiving numerous questions from members on this very subject, Danforth says the Brick Industry Association recommends different approaches depending on the situation, including the use of deicing agents. “We think chemicals are fine, but the only problem is most chemicals include some sort of salt, which means they have the potential to effloresce,” he says. “Generally, they’re not going to damage a brick paver. However, if it’s a mortared brick pavement you have to be careful with some of them because they can attack the cement in the mortar and cause spalling, just as they would on concrete.”
Schapper recommends the same philosophy for deicers as he does on his company’s sealers. “If you say it’s okay to use chemicals, you’re misleading people,” he says. “If you say it’s not okay, you’re misleading people. So the only safe answer in my mind is the same one we give people no matter what they’re doing. Test it and find out for yourself.”
There are two basic routes to the chemical approach, explains Newman: proactive and reactive. The proactive method usually incorporates the application of a liquid salt solution or saline solution to the paving before the ice or snow event—a strategy adopted by most highway departments. Applying a deicer after the event occurs is obviously a reactive measure. “There are two potential problems with the use of deicers, especially if you don’t pay attention to which ones you use,” he says. “Most people probably just go out and use rock salt. Sodium chloride can cause a lot of problems, one of them being efflorescence, which can occur on any pavement—that means clay and concrete pavers as well as poured cement. It’s unsightly, it can be removed, and in most cases it will go away—but it’s there.”
He says corrosion can also occur in concrete paving applications. “Clay pavers are bound together with a glassy matrix,” he says. “In other words, they’re fired in excess of 2,000°F, and the glass that is formed actually bonds these particles together whereas in a concrete paving applications, the aggregate particles are held together with Portland cement—Portland cement is vulnerable to attack from the chlorides structurally.”
After experimenting with numerous deicing agents on clay pavers, Newman recommends magnesium chloride as the safest and most effective chemical treatment. Sold in home centers, Corvey says that although this substance is a premier deicer, which means it’s more expensive, it works within a wider temperature range without causing damage.
The right course of action
As evidenced in the explanations above, there is no right, wrong or clear-cut way to remove snow and ice from brick pavers. Contractors must develop their own best practices based on their specific situations after assessing the individual characteristics of the surface at hand. In addition to these methods, there is one additional alternative.
“A lot of folks now are installing heating systems beneath our pavers, so you don’t have the difficulty in the first place,” says Charles Gamarekian, CEO at Cambridge Pavers, Lyndhurst, N.J. “Heated surfaces have been available for some time, but they’re growing in popularity. Contractors shouldn’t take that as a negative either because those same guys are not only plowing those pavers but also the ones putting in the heating systems so they’re making money doing that as well.”
Ellen Parson is a freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, Mo.
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