Whether you’re refashioning a garden or giving a new lease of life to a driveway, the dreaded C-word is guaranteed to make an appearance. Many people use concrete to build everything from paths to water features because it offers stability and protection against the elements. And therein lies the problem when starting afresh; it’s incredibly challenging to remove by hand!
The trick to breaking concrete as quickly as possible is to employ the right equipment and safety measures. Thankfully, here at HSS Hire, we have thousands of specialist tools for every kind of DIY project, including removing concrete. In this guide, we’ll talk through the seven steps you should follow. But first, let’s discuss the different tools needed for the job at hand.
Required tools for breaking up concrete slabs:
- Protective clothing, e.g., safety goggles.
- Pry bar.
- Jackhammer or sledgehammer.
- Polythene sheet.
Can I break concrete with hand tools?
Ask yourself the following question: is the concrete slab you’re tackling taller than three inches? If the answer is no, it might be possible to demolish the area without the aid of power tools.
The easiest way to find out is to grab a spade and dig to the base of the slab. If the distance from bottom to top is around three inches or less, you can use a metal sledgehammer to break up concrete. For instance, our RS Pro medium carbon steel sledgehammer is sturdy enough to dismantle slab stones and materials that break relatively easy on impact. You should use a crowbar or recking tool to prise up the slab and start breaking it from the corners, working your way to the centre.
If, however, the sledgehammer is bouncing off the slab or you’re in discomfort, we recommend using a jackhammer (more on this later). But before wielding any sort of heavy-duty tool around your garden, you need the right protection. In the next section, we’ll talk about safety measures when breaking concrete.
Step 1: Wear Safety Gear
If a sledgehammer isn’t doing the job, you should use a power tool — but heed caution. Whenever a DIY project contains the word “power”, you must wear the appropriate protective PPE clothing.
For breaking and removing a concrete slab, you should wear:
- A hard hat.
- Safety goggles.
- A face mask (to avoid inhaling substances).
- Sturdy boots.
- Tough clothing with long sleeves and legs.
As a gentle reminder, we’ll show you the recommended safety gear in your shopping basket when hiring HSS equipment. Okay, lecture over. Let’s talk about breaking up concrete with power tools.
Step 2: Prepare the Area
The first thing to do is to assess the area. It might be tempting to start breaking up concrete; however, there could be water, gas, power, or telephone lines that run underneath. To avoid disrupting anything you shouldn’t, prise up one of the slab stones and lightly dig down to make sure there’s nothing untoward sitting beneath.
Now is an excellent time to also remove any sticks, leaves, or debris getting in your way, including any loose material, such as roots, living beneath the slabs.
If you’re working close to the property, it’s worth rolling a polythene sheet over the concrete. The sheet will stop chunks of stone and dust from flying beyond the work area, making it easier to clean up afterwards. Lightly sprinkling the concrete with water beforehand also helps to reduce dust escaping.
You can view our dust safety guide for further information on correctly handling concrete.
Step 3: How to break up thick concrete
If your slab is around four inches or greater, you’ll need a heavy-duty breaker to smash through the concrete. This tool is more commonly known as a “jackhammer.”
Each breaker has unique benefits depending on the job, but an electric model should suffice for most medium-sized slabs. In these instances, you will need a power outlet or transformer capable of handling a heavy-duty jackhammer — but don’t worry, this is offered to you when booking online. The electric jackhammer typically breaks around six tons of concrete per hour and is easy to set up.
If, however, your slab is large or extra thick, you might need a petrol-fuelled hydraulic breaker. These are typically used to break up big concrete roads, pavements, patios, and asphalt surfaces. This demolition tool has a breaking capacity of around 300mm and a 1500-2100 hammering frequency per minute.
Hydraulic breakers typically come with a detachable hose, a chisel point, and a pair of vibration-dampening handles to take any strain away from your hands. Just remember to keep it topped up with unleaded petrol!
You can check the instructions and labels that come with the machine to see what kind of voltage it requires before purchasing or hiring. Directions from manufacturers may also include specific safety precautions you should take while using the tool.
Step 4: Get your footing
The key to breaking up large concrete slabs is shattering them into several smaller pieces. But that starts with standing in the right place.
Here are some tips for creating an even surface before clicking the “on” button:
- Always stand on solid, unbroken concrete.
- Start at the side farthest away from you so that you can stand on a steady surface as you break the concrete.
- Make sure the power cord is behind you and is not near the breaker point.
- Wear sturdy boots to help keep your feet planted.
Step 5: How to break a concrete slab
The best method to breaking concrete is to have one person prising up the slab while the other controls the tool. Trying to demolish a slab sat flat on sand will only absorb the energy from each blow, which takes a lot longer.
Got a friend ready to help you get started? Carefully run through the following steps:
- Start by placing the chisel head on one corner of the slab.
- Hold the jackhammer firmly and upright.
- Switch on the breaker. It will start vibrating and hammering at the focus point.
- The breaker should start to crack the surface of the slab.
- Start slowly and carefully, letting the jackhammer do the work, making sure not to drill in a diagonal direction. Remain upright.
- Once a piece of concrete has cracked, move no more than 2 or 3 inches back before hammering the next section.
- Work from the corners into the centre of the slab.
- Remove concrete debris that gets in your way. Where concrete remains locked together, prise the chunks apart with a mattock or pickaxe.
Step 6: Break concrete into smaller pieces
Trying to crack off large pieces will only result in the jackhammer getting stuck. The key is to look for cracks and broken chunks of concrete, then work the breaker along those lines.
The best approach is to break the concrete up in the pattern of a grid. You can smash it up into any size you want, as long as the rubble is small enough to remove and discard. It’s also helpful to pause periodically and tidy up your surroundings. But make sure to hold the machine safely before turning it off, ensuring there’s no movement from the chisel head.
Once you’ve penetrated the slab, you can use a wrecking bar to break it into even smaller pieces where necessary.
Step 7: Dispose of concrete slabs
So, you’ve broken all your concrete up into small pieces; now you need to dispose of it safely. Unfortunately, you can’t put concrete in your regular bin, as it’s classed as a building material. You can, however, transport the rubble to a council tip and dispose of it correctly, but there may be a charge. We recommend speaking to your local council before breaking up concrete, so you can find out what costs are involved. There may also be extra charges if the concrete contains steel mesh or rebar.
One of the most common ways people dispose of patio, pathway, or driveway rubble is to hire a skip. Then all you need to do is shovel the concrete pieces into a wheelbarrow or heavy-duty hauler and transport them into the container. Please bear in mind, though, that because concrete isn’t household waste, some hire companies might not accept it. So once again, call ahead.
Another alternative to throwing concrete away is to recycle it. Companies that work in the building materials sector will often take old concrete and turn it into recycled aggregate. It can then be used as a subbase material or as an aggregate in new concrete. We recommend searching for these companies in your local area, as it could you save money on transporting the old concrete.
Whether you’re looking for concrete breaking tools or need inspiration for another project, browse our hire shop today.
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