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There are various causes of cracks in concrete structures. Cracks such as plastic shrinkage cracks, settlement cracks, various types of cracks in fresh and hardened concrete and their methods of control are discussed.

Types of Cracks in Fresh and Hardened Concrete

Cracking of in Fresh or Plastic Concrete

1. Plastic shrinkage Cracks

Plastic shrinkage cracking (Fig.1) occurs when subjected to a very rapid loss of moisture caused by a combination of factors which include air and concrete temperatures, relative humidity, and wind velocity at the surface of the concrete.

These factors can combine to cause high rates of surface evaporation in either hot or cold weather.” When moisture evaporates from the surface of freshly placed concrete faster than it is replaced by bleed water, the surface concrete shrinks.

Since plastic shrinkage cracking is due to a differential volume change in the plastic concrete, successful control measures require a reduction in the relative volume change between the surface and other portions of the concrete.

These measures include the use of fog nozzles to saturate the air above the surface and the use of plastic sheeting to cover the surface between finishing operations.

Fig.1: Typical Plastic Shrinkage Cracks in Concrete

2. Settlement Cracks in Concrete

After initial placement, vibration, and finishing, concrete has a tendency to continue to consolidate. During this period, the plastic concrete may be locally restrained by reinforcing steel, a prior concrete placement, or formwork. This local restraint may result in voids and/or cracks adjacent to the restraining element (Fig.2).

When associated with reinforcing steel, settlement cracking increases with increasing bar size, increasing slump, and decreasing cover (Dakhil et al. 1975). The use of the lowest possible slump, and an increase in concrete cover will reduce settlement cracking.

Fig.2: Settlement Cracks in Concrete

Cracks in Hardened Concrete

1. Drying Shrinkage Cracks

Common cause of cracking in concrete is restrained drying shrinkage. Drying shrinkage is caused by the loss of moisture from the cement paste constituent, which can shrink by as much as 1 percent. Fortunately, aggregate provides internal restraint that reduces the magnitude of this volume change to about 0.06 percent. On wetting, concrete tends to expand. These moisture-induced volume changes are a characteristic of concrete.

If the shrinkage of concrete could take place without restraint, the concrete would not crack. The higher the water content, the greater the amount of drying shrinkage (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation 1975). Drying shrinkage can be reduced by increasing the amount of aggregate and reducing the water content.

2. Cracks due to Thermal Stresses

Temperature differences within a concrete structure may be caused by portions of the structure losing heat of hydration at different rates or by the weather conditions cooling or heating one portion of the structure to a different degree or at a different rate than another portion of the structure. These temperature differences result in differential volume changes.

When the tensile stresses due to the differential volume changes exceed the tensile stress capacity, concrete will crack. Cracking in mass concrete can result from a greater temperature on the interior than on the exterior.

Procedures to help reduce thermally-induced cracking include reducing the maximum internal temperature, delaying the onset of cooling, controlling the rate at which the concrete cools, and increasing the tensile strength of the concrete.

3. Cracks due to Chemical Reaction

Deleterious chemical reactions may cause cracking of concrete. These reactions may be due to materials used to make the concrete or materials that come into contact with the concrete after it has hardened. Some general concepts for reducing adverse chemical reactions are presented here, but only pretesting of the mixture or extended field experience will determine the effectiveness of a specific measure.

Concrete may crack with time as the result of slowly developing expansive reactions between aggregate containing active silica and alkalies derived from cement hydration, admixtures, or external sources (e.g., curing water, ground water, alkaline solutions stored or used in the finished structure).

The alkali-silica reaction results in the formation of a swelling gel, which tends to draw water from other portions of the concrete. This causes local expansion and accompanying tensile stresses, and may eventually result in the complete deterioration of the structure.

4. Weathering Cracks

The weathering processes that can cause cracking include freezing and thawing, wetting, drying, heating and cooling. Cracking of concrete due to natural weathering is usually conspicuous, and it may give the impression that the concrete is on the verge of disintegration, even though the deterioration may not have progressed much below the surface.

Damage from freezing and thawing is the most common weather-related physical deterioration. Concrete is best protected against freezing and thawing through the use of the lowest practical water cement ratio and total water content, durable aggregate and adequate air entrainment.

Adequate curing prior to exposure to freezing conditions is also important. Allowing the structure to dry after curing will enhance its freezing and thawing durability. Other weathering processes that may cause cracking in concrete are alternate wetting and drying, and heating and cooling.

Both processes produce volume changes that may cause cracking. If the volume changes are excessive, cracks may occur.

5. Corrosion of Reinforcement

Corrosion of a metal is an electrochemical process that requires an oxidizing agent, moisture, and electron flow within the metal; a series of chemical reactions takes place on and adjacent to the surface of the metal (ACI 201.2R).

The key to protecting metal from corrosion is to stop or reverse the chemical reactions. This may be done by cutting off the supplies of oxygen or moisture or by supplying excess electrons at the anodes to prevent the formation of the metal ions (cathodic protection).

Reinforcing steel usually does not corrode in concrete because a tightly adhering protective oxide coating forms in the highly alkaline environment. This is known as passive protection. Reinforcing steel may corrode, however, if the alkalinity of the concrete is reduced through carbonation or if the passivity of this steel is destroyed by aggressive ions (usually chlorides).

Corrosion of the steel produces iron oxides and hydroxides, which have a volume much greater than the volume of the original metallic iron (Verbeck 1975). This increase in volume causes high radial bursting stresses around reinforcing bars and results in local radial cracks. These splitting cracks can propagate along the bar, resulting in the formation of longitudinal cracks (i.e., parallel to the bar) or spalling of the concrete.

A broad crack may also form at a plane of bars parallel to a concrete surface, resulting in delamination, a well-known problem in bridge decks.

Cracks provide easy access for oxygen, moisture, and chlorides, and thus, minor splitting cracks can create a condition in which corrosion and cracking are accelerated. Cracks transverse to reinforcement usually do not cause continuing corrosion of the reinforcement if the concrete has low permeability. This is due to the fact that the exposed portion of a bar at a crack acts as an anode.

At early ages, the wider the crack, the greater the corrosion, simply because a greater portion of the bar has lost its passive protection. However, for continued corrosion to occur, oxygen and moisture must be supplied to other portions of the same bar or bars that are electrically connected by direct contact or through hardware such as chair supports.

If the combination of density and cover thickness is adequate to restrict the flow of oxygen and moisture, then the corrosion process is self sealing (Verbeck 1975). Corrosion can continue if a longitudinal crack forms parallel to the reinforcement, because passivity is lost at many locations, and oxygen and moisture are readily available along the full length of the crack.

Other causes of longitudinal cracking, such as high bond stresses, transverse tension (for example, along stirrups or along slabs with two-way tension), shrinkage, and settlement, can initiate corrosion.

For general concrete construction, the best protection against corrosion-induced splitting is the use of concrete with low permeability and adequate cover. Increased concrete cover over the reinforcing is effective in delaying the corrosion process and also in resisting the splitting and spalling caused by corrosion or transverse tension (Gergely 1981; Beeby 1983).

In the case of large bars and thick covers, it may be necessary to add small transverse reinforcement (while maintaining the minimum cover requirements) to limit splitting and to reduce the surface crack width (ACI 345R).

In very severe exposure conditions, additional protective measures may be required A number of options are available, such as coated reinforcement, sealers or overlays on the concrete, corrosion-inhibiting admixtures, and cathodic protection (NCHRP Synthesis 57).

Any procedure that effectively prevents access of oxygen and moisture to the steel surface or reverses the electron flow at the anode will protect the steel. In most cases, concrete must be allowed to breathe, that is any concrete surface treatment must allow water to evaporate from the concrete.

6. Poor Construction Practices

A wide variety of poor construction practices can result in cracking in concrete structures. Foremost among these is the common practice of adding water to concrete to improve workability. Added water has the effect of reducing strength, increasing settlement, and increasing drying shrinkage.

When accompanied by a higher cement content to help offset the decrease in strength, an increase in water content will also mean an increase in the temperature differential between the interior and exterior portions of the structure, resulting in increased thermal stresses and possible cracking. By adding cement, even if the water-cement ratio remains constant, more shrinkage will occur since the relative paste volume is increased.

Lack of curing will increase the degree of cracking within a concrete structure. The early termination of curing will allow for increased shrinkage at a time when the concrete has low strength. The lack of hydration of the cement, due to drying, will result not only in decreased long-term strength, but also in the reduced durability of the structure.

Other construction problems that may cause cracking are inadequate formwork supports, inadequate consolidation and placement of construction joints at points of high stress.

Lack of support for forms or inadequate consolidation can result in settlement and cracking of the concrete before it has developed sufficient strength to support its own weight, while the improper location of construction joints can result in the joints opening at these points of high stress.

Methods to prevent cracking due to these and other poor construction procedures are well known (see ACI 224R, ACI 302.1R, ACI 304R, ACI 305R, ACI 308, ACI 309R, ACI 345R, and ACI 347R), but require special attention during construction to insure their proper execution.

7. Construction Overloads

Loads induced during construction can often be far more severe than those experienced in service. Unfortunately, these conditions may occur at early ages when the concrete is most susceptible to damage and they often result in permanent cracks.

Precast members, such as beams and panels, are most frequently subject to this abuse, but cast-in-place concrete can also be affected. A common error occurs when precast members are not properly supported during transport and erection. The use of arbitrary or convenient lifting points may cause severe damage.

Lifting eyes, pins, and other attachments should be detailed or approved by the designer. When lifting pins are impractical, access to the bottom of a member must be provided so that a strap may be used.

The PCI Committee on Quality Control Performance Criteria (1985, 1987) provides additional information on the causes, prevention and repair of cracking related to fabrication and shipment of precast or prestressed beams, columns, hollow core slabs and double tees.

Operators of lifting devices must exercise caution and be aware that damage may be caused even when the proper lifting accessories are used. A large beam or panel lowered too fast, and stopped suddenly, results in an impact load that may be several times the dead weight of the member.

Another common construction error that should be avoided is prying up one corner of a panel to lift it off its bed or “break it loose.” When considering the support of a member for shipment, the designer must be aware of loads that may be induced during transportation.

Some examples that occur during shipment of large precast members via tractor and trailer are jumping curbs or tight highway corners, torsion due to differing roadway superelevations between the trailer and the tractor, and differential acceleration of the trailer and the tractor.

Pretensioned beams can present unique cracking problems at the time of stress release-usually when the beams are less than one day old. Multiple strands must be detensioned following a specific pattern, so as not to place unacceptable eccentric loads on the member.

If all of the strands on one side of the beam are released while the strands on the other side are still stressed, cracking may occur on the side with the unreleased strands. These cracks are undesirable, but should close with the release of the balance of the strands.

In the case of a T-beam with a heavily reinforced flange and a highly prestressed thin web, cracks may develop at the web-flange junction. Another practice that can result in cracks near beam ends is tack welding embedded bearing plates to the casting bed to hold them in place during concrete placement. The tack welds are broken only after enough prestress is induced during stress transfer to break them. Until then, the bottom of the beam is restrained while the rest of the beam is compressed.

Cracks will form near the bearing plates if the welds are too strong. Thermal shock can cause cracking of steam-cured concrete if it is treated improperly. The maximum rate of cooling frequently used is 70 F (40 C) per hour (ACI 517.2R; Verbeck 1958; Shideler and Toennies 1963; Kirkbride 1971b).

hen brittle aggregate is used and the strain capacity is low, the rate of cooling should be decreased. Even following this practice, thermally induced cracking often occurs. Temperature restrictions should apply to the entire beam, not just locations where temperatures are monitored.

If the protective tarps used to contain the heat are pulled back for access to the beam ends when cutting the strands, and if the ambient temperatures are low, thermal shock may occur. Temperature recorders are seldom located in these critical areas. Similar conditions and cracking potential exist with precast blocks, curbs, and window panels when a rapid surface temperature drop occurs.

It is believed by many (ACI 517.2R; Mansfield 1948; Nurse 1949; Higginson 1961; Jastnebski 1961; Butt et al. 1969; Kirkbride 1971a; Concrete Institute of Australia 1972; PCI Energy Committee 1981) that rapid cooling may cause cracking only in the surface layers of very thick units and that rapid cooling is not detrimental to the strength or durability of standard precast products (PCI Energy Committee 1981).

One exception is transverse cracking observed in pretensioned beams subjected to cooling prior to detensioning. For this reason, pretensioned members should be detensioned immediately after the steam-curing has been discontinued (PCI Energy Committee 1981).

Cast-in-place concrete can be unknowingly subjected to construction loads in cold climates when heaters are used to provide an elevated working temperature within a structure. Typically, tarps are used to cover windows and door openings, and high volume heaters are operated inside the enclosed area. If the heaters are located near exterior concrete members, especially thin walls, an unacceptably high thermal gradient can result within the members. The interior of the wall will expand in relation to the exterior.

Heaters should be kept away from the exterior walls to minimize this effect. Good practice also requires that this be done to avoid localized drying shrinkage and carbonation cracking. Storage of materials and the operation of equipment can easily result in loading conditions during construction far more severe than any load for which the structure was designed.

Tight control must be maintained to avoid overloading conditions. Damage from unintentional construction overloads can be prevented only if designers provide information on load limitations for the structure and if construction personnel heed these limitations.

8. Errors in Design and Detailing

The effects of improper design and/or detailing range from poor appearance to lack of serviceability to catastrophic failure. These problems can be minimized only by a thorough understanding of structural behavior (meant here in the broadest sense).

Errors in design and detailing that may result in unacceptable cracking include use of poorly detailed reentrant corners in walls, precast members and slabs, improper selection and/or detailing of reinforcement, restraint of members subjected to volume changes caused by variations in temperature and moisture, lack of adequate contraction joints, and improper design of foundations, resulting in differential movement within the structure.

Examples of these problems are presented by Kaminetzky (1981) and Price (1982). Reentrant comers provided a location for the concentration of stress and, therefore, are prime locations for the initiation of cracks. Whether the high stresses result from volume changes, in-plane loads, or bending, the designer must recognize that stresses are always high at reentrant corners. Well-known examples are window and door openings in concrete walls and dapped end beams, as shown in Fig. 4 and 5.

Additional properly anchored diagonal reinforcement is required to keep the inevitable cracks narrow and prevent them from propagating. The use of an inadequate amount of reinforcing may result in excessive cracking. A typical mistake is to lightly reinforce a member because it is a “non structural member.”

However, the member (such as a wall) may be tied to the rest of the structure in such a manner that it is required to carry a major portion of the load once the structure begins to deform. The “non structural element”then begins to carry loads in proportion to its stiffness. Since this member is not detailed to act structurally, unsightly cracking may result even though the safety of the structure is not in question.

The restraint of members subjected to volume changes results frequently in cracks. Stresses that can occur in concrete due to restrained creep, temperature differential, and drying shrinkage can be many times the stresses that occur due to loading.

A slab, wall, or a beam restrained against shortening, even if prestressed, can easily develop tensile stresses sufficient to cause cracking. Properly designed walls should have contraction joints spaced from one to three times the wall height. Beams should be allowed to move.

Cast-in-place post-tensioned construction that does not permit shortening of the prestressed member is susceptible to cracking in both the member and the supporting structure (Libby 1977). The problem with restraint of structural members is especially serious in pretensioned and precast members that may be welded to the supports at both ends. When combined with other problem details (such as reentrant comers), results may be catastrophic (Kaminetzky 1981; Mast 1981).

Improper foundation design may result in excessive differential movement within a structure. If the differential movement is relatively small, the cracking problems may be only visual in nature. However, if there is a major differential settlement, the structure may not be able to redistribute the loads rapidly enough, and a failure may occur.

One of the advantages of reinforced concrete is that, if the movement takes place over a long enough period of time, creep will allow at least some load redistribution to take place.

The importance of proper design and detailing will depend on the particular structure and loading involved. Special care must be taken in the design and detailing of structures in which cracking may cause a major serviceability problem. These structures also require continuous inspection during all phases of construction to supplement the careful design and detailing.

Concrete Cracks at Restraint Corners

Fig.4: Concrete Cracks at Restraint Corners

Fig.5: Crack Patterns at Dapped End Beams

9. Externally Applied Loads

It is well known that load-induced tensile stresses result in cracks in concrete members. This point is readily acknowledged and accepted in concrete design. Current design procedures (ACI 318 and AASHTO) Standard Specifications for Highway Bridges) use reinforcing steel, not only to carry the tensile forces, but to obtain both an adequate distribution of cracks and a reasonable limit on crack width.

Current knowledge of flexural members provides the basis for the following general conclusions about the variables that control cracking: Crack width increases with increasing steel stress, cover thickness and area of concrete surrounding each reinforcing bar. Of these, steel stress is the most important variable. The bar diameter is not a major consideration.

The width of a bottom crack increases with an increasing strain gradient between the steel and the tension face of the beam. The equation considered to best predict the most probable maximum surface crack width in bending was developed by Gergely and Lutz (1968).

A simplified version of this equation is: Repair of concrete

A modification of this equation is used in ACI 318, which effectively limits crack widths to 0.016 in. (0.41 mm) for interior exposure and 0.013 in. (0.33 mm) for exterior exposure. However, there is little correlation between surface crack width for cracks transverse to bars and the corrosion of reinforcing, these limits do not appear to be justified on the basis of corrosion control.

There have been a number of equations developed for prestressed concrete members (ACI 224R), but no single method has achieved general acceptance. The maximum crack width in tension members is larger than that predicted by the expression for flexural members (Broms 1965; Broms and Lutz 1965).

Absence of a strain gradient and compression zone in tension members is the probable reason for the larger crack widths. On the basis of limited data, the following expression has been suggested to estimate the maximum crack width in direct tension (ACI 224R): w = 0.10 fs (dc A)0.33 x 10-3 (2) Additional information on cracking of concrete in direct tension is provided in ACI 224.2R. Flexural and tensile crack widths can be expected to increase with time for members subjected to either sustained or repetitive loading.

Although a large degree of scatter is evident in the available data, a doubling of crack width with time can be expected (Abeles et al. 1968; Bennett and Dave 1969; Illston and Stevens 1972; Holmberg 1973; Rehm and Eligehausen 1977). Although work remains to be done, the basic principles of crack control for load-induced cracks are well understood.

Well-distributed reinforcing offers the best protection against undesirable cracking. Reduced steel stress, obtained through the use of a larger amount of steel, will also reduce the amount of cracking. While reduced cover will reduce the surface crack width, designers must keep in mind that cracks (and therefore, crack widths) perpendicular to reinforcing steel do not have a major effect on the corrosion of the steel, while a reduction in cover will be detrimental to the corrosion protection of the reinforcing.

Gopal Mishra

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