Note 26 Level 1


TheStructuralEngineer May 2013

Technical Technical Guidance Note

Cracking in concrete

In order for concrete to crack, there has to be a tensile stress present, be it applied or induced. Concrete is actually designed to crack, as it is assumed that the steel reinforcement within it resists all of the tension stress within the element. The sight of cracks does cause concern however, and an understanding of what causes them is important when inspecting new works and/or existing structures. This Technical Guidance Note describes the causes of cracking in concrete. It does not extend to the numerical analysis of cracked concrete elements as this is beyond the scope of a Level 1 guidance note.


W Cracking in concrete

W Further reading

W Web resources

Cracking in concrete
Cracks in concrete can be divided into three categories: non-structural, thermal and structural. Non-structural refers to cracking in concrete that has occurred due to effects that do not have a significant impact on the integrity of the structure. Thermal cracks are those that come about either during the curing process (soon after the concrete element has been formed) or from movement of the structure in response to varying temperatures. Structural cracks are those that appear due to defects in the structure and are considered to be a failure of some sort. Figure 1 is a section of a concrete frame that has various crack patterns on it, all of which will be described in more detail in this guidance note. Whatever the symptoms of cracking, the ultimate cause is always the same: the tensile strength of the concrete has been exceeded due to either an induced action or an applied one. If you are in any doubt as to why cracks are forming in a concrete element, always remember this fundamental point.

Plastic settlement

Figure 1 Different types of crack found in concrete structures

especially detailing of reinforcement within concrete elements. Where no reinforcement is present, careful management of the placing and curing of concrete is required in order to prevent cracking. The formation of cracks within concrete elements can be considered from two perspectives. The first is the appreciation of the tensile strength of the concrete element and the extent of its restraint. If it is unrestrained then it is free to expand and contract without hindrance from any other agent. If on the other hand the concrete is restrained, which is usually the case, a tensile stress develops around the point of restraint, which leads to the concrete cracking. It is important to note that concrete changes over time. This change in material property affects the elastic modulus of the material and can have an impact on how it responds to the surrounding environmental conditions it is exposed to during its lifetime. The second perspective is to consider the tensile strain capacity of concrete. This changes over time, because when the concrete is setting, its tensile capacity is very high as it is in a liquid phase and deforms quite readily. As it hardens, deformation becomes more difficult and in turn its tension strain capacity decreases. Over time, however, tension strain capacity does increase soon after the concrete has set, as it absorbs moisture and thus becomes more amenable to deformation. The increase is not enough to prevent it from cracking, hence it being more prone to do so in the earlier part of a concrete element’s existence.

Plastic shrinkage


Plastic shrinkage

Non-structural cracking
Non-structural cracking can easily be misidentified as structural in nature and in some extreme cases this can lead to the condemning of perfectly sound structures. It is therefore important to recognise that these types of crack are defects to the surface of the concrete, not signs that the element is about to collapse. In most cases, non-structural cracks can be prevented by employing good practice with regards to design, construction and

"Cracks in concrete can be divided into three categories: nonstructural, thermal and structural"

due to wind passing over it if it is exposed. no crack that is formed in this manner can be considered to be structural. It is also possible to eliminate plastic cracks by re-vibrating the concrete 2-3 hours after it has been formed. These typically occur over large slab pours and walls. Cracking due to settlement Cracking of concrete due to settlement concerns how the concrete is placed. Free contraction joint Tied partial contraction joint .www. The faster it sets. Indeed it is preferable for it to do so in order for the reinforcement within it to be efficiently designed.4 of the UK National Annex to BS EN 1992-1-1 states that for in situ concrete elements exposed to most environments. Smaller structures. They are occurring due to the properties of the material and the environment within which it is placed. Various methods have been adopted to prevent such cracks from developing. thus allowing the concrete to set in a more controlled manner. which is dependent upon the tensile capacity of the material. such as the cement and aggregates.3mm described in BS EN 19921-1 has been deemed to be acceptable in terms of preventing moisture ingress having an impact on the environmental conditions of the reinforcement. leading to tension being generated in the concrete. Grading of cracks As previously explained. They can however lead to water ingress that can have an impact on the structure by causing the concrete to spall (and the steel reinforcement to corrode). it is not practical to determine the exact form and depth of a crack. which is a form of cracking on the outer surface of the concrete that consists of cracks that when linked together form small polygonal shapes. Thermal movement Concrete structures should be allowed to move in response to the varying temperatures they are exposed to during their design life. The question arising.thestructuralengineer. admixtures can be installed within the concrete to reduce the amount of bleeding. plastic cracks occur in the surface of the concrete. concrete is designed to crack. They are primarily focussed on reducing the rate at which the concrete sets. which can appear within 2-3 hours of the concrete setting. settle towards the bottom.05 and 0. and not the movement of the structure as a whole due to the deflection of a support. as it is still relatively pliable at this 19 Either way. Without carrying out intrusive investigations. which can widen and spur off into more cracks that are not visible. is what is acceptable in terms of cracking? Typically this comes down to a combination of both durability and aesthetics. Again. This process is known as ‘bleeding’ and it influences the likelihood of plastic cracks forming. If they are not. these cracks can be graded out. the maximum crack width that can be permitted to develop is 0. As the concrete is vibrated the water within it rises to the surface while the heavier elements. as that is when concrete shrinks. One way to address this is to apply a compound to the surface of the concrete within a few hours of it being placed. To overcome this. Where the concrete is restrained it tends to crack as the tension within the concrete exceeds its capacity. There is an issue with setting these limits on crack widths as they only concern the visible crack that is at the surface of the concrete. Therefore. However. This can result in ‘crazing’. however. then cracks can appear as the structure expands and contracts. it is important that: S Figure 2 Contraction joints in concrete • the level of chloride within it is not exceeded beyond a critical level • the reinforcement is placed appropriately and surrounded by good quality concrete that is not carbonated • there are no stray electrical currents present The limit of 0.2mm. however. Provided the finish to the concrete is appropriately troweled and/or floated. it always returns to the key point of crack propagation in concrete. There is no recognition given to the nature of the crack underneath the surface. This can be done in combination with designing and detailing the concrete element to reduce the amount of restraint to the concrete as it sets. With a combination of elements of the concrete being restrained and a high amount of bleeding. This is more likely to occur in lower temperatures. it is vibrated into place and it is at this point plastic cracking can appear. Water ingress can obviously impact on the reinforcement. As the concrete begins to set. Table NA. there are instances where on the surface no cracks can be detected but instead they have formed underneath a layer of mortar that has been created by the troweling/ floating action. If the concrete is unprotected while it cures it can dry too quickly. This occurs due to the water evaporating from the concrete. A more traditional method is to cover the surface of the concrete with hessian or polythene sheeting in order to prevent the bleed water from evaporating too quickly. BS EN 1992-3 concerns water retaining structures and their limits on crack widths are reduced to a range between 0. It is known as ‘plastic cracking’ and occurs soon after the concrete has been poured. certain environmental and chemical conditions need to be present within the concrete. This lessens the rate at which water escapes the concrete and thus significantly reduces the likelihood of cracks forming. therefore maintaining the limit of crack width will most likely reduce the risk of this occurring. such as those with a footprint dimension of no Shrinkage cracking A variant of the plastic crack is the shrinkage crack. Reducing the rate of Water ingress and corrosion Corrosion of reinforcement within concrete causes the spalling of concrete as the steel expands and degrades. "Whatever the symptoms of cracking.3mm. To prevent this from occurring. the stiffer it becomes and thus it has a reduced capacity for tension stress. the ultimate cause is always the same" evaporation is key to the prevention of shrinkage cracking.

do require require either additional reinforcement within them or the inclusion of movement joints. with the calibre of projects continuing at the high standard set in previous years. (1994) Concreting Deep Lifts and Large Concrete Pours (R135) London: CIRIA The Concrete Society (2010) TR22 Nonstructural cracks in concrete Camberley. We have received a record-breaking response to our global call for entries. Further Reading Bamforth P. the crack does not appear and hence the integrity of the structure is maintained. and Cather R.e. "Concrete is designed to crack. Plastic cracking – Cracks that appear in the concrete 2-3 hours after setting. (2007) Early-age thermal crack control in concrete (C660) London: CIRIA THANK YOU FOR ENTERING The Structural Awards 2013 is now closed. By creating a construction joint. B. If you wish to attend the Structural Awards. We are pleased to announce that the event will take place on Friday 15 November 2013 at The Brewery.concretecentre. To register your interest for early bird tickets.structuralawards. (1996) Design of construction joints in concrete structures (R146) London: CIRIA Bamforth P. One way to address cracking as the concrete sets is to introduce construction joints i. Indeed it is preferable for it to do so" Eurocode 0. F. please visit www.› Note 26 Level 1 20 TheStructuralEngineer May 2013 Technical Technical Guidance Note more than 50m. Bussell M. London. Figure 2 shows two examples of induced contraction joints. These are joints which split the structure into separate structures. Surrey: The Concrete Society The Concrete Society (2008) TR67 Movement. The amount of movement the structure is likely to undergo during its lifetime must be allowed for within the movement #StructuralAW13 . Larger concrete structures however. Web resources The Concrete Centre: www. The integrity of each of these structures needs to be The Concrete Society: www. B. which are a form of construction joint that produce straight line cracks in a controlled manner. This typically occurs due to corrosion of steel reinforcement. restraint and cracking in concrete structures Camberley. If no continuity of reinforcement is present. a straight crack. are less prone to thermal effects. Spalling – The breaking and cracking of concrete due to internal pressure within the concrete element. and Price W. Surrey: The Concrete Society Glossary and further reading Bleeding – Water that rises to the surface of concrete after it has been vibrated. then a crack can be generated as the concrete shrinks towards the steel NEW WEBSITE LAUNCHED FOR 2013 www. early bird tickets will be available in June at a 15% discounted The Institution of Structural Engineers library: www.

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