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Building materials such as concrete, mortar, bricks, wood etc are porous in nature and expand by absorbing moisture from atmosphere and shrink on drying. These changes in building materials are cyclic in nature and are caused during moisture changes.

But building materials undergo irreversible changes due to change in moisture content during its initial conditions. These initial changes cause shrinkage or expansion of materials. For example, irreversible  movement  in  materials  are shrinkage  of  cement  and  lime based  materials  on  initial  drying  i.e.  initial shrinkage/plastic shrinkage  and expansion of burnt clay bricks and other clay products on removal from kilns i.e. initial expansion.

Initial Shrinkage in Concrete and Masonry:

Initial  shrinkage of building materials which is partly  irreversible, occurs in all building materials that are cement / lime based such as  concrete, mortar, masonry units,  masonry and  plaster  etc. This initial shrinkage is one of the main causes of cracking in building structure.

Initial shrinkage as the name suggests occurs only once in the lifetime of concrete and mortar, i.e. during the time of construction when the moisture dries out during setting process. Initial shrinkage is most significant cause for the cracks in structures.

The effect of initial shrinkage in concrete and mortar depends on following factors:

  1. a) Cement content – Shrinkage of concrete and mortar increases with richness of mix.
  2. b) Water content – Increase in water quantity used in the mix increases the shrinkage.
  3. c) Maximum size, grading and quality of aggregate –With increase in the maximum size of aggregate with good grading, the water-cement ratio decreases for the same workability requirement of concrete. The use of less water reduces the initial shrinkage of concrete due to reduction in porosity.

For example, the shrinkage of cement sand mortar is 2 – 3 times that of cement concrete using 20mm maximum size of aggregate and 3 – 4 times that of cement concrete using 40mm maximum size of aggregate.

  1. d) Curing of concrete and masonry – Proper curing from the start of initial setting to at least 7 to 10 days helps in reducing initial shrinkages. The moisture provided through curing helps concrete and masonry to expand and thus, when they dry up, the final shrinkage is less.
  2. e) Surface area of aggregates -Surface area of concrete increases with increase in fine aggregates and this requires large water quantity for the required workability. With increase in water quantity, the shrinkage of concrete and masonry increases when they dry up.
  3. f) Chemical composition of cement – Shrinkage is less for the cement having greater proportion of tri-calcium silicate and lower proportion of alkalis i.e. rapid hardening cement has greater shrinkage than ordinary port-land cement.
  4. g) Temperature of  fresh  concrete  and  relative  humidity  of  surroundings  – With  reduction  in  the  ambient  temperature  the  requirement  of  water  for  the same  slump/workability  is  reduced  with  subsequent  reduction  in

Concreting  done  in  mild  winter  have  much  less  cracking  tendency  than  the concreting done in hot summer months.

In cement concrete 1/3rd of the shrinkage take place in the first 10 days, ½ within one month and remaining ½ within a year time. Therefore, shrinkage cracks in concrete continues to occur and widens up to a year period.

Plastic shrinkage of concrete:

Cracks appearing on the surface of concrete before setting of concrete is due to plastic shrinkage of concrete. The cause of shrinkage cracks in concrete is due to settlement of heavy aggregates at the bottom of concrete and rise of water to the surface. This process continues till the concrete has set and it is called as bleeding of concrete.

As long as  the  rate  of  evaporation  is  lower  than  the  rate  of  bleeding,  there  is  a continuous  layer  of  water  at  the  surface  known  as  “water  sheen”,  and shrinkage  does  not  occur.  When  the concrete  surface  looses  water  faster than  the  bleeding  action  bring  it  to  the  top,  shrinkage  of  top  layer  takes place, and since the concrete in plastic state can’t resist any tension, cracks develops on the surface. These cracks are common in slabs.

Plastic Shrinkage Cracks in Concrete

The extent of plastic shrinkage in concrete depends on:

  • Temperature of concrete,
  • Exposure to the heat from sun radiation,
  • Relative humidity of ambient air and velocity of wind.

Plastic settlement cracks

Plastic settlement cracks occurs on concrete surface due to settlement of large aggregates. In the case of reinforced concrete, sometimes the settlement of aggregates is obstructed by reinforcement. These obstructions break the back of concrete above them forming the voids under their belly.

Plastic Settlement Cracks in Concrete

Plastic settlement cracks are normally observed:

  • Over form work tie bolts, or over reinforcement near the top of section.
  • In narrow  column  and  walls  due  to  obstruction  to  sedimentation  by resulting arching action of concrete due to narrow passage.
  • At change of depth of section.

Initial expansion of concrete:

When the clay bricks are fired during manufacturing, due to high temperature not  only  the  intermolecular  water  but  also  water  that  forms  a  part  of molecular structure of clay is driven out. After burning, as the temperature of the bricks falls down, the moisture hungry bricks starts absorbing moisture from  the  environment  and  undergoes  gradual  expansion,  bulk  of  this expansion is irreversible.

For the practical purpose it is considered that this initial expansion ceases after first three months.

Use  of  such  bricks  before  cessation  of  initial  expansion  in  brickwork,  will cause irreversible expansion and may lead to cracking in masonry.