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Frost vs. pier foundation

Q: I’m building a cabin in northern Maine, and I plan to set the framework on concrete piers formed with cardboard tubes. I’ve heard of frost-heave problems associated with this system, but I don’t want to dig a foundation for the cabin. How can I combat the effects of frost?





A: Lynn S. Hayward, president of Hayward-Robertson Builders Inc. in Camden, Maine, replies: We’ve seen some problems with concrete-column construction in northern and central Maine, but this system can be great if you do it right. The problem is that as frozen soil heaves in the winter, it can grab a cardboard column and cause it to lift or to shift slightly. When the ground settles back, the column can be left tilted. Even if you peel off the cardboard, frost is good at grabbing concrete.

During the 30 years that I’ve been building in Maine, I’ve developed a number of ways to avoid frost-induced problems with column construction. My principles: 1. Control frost action as much as you can; and 2. Give the frost something to grab so that it leaves the column alone.

As shown in the drawing, you can keep frost action low by backfilling around a column with crushed stone and gravel; this process helps to drain water away from the column. You also can buffer the ground temperature with foam insulation. Columns on the south side of a foundation experience more freeze/thaw cycles than those on the north side because the sun beats on them during the day. A layer of insulation will keep the sun’s heat out of the ground.

To keep frost from grabbing the column, I use a sleeve. In the old days, I used schedule- 20 sewer pipe as a sleeve. The frost would grab the sleeve, but the column itself would not move.

When pressure-treated wood became widely available, I poured a concrete footing below the frost line, then ran a pressure-treated post to the footing and wrapped the column with plastic sheeting up to ground level. The plastic acted as a sleeve so that the frost couldn’t grab the wood.

I’ve recently discovered a new product that incorporates the footing, pier, and frostproof sleeve all in one. It’s called the Footing Tube (888-929-2011; www.foottube.com). Rather than cardboard, the tube is made of highdensity plastic, so frost can’t bond to it. The footing base is built in. All you need to do is set the form in a hole, cut off the top to the desired height, backfill, and pour concrete.



From Fine Homebuilding 169, pp. 104 March 1, 2005