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Trench stability in cohesive soil

K. Gorska1
Wroclaw University of Technology, Poland

ABSTRACT
Trench is connected to very narrow and deep excavation filled with bentonite suspension. This paper presents estimation of its
stability in cohesive soil. The stability is assessed by two calculation methods. The first involves the equilibrium of forces acting
on the rigid wedge. The second one includes numerical calculations conducted in Plaxis 3D Foundations. A few examples
having different dimensions (length and depth) are analyzed in uniform soil conditions. Graphs defining the dependence of
length, depth and factor of safety are presented. It is found that for long trenches (L6m) the soil kinematics at failure coincides
with the literature data. Short trenches are under a large influence of the arching effect and cohesive forces. The limit
equilibrium method can be used under the condition of employing a factor, which reduces the value of the earth pressure.
Keywords: retaining wall, trench, safety, stability, numerical analysis, arching, failure.

INTRODUCTION

Trench excavation is widely used in geotechnical


works. It is performed as the first stage
of construction for diaphragm walls, barrettes or
slurry walls [3, 12]. A deep vertical cut in the
ground is excavated under a slurry suspension.
The first application of diaphragm walls was in
the early sixties [10] and now they are
continually used successfully supporting the
construction of deep excavations or deep
foundations. Walls made from concrete and steel
work well against high values of internal forces
and permit the transfer of loads from leaning
slabs. Another advantage is water resistance that
is only provided by a proper execution of panel
joints. Van Tol presents four cases of leakage
through the diaphragm walls at stop end joints in
deep excavations, which led to very serious
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settlement behind the walls [8]. Different


variations in construction phases result in a huge
range of implementation possibilities, e.g. slurry
walls in which a suspension is mixed with
cement that hardens [2].
The first stage of construction is critical for
the construction process. In the following phases,
the stability of the surrounding soil is easier to
maintain. During the concreting process pressure
inside the trench increases (slurry is being
continuously replaced by concrete) as does the
exerted force on the faces and the toe of the
trench.
There is a widespread belief among
geoengineers that if the slurry level exceeds the
water level by more than 1 m and the slurry unit
weight is greater than 10.5 kN/m3 trench stability
is guaranteed; although in this case the safety
margin is unknown. The primary question is in
what situations special care or preparations

Wroclaw University of Technology, ul. Wybrzeze Wyspianskiego 27, 51-692 Wroclaw. karolina.gorska@pwr.wroc.pl

during the trenching process should be taken.


Usually, major problems are not related to the
trenching process, but are connected to human
error.
There are several theories for calculating
trench stability that have been implemented in
practice. The first group of theories concerns 2D
cases with long trenches. The wedge is triangular
and the slip surface is inclined by the angle
cr = /4 + /2, as in the Coulomb criterion,
where is friction angle. Initially only
homogeneous, perfectly cohesive soil conditions
without groundwater were analyzed by Nash and
Johns [5]. Later, other forces such as
groundwater pressure and a varying slurry level
were taken into consideration (Morgerstern and
AmirTahmasseb [4]). These solutions can be
assumed for shallower rather than longer
trenches (trenches with dimensions of L<2H).
If 3D working conditions are considered, the
forces acting on the sides - shear forces and
cohesion forces - must be analyzed. This
represents the simplest transition from 2D to 3D
analysis and was proposed by Prater [7]. Another
modification is the inclination of the sides into
the interior of the wedge. The inclination angle
= /4+/2 proposed by Washbourne [11] seems
to have a too small value according to numerical
calculations conducted by the author. This
angular wedge shape is easily described, but it
differs from the shape observed in the numerical
calculations.
The first solution with a curved failure surface
was presented by Piaskowski & Kowalewski in
1965 [6]. This solution uses a vertical elliptic
cylinder cut by a critical plane. The latest 3D
solutions by Tsai and Chang employ a more
realistic smooth and convex shear surface [9].
This method uses vertical columns as a
generalization for standard 2D slices.
This paper presents two further methods of
analysis for trench stability.

the Coulomb method for two-dimensional


stability of a slope with an infinite length [1].
The shape of the wedge is a prism with triangular
sides (see Figure 1a). Acting forces on the wedge
are (see Figure 1b): the bulk weight of the wedge
W, the resultant force on the slip surface R,
cohesion force on the slip surface CR, the earth
pressure Ph and the hydrostatic slurry pressure
Ps. To simulate spatial working conditions, shear
forces Ss and cohesion forces C on the wedge
sides are applied. This method provides a very
quick and accurate estimation for engineering
purposes.

Figure 1 a) 3D-view of the sliding block; b) Polygon of


acting forces in the plane of symmetry.

In the limit-equilibrium method for this


specific case the stability of cohesive soil Ph and
Ps must have equal values. This statement leads
to the determination of the failure surface
inclination. For the 2D case it is cr = /4 + /2.
Ph is determined from the projection of all acting
forces in the horizontal and vertical directions.
The equilibrium equations are as follows:
Fz = 0 Ph + 2 S sz + 2 C z + C Rz = R z

Fy = 0 W = R y + C Ry + 2 S sy + 2C y

where:

W = 0.5 H 2 ctg L
Rz = Ry tg ( )

LIMIT EQUILIBRIUM METHOD

The first method involves the equilibrium of


forces acting on the rigid wedge and comes from

S n = K ctg H 3 / 6
S s = Sn tg
S sx = S s cos
S sz = S s sin

(1)

C = 0.5 ctg H 2 c
Cx = C cos
Cz = C sin
CR = L H c / sin

values of 3 8 cm. The exact displacement value


depends on which point is observed. Points near
the toe have larger displacements. FS values for
displacements greater than 8 cm are constant. In
addition, in examining the FS/step curve a point
of deflection is observed at the same step and the
same displacement.

FINITE ELEMENT METHOD

The second method includes numerical


calculations conducted in Plaxis 3D Foundations.
This program uses a finiteelement method.
During numerical calculations, displacements
and stress in the surrounding soil are determined.
This enables estimating the shape and range of
the wedge and to establish if the arching effect
occurs.
The trench excavation process in a block of
soil is taken into consideration and the advantage
of two axes of symmetry is used. On vertical
surfaces of the resulting solid boundary
conditions allowing only vertical movement. On
the basis of body movement is blocked in all
directions. Surface area remains free. At first the
sensitivity of the size of the modeled area in
relation to the mesh size was tested. Within three
blocks different in size eventually a block sizes
14 16 20m was adopted, as to eliminate the
effect of the impact of sides, and at the same
time not unduly magnifying the size of the task.
Adopted regions of different mesh size reduce
computation time without significantly affecting
the accuracy of the results.
The excavation process is modeled as the
removal of 2 m thick layers of soil and the
application of slurry pressure. For simplification,
the hydrostatic slurry pressure is assumed as
external stabilizing load. It increases linearly
with depth and is applied to all faces of the
trench, including the toe. The slurry level is kept
unchanged at the ground surface.
To determine the shape of the wedge, the
standard procedure of tan/c reduction is used.
Since no limit state i.e. no failure is observed,
the interpretation of the FS/displacement curve is
made. The FS/displacement curve indicates a
rapid change in the inclination. The factor of
safety increases until soil displacements reach

EXAMPLES

A few examples having different dimensions


(length and depth) are analyzed in uniform soil
conditions. Graphs defining the dependence of
length, depth and factor of safety are presented.
4.1

Soil conditions

In the examples, uniform ground conditions with


the Coulomb criterion are analyzed. The material
parameters are presented in Table 1. No water
level is considered. The unit slurry weight is 10.5
kN/m3. No filtration or improvement of the soil
conditions in the surrounding layer is considered.
Table 1. Parameters of the homogeneous soil.

kN/m3

Clay

4.2

20

Ka

0,66

12

c
kPa
15

E
MPa
28

0.35

Trench dimensions

An analysis of typical trench dimensions was


conducted for the following dimensions: length L
3 to 10 m, width B 1.0 m and depth H 8 to
15 m.
4.3

Results

During the excavation process, soil and slurry


pressures acting on the trench sides are in
equilibrium. No change in the stresses around the
trench is observed. At the toe of the trench, the
force exerted by the slurry causes a reduction of
the stress in the soil. This is also influenced by
the smaller unit weight of the suspension
compared to the soil. Figure 2 presents the total
displacements after excavation with the largest
values of 5.5 mm occurring at the center of the
toe. This is typical for the rebound connected

80
- inclination of failure surface

with the removal of the overburden load. In this


case, the exerted pressure decreases.

75
70

8
10
12
15
2D

65
60
55
50
3

L - length of trench

Figure 3. Plots of cr vs. section length L for different depths


H of the trench simplified calculations.

FS =

tan
c
=
tan red cred

(2)

where: tan red and cred are reduced values


reached in calculation step assumed as a failure.
The limit equilibrium Ph = Ps must be reached
for red. This definition does not reveal any local
areas of instability and it only has a global
character.

4
3,5
8

10
12

2,5

15

2
1,5
3

L - length of trench

Figure 4. Plots of FS vs. section length L for different depths


of the trench limit equilibrium method.

4,5
FS - finite element method

Figure 3 confirms the spatial working


conditions. For every trench depth the inclination
of the failure surface decreases with the increase
in its length. This is caused by the different share
of forces acting on the trench sides and the
wedge weight in the Ph value. The following rule
applies: a longer trench leads to a smaller share
of acting forces. For very long trenches the
inclination angle is the same as the 2D Coulomb
solution and is equal to cr = /4 + /2 (dotted
line). Due to cohesion forces, the inclination
angle is greater than for cohessionless soil [1].
For comparing the results of the simplified
calculation method and the numerical
calculations, the factor of safety is defined as
follows:

FS - limit equilibrium method

4,5

Figure 2. 3D total displacements for a 6 m long trench after


excavation finite element method.

4
3,5
8

10
12

2,5

15

2
1,5
3

L - length of trench

Figure 5. Plots of FS vs. section length L for different depths


of the trench finite element method.

The general rule that factors of safety decrease


with an increase in length for the same depth of
trench is fulfilled (Figures 3, 4 and 5). For the
limit equilibrium method a surprising
phenomenon occurs, i.e. the tendency of higher
FS values for very short trenches of the same
depth (Figure 4 and Table 2). This is not
observed for the finite element method (Figure 5
and Table 3) and is caused by the formulation of
method solutions. Very short trenches shear and
cohesion forces have a determinant influence on
the earth pressure value. This is also a result of
the arching effect. If the trench length increases,
acting forces decrease and the arching effect
disappears.
Table 2. FS values limit equilibrium method.
H depth of
the trench
8
10
12
15

10
2.13
2.00
1.96
1.93

L length of the trench


6
5
4
2.58
2.84
3.16
2.51
2.76
3.13
2.50
2.77
3.19
2.53
2.85
3.32

Figure 7. 3D total displacements for a 3 m long trench at


failure finite element method.
3
3.75
3.81
3.95
4.25

Table 3. FS values finite element method.


H depth of
the trench
8
10
12
15

6
2.32
2.18
2.09
2.04

L length of the trench


5
4
2.52
2.71
2.36
2.56
2.29
2.47
2.21
2.41

3
3.00
2.83
2.73
2.65

Results of this phenomenon are observed on


displacement maps. In figure 6, the shape of the
wedge is easily recognized. It can be assumed
that the prism approximation used in the limit
equilibrium method is acceptable. The shape and
the inclination of the failure surface ( = 65) is
close to the simplified calculations. Washbourne
assumption [11] for sides inclination angle is
highly underestimated. If the length of the trench
decreases, the displacements at the higher part
increase very slowly during excavation progress
after it reaches 6m (see Figure 7). For a 3 m long
trench, no wedge is observed.

FS - limit equilibrium method

4,5
4
8
10
12

3,5
3

15

2,5
2
2

2,5

3,5

4,5

FS - finite element method

Figure 6. 3D total displacements for a 6 m long trench at


failure finite element method.

Figure 8. A set of points FS finite element vs. FS limit


equilibrium method for the same geoengineering data.

A comparison of results from both methods is


presented in Figure 8. Each concentration of
results represents different lengths of the trench.
The bottom points represent a 6 m long trench
while the top points represent a 3 m trench. The
limit equilibrium method produces higher factor
of safety values than the finite element method.
In the figure, the dashed line shows a perfect
correlation of results.
Although the limit equilibrium method gives
results in a very short time, one should take into
consideration the overestimated values of FS.
Another advantage of this method is that a
specialized computation program is not
necessary.
For engineering purposes, the results obtained
from the limit equilibrium method can be taken
into consideration only when employing a factor,
which would reduce the value of the earth
pressure. This kind of factor is used by
Piaskowski and Kowalewski [6] and it is a
function of the length, the depth and the friction
angle.
5

CONCLUSIONS

Short trenches in cohesive soil are under a


large influence of the arching effect and cohesive
forces. The wedge is not observed in the finite
element method. In the limit equilibrium method
factors of safety are greater for deeper trenches.
Curves on the graph intersect.
The failure surface inclination decreases with
the length of the trench. The Coulomb criterion
is the lower bound estimation.
FS values are between 2.5 and 4.5 and are
much higher than expected to fulfill the stability
conditions.
The limit equilibrium method can be used
under the condition of employing a factor which
reduces the value of the earth pressure. This kind
of factor is used by Piaskowski and Kowalewski
[6] and it is a function of the length, the depth
and the friction angle.

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