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Cracking the case ; Are concrete driveways worth the investment?

A concrete driveway may be a better choice than a less expensive blacktop driveway.

They are supposed to last longer, resist wear and some find them more attractive than asphalt.

But many area homeowners who invested $6,000 to $8,000 or more in concrete are finding that within a year or two, their concrete driveways are crumbling and failing to live up to promises of lasting decades.

Maureen Wilk of Amherst says the surface of her 2009 concrete driveway is powdering.

Maria and Charles Cicero of the Town of Tonawanda say theirs has been chipping for the last six years.

Jacqueline Nice of Akron says she is on her third concrete driveway since 2007 because the surfaces of the first two gave way to tiny pieces of what looked like shale or pebble.

Contractors are quick to say these defective driveway troubles can be traced back to inferior concrete produced by local manufacturers.

The concrete makers point the finger back at the contractors, saying fly-by-night or poorly trained installers are often the culprit, though they concede that sometimes a bad batch of concrete makes it past quality control.

But when that happens, they insist they are more than willing to correct the mistake.

"It is a real collaboration between the homeowner, contractor and the producer in order for a driveway to be successful," said Rosanne Dipizio, whose family has owned and operated Great Lakes Concrete Products of Hamburg for two generations.

"We have had many success stories, maybe somewhat out of luck, maybe because we have close relations with our installers," Dipizio said, explaining that homeowners need to do a thorough job of screening not only prospective contractors but the companies they buy their concrete from.

This all sounds reasonable and fair, but sometimes it does not work out as smoothly as everyone would like.

The right stuff

Because Wilk and her contractor went public last month criticizing the company that sold them the concrete for her driveway, United Materials representatives in Wheatfield are now speaking out, saying there are cracks in those criticisms.

In defending their product, the executives say they want to claim the high ground by offering suggestions so other consumers can avoid the mess Wilk finds herself in with a $10,000 driveway that is pitting and flaking.

"We have 125 families to feed, and we're not going to be around very long if we don't do a good job," said Martin L. Segarra, United Materials president. "We spend a lot of time and money to ensure a quality product is being produced."

If a bad batch of concrete slips past quality control at the company's three area mixing plants and becomes someone's newly poured driveway or other application, Segarra says they will "stand behind our product."

But the key is to make sure ahead of time that the contractor, whom United Materials deals directly with, has industry certification to ensure a level of installation competence.

Homeowners, he says, should also get at least three quotes, since the cost for concrete ranges from approximately $3 to $10 per square foot. Thorough checks of contractors' references from past customers are also recommended.

Last but not least, the homeowner needs to make sure the contractor sticks to recommended mixing and ingredient guidelines for concrete to ensure that it is of the proper strength, which varies depending on the type of use and whether it is for an exterior or interior application.

For instance, concrete in a driveway does not have to be as strong as concrete used in an airport runway.

None of this, however, is of a help to Wilk, who, like other consumers, finds herself caught in the middle between the manufacturer and the contractor. She says she remains totally dissatisfied over the condition of her driveway and how United Materials has handled it.

"There's been no resolution, no acceptance of blame," Wilk said.

Phil Antonicelli of Antonicelli Concrete and Masonry in Lancaster, a family company spanning three generations, says he now plans to sue United Materials for inadequate concrete sold to him for the Wilk driveway.

He says he is not certified by the American Concrete Institute, but that certification is not required for residential work.

"I've been doing concrete work for 35 years," he said of his qualifications.

Contractor vs. producer

The standoff here pitting the contractor against the concrete producer provides insights not normally in the public spotlight and could prove helpful on the do's and don'ts of installing residential driveways.

Peter J. Romano Jr., a United Materials consultant, provided extensive paperwork to The Buffalo News in making a case to prove the three truck loads of ready mixed concrete delivered to the Wilk family's Robin Hill Drive home on May 9, 2009, were up to industry specifications.

The ingredients in each batch, which include cement, crushed stone, concrete sand, fly ash and other durability additives, he said, were all measured out by computer-operated machinery that works within a tolerance of 2 percent.

In other words, if any of the ingredients exceed 2 percent of the prescribed amount, the mixing would automatically shut down and only resume when a correction was made, Romano explained.

Paperwork from the concrete mixed for Antonicelli, he said, never approached the 2 percent shutoff.

But he says the concrete mixed for that job was changed, though not by United Materials.

The United Materials driver who delivered the batches, in his field report, noted that upon arriving Antonicelli added as much as 10 gallons of water, before the concrete was poured.

"That could alter the integrity of the load," Romano said.

And though there was no rain when Antonicelli began installing the driveway, it rained on and off in the afternoon and later in the evening, which could have further harmed the concrete, Romano said, describing concrete as "a perishable product."

Unpredictable weather

In fairness to contractors, he and Segarra added that the region's unpredictable weather makes outdoor construction trying at times, though they say a number of contractors have other "day jobs" and, as a result, limited windows of opportunity to do their side work.

The National Weather Service confirmed that there were periods of rain throughout May 9, 2009.

Antonicelli agrees there was rain in the region, but said it missed the section of Amherst where he was working.

"It rained all around us, but not there," he said. "I got really lucky that day."

In further making a case that the concrete delivered to the Wilk residence was suitable, Romano said a test boring was taken recently by Quality Inspection Services of Buffalo, which examined the sample in a laboratory and determined the strength level exceeded what had been requested.

Wilk, however, has a problem with that test.

"I asked the Quality Inspection Services worker how much business they do with United Materials and he said about 70 percent of their business is with them," Wilk said, in questioning whether any company receiving the majority of its business from one customer could be objective.

Romano said there are three concrete testing companies in the area and, on the rare occasion that a boring is required, United Materials evenly spreads the business among them, noting that Wilk and Antonicelli initially were given the chance to pick any one of the three companies.

Antonicelli says he and Wilk picked a company, but United Materials overruled them and went with Quality. United Materials insists it never heard back from Antonicelli and went ahead with Quality.

As for the cost of such tests, $2,576 in this case, United Materials pays for it if the concrete turns out to be flawed, but the contractor picks up the cost if the test determines the concrete is up to specifications. Segarra said Antonicelli owes them for the test.

Questioning the test results, Antonicelli says he believes too many additives are placed in United's concrete in order to cut down on costs and that creates problems with the concrete. Other contractors say these chemical additives cause problems not only at United but for other area concrete makers.

When it was pointed out that since the story of the Wilk driveway was published last month, several contractors and homeowners have complained about United Materials and other area concrete manufacturers, Romano and Segarra said they investigate every complaint.

Some contractors, according to United Materials, have been unable to provide paperwork to document claims of faulty concrete going back years. Or, the contractors have not responded in a timely manner to remedies previously offered by United Materials.

One such case is the driveway at the Cicero family's home on Burnside Drive in the Town of Tonawanda. Maria and Charles Cicero's double driveway was installed in 2004. A year later, it started breaking apart.

Though United Materials determined the concrete was up to specification, Maria Nowakowski, a United Materials sales representative, said on two different occasions the company offered in writing to provide discounted batches of concrete, but never received responses from the Ciceros' contractor, Millio Concrete Inc. of Kenmore.

"United Materials wanted to give us a discount. We turned it down. It was ridiculous. That was just for the concrete. We would have had to dig up the old concrete and pay for the labor," Maria Cicero said. "I threw the letters away, that's how degraded I felt."

Segarra counters saying the concrete ordered by Millio was not of the proper recommended design for a driveway. United Materials, he added, regularly assists in sponsoring training for contractors with the local chapter of the American Concrete Institute, so that contractors can become certified in proper installation.

"We want to help train them, so we have less of this. It's a benefit to the industry," Segarra said.

He does point out that the materials used to make concrete "come out of the ground" and if they turn out to be defective, his company offers a free warranty and is more than willing to work out a solution with customers.

Wilk says she is still waiting for an equitable resolution.

"I don't care who fixes it as long as somebody fixes it," she said.

Dipizio, of Great Lakes Concrete, says she recognizes that a concrete driveway is a major investment for a property owner.

When her family's company has stepped in where inferior driveways have been installed, Dipizio says she has had trouble locating the installer responsible for the work.

"What I do then is send somebody who is reputable and give them a break on the concrete because I feel bad for those situations," Dipizio said.

***

Don't take chances

Tips for seeking a reputable concrete contractor:

*Request number of years in business and any national or local memberships in professional organizations.

*References for similar projects to demonstrate job experience.

*View photo album of previous work.

*Ask contractor if he has a documented safety program. That's a way of setting one contractor apart from another.

*Seek multiple bids.

*Verify the contractor maintains liability, vehicle and workers compensation insurance.

*Determine availability of work schedule to make sure, before signing a contract, the wait for installation is not too long.

Source: American Society of Concrete Contractors

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