The Ins and Outs of balcony Repair

12 April 2021
By Simon

Without a question, a balcony is one of those spaces that adds value to an apartment. Not just monetarily, but mentally. After all, they open up the apartment, give a feeling of greater space, outdoor living and allow residents to feel like they have nature, on their doorstep – especially those that like to have plants on the balcony.

Furthermore, the space can be decorated by hanging potted plants, hammocks, sofas, hanging lamps and numerous other items creating a relaxing space where people can sit and entertain.

However, perhaps more than other parts of the apartment – due to exposure to the elements – balconies need regular upkeep as they wear over time. Most often, defects are deterioration of the surface which is caused by the degradation of concrete, water corrosion, oxidisation of handrails, ponding of water, wear and tear from residents or a combination of any of these. When you then add in the elements (heat, rain, wind, cold etc) the problems above can be exacerbated causing greater damage than they may otherwise.

The thing is, whilst residents may see signs of disrepair, no action is often taken when it should be as the assumption is, the problem is outside, not inside so it is not as important. The truth is, this is a fallacy. Where the surface of the balcony is breaking down (loose tiles, concrete coming away, rust stains, efflorescence etc) water can be penetrating the slab, tracking along structural elements such as the reinforcing steel. Not only does this have the potential to rust the steel, but it can then track along the steel into internal spaces such as walls, ceilings and light fixtures.

Our advice to owner occupiers, building managers and strata managers is this: Keep an eye out for obvious signs of balcony disrepair. They may be nothing, but having an engineer or structural repair specialist attend earlier than later could go a long way to minimising the damage and thus minimising the cost of repair.
So what do you need to look out for? Let’s take a look.

Common Causes and Signs of Concrete Balcony Deterioration

Poor Drainage and cracking

Not to put too fine a appoint on it, but if a balcony has blocked drainage, poor drainage falls, structural sagging or settlement, serious ponding of water will most likely occur. If there are even little cracks in the surface under this ponding (which can happen simply enough) then issues may arise. Depending on where you live (places such as Richmond in NSW will often drop below Zero) if this water freezes in cold weather, ice may form, which will expand and crack within those minute surface cracks, thus making them larger. This allows more water to enter, resulting in more cracks and more water infiltration, and the results of each freeze-thaw cycle will be an ongoing issue.

Chemical deposits

The presence of lime may lead to the formation of Calcium carbonate deposits which often look like “icicles” (similar to deposits in caves). These are generally formed by water dripping from the balcony slab, which draws out the calcareous materials in concrete. These Stalactites are a sign of long-term water penetration and may also indicate that the structural steel supporting the balcony may be damaged. This situation will generally require analysis to determine where the leak is coming from and what other damage it has caused.

Loose Handrails

It may seem innocuous in many ways, but handrails which move when pushed or leaned on are a large warning sign. Not only are they a safety hazard which may be in breach of the building code, but as often as not can be a sign of issues in the slab, or the causes of issues.

Where you have a loose handrail, where the railing is attached to the slab you will notice movement between the plate holding the rail and the slab. If the space where the railing post penetrates the concrete is not properly caulked, or the caulking quality deteriorates, water infiltration occurs, eventually rusting the posts/the screws holding them in. When the metal oxidizes, the rust on the posts will accumulate and push against the surrounding concrete (the process of concrete cancer), causing the footing of the posts to loosen. This creates other cracks, allowing more water to enter, further loosening the posts.

Jointing issues
The joint areas where the balcony connects to your building or the railing posts connect and attach to the slab require sealing and then ongoing observation and maintenance. If the proper sealant is not used, adjacent materials are more easily exposed and prone to damage. Similarly, with time, through bird attacks (Cockatoo’s are known to pick apart the jointing, bricks etc on a building), UV breakdown and mechanical wear, joints can become brittle and come away. As this happens, water can penetrate the surface causing issues as described earlier.

Older Building Materials

Once upon a time (1920-40s), magnesite was the material of choice for slab coverings in a building. It was cheap, easy to apply and versatile as it also acted as an insulator. Problem is, as it is made up of magnesium chloride, when it gets wet it reacts causing oxidisation which destroys the steel and slab below it. This causes bumpy floors and ongoing issues which often exacerbate the problems which have caused this in the first place. Thing is though, as magnesite was often used across the entire slab (balconies and internal spaces) once it is ruined, the water tracks throughout the floor, making repair a necessity as the predominant structural issues may not be at the site of the problem but elsewhere where the water is trapped.

Actually, this is a point worth making again. A balcony which is in disrepair may flag a structural issue requiring more than just a new surface. If left unaddressed, the issue may cause structural failure which is a risk for residents.

What you need to do

The Building Code regulates the maintenance and alterations of balconies. To ensure compliance to the code, there is a requirement for owners to undertake necessary maintenance to ensure the structural adequacy of the balcony. In some instances if the surface needs to be removed and the structure fixed underneath, then the existing handrail which may have been sound, may now need to be replaced to comply. In some instances it will be because of minimum heights, in others because of opening spaces between elements of the railing.

The code gives guidelines for guardrails for residential decks and balconies depending on the height above the ground and finished stair tread nosings. Existing guards and railings that are old and do not meeting these requirements will need to rectified to comply.

If you have concerns your balcony needs more repair, or are looking for more advice, please give our team at Remedial a call or shoot us a message, and we will do our best to help you.