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One old dilemma contractors go through is deciding what coloring method to use when stamping concrete. The common choices are color-hardener and integral color. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. I will compare their costs, installation procedures and durability.

The technology color-hardener is based on has been used for years on industrial floor applications. In these applications it was decided that due to heavy traffic, the strength of the floor need only be at the surface. This was just a hardener comprised of cement and metallic aggregate. Color hardener evolved when the metallic aggregate was replaced by mineral aggregate and the addition of iron-oxide pigment combined with proprietary surfactants. Color-hardener is tossed or broadcasted over a concrete surface that is in a plastic state. The hardener wets up and is then floated into the surface with a wood or magnesium float. Before stamping the surface it is closed up or sealed with a steel trowel or Fresno.

The first advantage of color hardener is its durability. Color-hardener is a layer that can be up to 1/8" thick and have a compression strength up to 8,000 psi which is twice the strength of the concrete base. The surface is now stronger and more wear resistant than regular concrete, the surface is also less permeable, preventing the intrusion of water, salts and other stains.

The second advantage of color hardener is cost. The price range is anywhere from 15 to 40 cents a square foot depending on the color and its coverage rate. But we must also look at the labor cost of its application. It will usually take six man hours to spread color-hardner on approximately 500 square foot of concrete. These man hours are usually wasted while workers wait for the concrete to set up. In most cases, however, the labor cost can be justified.

The two major disadvantages of color hardener are the mess and surface crusting. The mess can be controlled by covering everything in the immediate area with plastic. Surface crusting occurs when you have a low relative humidity and windy conditions. In some cases this combination can be so severe that it will prevent the use of color-hardener. If you find yourself in these conditions, using evaporation retarders will slow the moisture loss of the concrete. This is not the only solution, but that's another article.

Integral color is a blend of synthetic iron-oxide pigment and surfactants or wetting agents. Integral color can be found in three forms, powder, liquid and granular. The most common types are powder and liquid. When either is mixed with cement at different loadings, you will achieve color through the thickness of the slab.

The two advantages of integral color are speed of placement and color mixed through the whole slab. When placing integral colored concrete, pay close attention to the amount of water used. It is also best to have the pigment added at the ready-mix plant. With these two things in mind, placing integral colored concrete is just like placing gray concrete. Having the color mixed through the slab allows the contractor to begin stamping sooner with fewer issues concerning surface crusting.

The first disadvantage of integral color is the colors that can be attained. Since white cement is not readily available, all the color formulations are based on gray. With gray cement as the base, lighter and brighter colors are much harder to achieve. Some colors cannot be achieved at all even if the maximum allowable pigment loading of 9.4 lbs per sack is used. Manufactures rarely go over 6 lbs.. The second disadvantage is that your surface strength is the same as the concrete. When the surface is stamped, it will have high spots that will tend to wear faster.

The cost of integral color will vary from 10 cents a square foot to a $1.00. These costs are based on a 4" slab with 6 sack mix. So, the cost of integral color can be an advantage or disadvantage.

Both color-hardener and integral color have their advantages and disadvantages. What a contractor may use could vary from job to job depending on the circumstances. The best is a combination of both, which adds to the cost, but achieves a better overall product.

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Jeff Potvin, a Civil Engineer and the owner of Architectural Concrete Consultants, has nearly fifteen years of experience in the architectural concrete industry. His experience includes stamped concrete, overlays, form-liners, acid stains, counter tops and coatings.

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