Keeping Balconies Safe and Attractive Just Hanging Out

 Ever since “Romeo and Juliet” made them famous, balconies have been popular additions to our homes and living  spaces. For co-op and condo communities, balconies can add an extra perk, a few  more feet of living space that allow us to enjoy the outdoors and some time in  the sun.  

 As with any structure, balconies need a steady diet of care and maintenance to  look their best and last their longest. What goes into caring for balconies and  what happens when they need fixing? With proper planning and the right tools,  maintenance and repair can add years of enjoyment and value to your co-op or  condominium community.  

 How They Work

 For the most part these days, balconies are built out of steel and concrete with  a few wood and steel models mixed in here and there. According to Stan  Wellinsky, vice president of Valcourt Building Services LLC in Elizabeth, New  Jersey, there are two kinds of concrete balconies: continuous slab, which is  simply an extension of a building’s concrete floor slab, and those which are constructed from steel frames that  are mounted to the structure externally. Steel planks extend from the building’s frame and are then filled with concrete. On both types of balconies, railings  are added after initial construction and are either embedded into the balcony  or surface mounted.  

 Keep Them Looking Good

 Concrete balconies “should last forever with routine maintenance,” Wellinsky says. Without proper maintenance, however, “I’ve seen them develop problems in 10 years or less.”  

 But what qualifies as “proper maintenance?” The first step to finding signs of deterioration is to look for them, says R.  Neal Eisenberg, a preservation and restoration consultant with Gotham  Waterproofing & Restoration in Bayonne, New Jersey. On balconies, owners should look for  cracks, rust stains, salt stains or any discoloration in the roof or floor.  These are signs that the metal helping to support the balcony may be rusting,  or water may be deteriorating the slabs.  

 According to the professionals, it’s best to start with establishing a baseline and knowing how structures like  balconies and porches age each year. “The maintenance person should do a visual inspection, documenting any problems  he sees,” says Wellinsky. “If there’s a crack two inches long, he should record it on a spreadsheet. That  establishes a benchmark early on.” That way, the maintenance person can check back during the next inspection and  see if the crack has grown or changed in any way. “If you can catch it early, there are things that you can do to slow it down. If  you wait too long, it can get serious.”  

 According to Eisenberg, the best thing is to watch the discoloration or cracks  for at least six months. If the cracks, for example, aren’t very large and aren’t getting bigger, there may be no need to worry. Maybe there was a problem with  the construction of the balcony, but the balcony isn’t at risk of further accelerated deterioration.  

 In New York City, a general, exterior safety inspection of buildings over six  stories (including any balcony or terrace features) must be completed by an  architect or engineer and filed with the New York City Department of Buildings  (DOB) every five years to comply with Local Law 11 regulations. Noncompliance  results in hefty fines—not to mention the risk of serious injury or property damage from unsafe  conditions.  

 The five-year interim between Local Law 11 inspections shouldn’t be interpreted as clearance for buildings to ignore their balconies and  terraces the remaining time between inspection visits, says Eisenberg. “If there are any suspected conditions, you can’t just leave them [between inspections.] Buildings can be heavily fined or even  closed if they do not comply. Local Law 11 is an unusual law, and there are  very few municipalities that have a law as strict as New York City.”  

 If an owner suspects their terrace or balcony might have structural damage, they  should bring the issue to their board or managing agent’s attention immediately. To verify the problem and assess the balcony’s condition, the board might then consider calling in a specialist to inspect  the spot in question and offer some guidance toward repairing it. Employing a  quick fix and just covering a balcony with an outdoor carpet is not a good  option. It only masks the problem, and can make it worse by locking moisture  under it. The same can be true of some paints and water sealers. Some surfaces  have been treated with an almost invisible sealer that may not react well with  other products. Or, the surface may need to “breathe.” Tiles can be good, but they need to have proper drainage underneath. If not,  they, too, will lock moisture in and cause some catastrophic problems.  

 Balcony railings and rooftop barriers can also be the source for problems.  Rusting or loose railings should be checked for further deterioration, just as  balcony slabs are. Sometimes there’s just a loose screw that needs to be tightened, but in extreme cases railings  may need to be replaced.  

 Most buildings will have a set time each year or half a year when they’ll do a visual inspection of their balconies and terraces, checking for outward  signs of age or disrepair. “It’s up to the association to determine how often that’s done,” says James Magid, regional vice president of Wentworth Property Management in  West Long Branch, New Jersey. For balconies, “it might depend on what they’re made of, how accessible they are and how often they’re used.”  

 Especially for older buildings, those inspections can be vital. “At the 10-year mark, they need to be looking for signs of corrosion,” says William Schutt, president of MATCOR, Inc., a Philadelphia company that  provides corrosion technology services. “They may see rust stains. You shouldn’t see rust stains on your concrete, or find little pieces of rusted material.”  

 The responsibility for maintenance and repair of exterior spaces could fall  either to the apartment owner or the building—but typically, because of how limited common elements are outlined in one’s governing documents, responsibility for structural issues fall to the building  itself. “Things like washing and painting and [minor] repairs typically are up to the  unit owner, but it all depends on what the association originally determined” when they were setting up their governing documents, Magid says.  

 Where Problems Arise

 So what can the caregivers of balconies expect in terms of trouble over the long  term? One of the most common problems afflicting concrete balconies is  corrosion. When the steel inside the concrete is exposed to oxygen, it expands.  “That cracks the concrete and causes it to fall apart,” says Schutt. For those living near the shore, salt can also cause corrosion. “Especially near the ocean, salt can enter concrete and create an acidic  situation. [The concrete] will then corrode, the same way your car would  corrode more on the shore than in Pennsylvania,” Schutt says. Once corrosion starts, it can be difficult to stop. “It’s like a cancer,” he adds.  

 In newly-constructed buildings, problems also may have started before the first  resident even moves into the building. “Contamination might have occurred when the contractor built the balconies,” Schutt says. In older buildings, the contractors “may have added concrete accelerator which contains salt.” Salt, in turn, causes corrosion.  

 Loose railings also can cause problems for residents. According to Wellinsky,  embedded railings tend to have problems sooner than their surface-mounted  brethren because of the penetration necessary to attach the railings. If not  properly sealed, those areas can collect moisture and cause rust and corrosion  of the metal railings as well as the surrounding concrete.  

 Small chips resembling little potholes also can form in the concrete, causing  problems when moisture collects in the depressions. In addition to salt and  water, indoor/outdoor carpeting can contribute to balcony decline, trapping  moisture and not allowing the concrete to breathe. The same is true of certain  watertight coatings and sealants that may be applied to concrete before it’s entirely cured.  

 It’s important, too, to keep track of what may seem like just cosmetic issues  because they may be signs of larger structural problems. If things look dicey—if chunks of concrete are found on the ground or cracks are growing rapidly in  size, management should pick up the phone and call a structural engineer. When  it comes to balconies and their attending issues of safety, it is always better  to be safe than sorry and turn to those who know these structures best.  

 Making Things Better

 Many of the problems and issues associated with concrete balcony structures can  be prevented with a regular cleaning or power washing once a year, Wellinsky  says. Maintenance crews should also be on the lookout for caulking that might  need replacing or places where sealant has deteriorated and is in need of a new  application. It is essential to engage in an ongoing and thorough maintenance  program. Putting off basic care and prevention will only lead to costly trouble  later on.  

 If problems already exist, they may require chipping away old concrete and  adding in new concrete. If railings are an issue, some thought might go into  changing embedded railings out for the mounted variety. Using protective  coatings and rust inhibitors to prevent moisture penetration and quell the  concrete-cracking issue of oxidation and rust also can be key in extending  railing life. And keeping those railings secure is of paramount importance to  the safety and well-being of residents.  

 Over time, however, boards and management may grow weary of perpetual patching  and calls to the structural engineer to check out potential problems with their  community’s balconies. If that’s the case, there is an alternative solution—something called cathodic protection. It involves using a form of electrolysis  to stop corrosion.  

 With this system, a low voltage electrical current—less than that found in a 9-volt battery—is placed in the concrete, raising the pH level and lessening the acid around  the steel reinforcements, preventing rust and in turn preventing corrosion. “It’s a system that the federal government requires on gas and oil pipelines to stop  them from rusting away,” says Schutt, whose firm is one that offers the service. “The damage stops and the repair cycle stops,” Schutt says.  

 “Under a maintenance deal, you patch and repair, but the deterioration will  eventually get worse,” Schutt says. Installing the cathodic protection during repairs will lessen  costs in the long run, he adds, eliminating the need for repair crews to chip  away at both bad concrete and good concrete as they search for the source of a  corrosion problem. Digging to the source and laying new concrete can get  expensive. Schutt believes that installing cathodic protection will halt  corrosion and save valuable time and resources later on—something especially appealing to large, multi-unit associations.  

 With proper care and attention, a balcony can last for many years, providing a  perfect oasis in which building residents can enjoy the outdoors and enjoy each  other’s company. Every dollar spent on maintenance and repair will be well worth the  satisfaction of preserving a valuable investment. Who knows? If Romeo and  Juliet had a better balcony, things might have turned out differently.  

 Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe Cooperator.

 

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11 Comments

  • We had cathodics done on our balcony. But there standing water that needs to attended to, because of not leveling and pitch propery. What can be done so we don't ruin the cathodics. The contracter is passing the buck who iis responsible. We are asking to lightly sand it down and pitch it right
  • Balcony Profile - Normally the contractor is required by the engineer to flood the balcony prior to the CP installation in order to avoid the situation you are describing (assuming an engineer was used on the project). ie: The balcony profile must slope away from the structure. What type of CP was used during restoration? Pucks? Conductive coating? Ribbon, Mesh? Saw Slot? How old is the CP system? And/or when was the restoration accomplished? How old is your building? Is the building on the beach? In Florida, Texas?
  • what is the standard slope for an exterior balcony for drainage purposes? thanks
  • I have a water leak on my balcony. After several epoxy injections, water leaks are still present underneath. The first time we reported this problem to the developer, his team opened a portion of our concrete until they reached the steel bars. Then left it exposed for several months until a contractor was hired to inject epoxy on the balcony. The epoxy injection was done over the tiles only and was able to seal a small area of the crack underneath. Now the developer and his contractor want to inject epoxy underneath the floor as another solution to the problem. Is that the right way to do? I am concerned because I am afraid that the water will be locked inside the concrete. I am afraid that the developer is finding an easy way out to deal with this problem which is still under his responsibility since the complex has not been yet turned over to the association. Am I right to be worried? Thanks.
  • Hi, I have a condo in FL and was told our cathodic system was showing a 6 = good on the report. What does this mean? A sample of the concrete was taken and I was told it was good. What else should I do? Most Stressed
  • Just because a hairline crack is slightly visible under the paint, there is no signs of corrosion whatsoever because of the layers of paint but I'm being told by condo association the concrete railings need to be replaced. Can this possibly be true. I swear the rail looks new it's hard to see the cracks and there must be some way to repair them as no water as even penetrated them. Is this a case of contractors milking the job?
  • I am in a condo in Florida. We have concrete, with ceramic tile over it on balcony. Makes for easy cleaning and a beautiful look. We have pidgeons, and during nesting season they make a real mess on the porch. We can manage to clean, scrape and mop up the messes because of our tile surface. Now we are being told there is going to be balcony work done, and we will not be able to put tile over the concrete. If we end up with the same bumpy painted finish the halls have, we'll never be able to clean our balcony. It will be an eyesore and dirty constantly. Isn't there some solution where we can be on the ocean and still have our tile? Isn't the jack hammering and taking up tile going to stress the balcony's structure? Our tile is in very good condition the grout is sound and there are no cracks. We are concerned. Please tell us what to do. The manager of this place is like a dictator and always gets the cheapest companies. He said the concrete company said we could not tile again. Thank you. Please answer as soon as possible. Ann
  • We have same dictator and pidgeon problem. Our tile is perfect and makes cleaning successful. Maybe we are in same FL condo! Good luck. They are tearing up our balconies now. They are double the money they said it would cost.
  • How long should balcony repair be we are being told 4 months. Windows boarded up and no patio use for 4 months.
  • Will potted plants on balconies cause damage due to trapped moisture?
  • Architects have told us our balconies (20 total, about 100 sq ft each) require resurfacing every 15 years, costing $80K; and "recoating" every 5 years at a cost of $20K. Does this sound right? Such expenditures are terrible, and of the architect is banking on his percentage of the project costs when the work is performed. What have others experienced?