Incredibly, the near permanence of concrete’s simple, 3-ingredient make-up is a challenge if you’re tasked with breaking it up and removing it. To break and remove concrete, you’ll need a healthy appetite for hard work and a few key tools to get you through.
We’ll walk you through the uses of the right tools for the right circumstances.
- Before digging, call 811 or your “Dig Safe” authority. And wear protective gear when using digging equipment.
- Jackhammer to break up concrete that’s thick. If you’re trying to remove concrete 3 inches deep or more, a jackhammer is your go-to tool. Rentable electric units will likely knock out that run-down sidewalk at the end of the driveway or small patio.
- Concrete weight and removal. Concrete chunks become actual tons quickly. As part of your calculus for breaking it up, include the costs, effort, and equipment required to remove it. A 6x10 utility trailer can carry about a ton safely (check the GVW).
Tools for Breaking Up Concrete
Concrete can be found in all kinds of places, like the edges of patios or along a basement foundation; sometimes you might encounter, chunks buried in the ground from a long-ago demolition.
Using a rotary hammer to break up concrete
The solution for successful removal, in most cases like this, is a rotary hammer with a chipping function. A rotary hammer is not a hammer drill; they’re different tools that do similar things—the rotary hammer is basically a handheld jackhammer. While rotary hammers come in many sizes, the in-line D-handle tool is exceptionally capable.
Their bits, called “irons,”- effectively break up smaller amounts of concrete and knock over-pour and other globs off surfaces with a ¾-inch-wide chipping bit. A 1 ½-inch spade bit is fatal to concrete’s cousin—thin-set mortar—and excels at removing tile from a subfloor. Rotary hammers are great for taking down CMU (concrete masonry units) walls, block by block.
Using a digging bar to break up concrete
A digging bar may also work if you find concrete (also soft stone, impossibly dense clay, roots) in the ground as you install a fence or mailbox. It’s basically a human-powered jackhammer.
It can create a fault line in concrete, blow by blow, and be a key player in your concrete removal toolbox. Word to the wise: As with all digging equipment, wear gloves; digging bars are blister-making tools.
Using a sledgehammer to break up concrete
Sledgehammers should almost never be used indoors. A notable exception is basement slabs in old houses where you might install a sump pit or perimeter drain. Basement slabs are often thin—just an inch of concrete over a substrate like coal cinders.
Here, a jackhammer or rotary hammer instantly pierces the surface, then can get wedged in the dirt. For thin, brittle concrete, blunt force is often best. It’s lots of work, but the shockwave of steel-on-concrete breaks up more in a few whacks than other tools can deliver at the sharp point of a chisel iron.
Breaking up concrete with chemicals
There is also what’s referred to as expanding grout—a chemical agent that helps break up concrete. A jackhammer may be required depending on site conditions; a rotary hammer for sure. Mix, pour, and wait. The grout expands and breaks the concrete. Plan ahead and consult the manufacturer’s instructions for proper usage.
How to Cut Down a Post Set in Concrete
Sometimes concrete is in the way, like when removing and replacing fence posts set in it. In these situations, it’s often easier to remove a few inches of dirt around the post’s base and then cut the post below grade with a reciprocating saw.
Of course, this means the below-ground portion of the post will remain an obstruction. To get around this, wherever possible, shift the fence post layout such that you can dig new holes. For example, start with half a panel instead of a full one, bridging the existing post locations.
How to Dispose of Concrete
The main vehicles for moving concrete are a wheelbarrow or hand truck. For smaller bits and/or removal from inside a home, two 5-gallon buckets are hard to beat. Ironically, carrying one in each hand is easier than carrying just one bucket.
For larger projects, you may consider a dumpster rental. Some carters don’t like concrete in their boxes so make sure to ask as they might decline the job or insist you only fill the dumpster partially.
Alternatively, a local mason or landscaper may be able to cart the concrete and recycle it— or even possibly use it on a project where fill is required.