Ask the Carpenter: Winter chemicals may have wrecked this front step

Ask the Expert
The reader’s front steps, which are 30 years old, failed in one spot.
The reader’s front steps, which are 30 years old, failed in one spot. Handout

Q. Rob, our 30-year-old precast front steps failed in one spot — possibly from salt and chemical applications. Is there an alternative to replacing the whole entrance?


A.You could try a mortar skim-coat patch, but that will probably fail in a year or two. Adding ¾-inch or 1-inch solid stone to the tops of all of the steps and the landing may solve the issue, providing the height increase does not interfere with stepping into the house. That said, replacing the entire thing can be done in only a few hours, and the company can take the old one away.


Q. We have a problem with our toilet flush. We’re on a septic system, and the issue is with two toilets. Sometimes the toilet acts as if there is a blockage; the solids flush, but the water level fluctuates and requires a plunger. Sometimes all of the water empties out of the bowl, but at other times it rises to a dangerous level. Sometimes the water level drops, but instead of refilling immediately, the toilet gurgles and bubbles.

A plumber opened the drain pipe and found no debris. He snaked from the toilet to the drain pipe and again found nothing. He said we need a new toilet, but given that the problem is happening with two, it doesn’t make sense to remove only one.

We had the septic tank (1,500 gallons) pumped a year ago, so it should not need it again this soon. We are out of ideas, so we would appreciate any guidance you can provide.


A. I agree: If you just had the septic tank pumped, it’s probably not that. I’d check the distribution box. You may need to uncover it to see whether it is holding more water than it should. If the water is at a normal level when you open it, run a hose and try to flood it. If the pipes “drink up’’ the water, then the lines are good and the leach field is functioning properly.

You may also have a problem with the plumbing vent system. The septic system may need one, and the house vent can cause problems if it becomes clogged. Have the plumber inspect for these issues.

Rob Robillard is a general contractor, carpenter, editor of, and principal of a carpentry and renovation business. Send your questions to or tweet them to @robertrobillard. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at