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Core strength variation

of in-place concrete
An understanding
of concrete
core testing can be
quality is
By Bruce A.

F igu re 1. Planes of
weakness under coarse
aggregate particles due
to bleeding.

t first, there was a lot of excitement over that high-profile

project your ready mix company was so proud to have a part
in. Then came the bad news. The cylinder
compressive strength test results are low.
The contractor is blaming your company.
He claims it was bad concrete. You think
To aid the investigation, cores will be taken and tested. Knowing the in-place characteristics of the concrete and how they affect
the measured compressive strength of the
cores can go a long way toward establishing that the low-strength cylinders were not
the result of bad concrete.

In-place strength
Concrete coring is generally deemed necessary by unacceptably low laboratorycured or field-cured cylinder strengths.
Therefore, core strengths should be obtained from the in-place concrete that represents the low cylinder strengths. Unfortunately, in practice, the cores arent always
removed from locations in the structure represented by low cylinder strength results.
For example, if 150 cubic yards are
placed in a wall, ACI 318 Building Code
Requirements for Reinforced Concrete re-

quires only one strength test. Concrete for

the one strength test is removed from a
middle portion of a single truck. Assuming
8 cubic yards per ready mix truck, it takes
19 truckloads of concrete to fill the wall.
Because ACI 318 requires that cores be removed from the area in question, that
means locating the suspect concrete from
that one truckload.
If accurate placement records are available, the area of low strength concrete may
be located and cores removed. However,
choosing core locations based on placement
records does not confirm that the one truckload of concrete tested is the only lowstrength concrete in the wall. Although removing cores from a suspected low-strength
area satisfies ACI 318 criteria for sampling,
other locations may need testing.
For instance, the one truckload of suspected low-strength concrete may actually represent the quality of concrete in other truckloads. Using a nondestructive technique to
locate the suspect truckload of concrete provides a comparison for locating other potential low-strength areas.
Occasionally, the contractor determines
the area of suspect concrete by pointing to
an arbitrary location. Alternatively, the testing laboratory may core concrete in a loca-

tion accessible to its equipment.

While accurate placement records
are beneficial, verification by a
nondestructive testing technique is
prudent. Ideally, the engineer
should be involved in determining
the location for core testing.
Low cylinder strengths may be
due to errors in sampling or testing
and not due to inadequate concrete.
Engineers must decide whether the
low cylinder strength indicates poor
testing, a bad truckload of concrete,
or a bad placement, then, if necessary, plan an appropriate core testing program.
Cores vs. cylinders
Cores do not serve the same purpose as cylinders. Strength of standard cylinders represents the quality
of concrete delivered. Cylinder compressive strength represents the
quality of concrete batching, mixing,
and transportation, as well as the
sampling, preparation, handling, curing, and testing of the cylinders.
Strength of cores represents the inplace concrete strength. In addition
to concrete batching, mixing, and
transportation, core compressive
strengths represent the quality of
placement, consolidation, and curing, and the techniques for obtaining
and testing cores. Therefore, the relationship between core and cylinder
strength varies because of the characteristics that each specimen represents.
Coring direction
Cores obtained by drilling in the
direction of concrete casting may
provide a higher strength than cores
obtained by drilling perpendicular
to the direction of casting. The
strength difference due to drilling
direction is generally attributed to
bleeding in fresh concrete, which
creates a weak paste pocket under
coarse aggregate particles (Figure 1).
Because of the bleedwater, the
paste-to-coarse aggregate bond below the aggregate particles may be
A load applied parallel to the weak

Figure 2. Estimated within-member strength variation.

bond opens a crack, creating a

strength-decreasing flaw. However, a
load applied perpendicular to the
weak bond closes the crack, minimizing the effect of the bleedwater
layer. If this theory holds true, reducing bleedwater minimizes the effect
of coring direction. Thus, any factor
that affects bleeding, such as the
concrete mix design, mix ingredients,
air content, and placement and consolidation techniques, also determines the strength difference of
cores drilled vertically or horizontally.
Most slabs and foundations are
cored parallel to the direction of
casting, resulting in no associated
reduction in strength. Walls and
columns are cored perpendicular to
the direction of casting, thus a reduction in strength may occur.
The data on the effect of coring
direction is contradictory. It is quite
likely that the compressive strength
of cores drilled horizontally are
stronger than cores drilled vertically.
Practical considerations, however,
like variations in placement, consolidation, and mix variability might obscure a coring direction difference
that is discernible only under precise control of the mix and construction practices. The current prac-

tice in the industry is to neglect any

effect of coring direction.
Top-to-bottom strength
It is generally acknowledged that
concrete strength varies within a single element. The strength variations
shown in Figure 2 should not be
considered as absolute numbers.
Figure 2 is very useful, however,
when planning a nondestructive survey to determine the likelihood of a
low-strength cylinder or core locations.
Laboratory test results indicate two
apparent causes of the strength variation: strength increase at the bottom attributed to greater static pressures caused by the concrete above
and strength decrease at the top attributed to higher water-cement ratios as a result of bleedwater (Figure
A contractors consolidation effort
has a significant effect on concrete
strength. It is estimated that between
5% and 20% of air is entrapped while
placing concrete. Vibrators reduce
the amount of entrapped air by consolidating the concrete. The cores
compressive strength represents the

degree of consolidation achieved by

workers and their equipment.
Some state highway departments
studied how the spacing of immersed vibrators affects core compressive strength. On slipform
pavers the vibrators are fixed at a
set spacing. Concrete directly in the
path of the vibrators is consolidated
better than concrete between the
vibrators. Vibrator spacing is chosen based on the radius of influence, usually 24 inches.
Cores removed from the path of
the vibrator are stronger and denser
than cores removed between vibrators. Cores removed from the bottom are stronger and denser than
those removed from the top. Work
by several highway departments
shows that a reasonable maximum
decrease in a pavement cores unit
weight compared to the unit weight
of an ASTM cylinder is 4%. This
corresponds to a loss in compressive strength of about 1200 psi.
Effects of curing
The thermal history and curing of
cores is quite different than for standard cylinders. The structures thermal environment might be better or
worse than that provided by laboratory curing. Also, most structures
arent moist cured like a standard
ASTM cylinder. Field curing is unlikely to be as good as moist curing.
Field concrete may be subjected
to cold- or hot-weather curing conditions. High temperatures can lower concrete strength but lower temperatures could actually produce
stronger concrete at later ages.
The methods for obtaining and
testing a core obscure the effects of
curing. Curing dramatically affects
the concrete surface, but has less of
an effect on the interior concrete.
The outer concrete protects the inner concretes humidity and temperature conditioning. When cores are
tested, the restraint of the testing
procedure makes most concrete
cores fail within the middle portion
of the core. Weak outer edges, affected by curing methods, are not
usually represented by the core failure mode or the resulting test value.

Figure 3. Typical relative percentage strength contours for a beam (top) and for a wall (bottom).

The test results presented indicate

that for vertical members such as
walls and columns, curing had little
effect on core strengths. For slabs,
however, curing is critical to achieving adequate core strength.
Recommendations for core
For a core drilled perpendicular
to a horizontal surface, ASTM C 42
states, The location shall be, when
possible, so that its axis is perpendicular to the bed of the concrete
as originally placed and not near
formed joints or obvious edges of a
unit of deposit. For a core drilled
perpendicular to a vertical surface
or a battered surface, ASTM C 42
states the core shall be taken from
near the middle of a unit of deposit
when possible and not near formed
joints or obvious edges of a unit of
The Concrete Society Working
Party recommends that the section
of core to be tested should not in-

clude the top 20%, to a limit of 12

inches, of the lift concerned. The
top 2 inches should not be included in any case. The National
Ready Mixed Concrete Association
(NRMCA) recommends against
drilling cores from the top layers of
columns, slabs, walls, or footings.
NRMCA indicates that cores from
the top layers are 10% to 20%
weaker than cores from the middle
or lower portion.
This article is based on publication
185, Understanding Concrete
Core Testing, published by the
National Ready Mixed Concrete
Association (NRMCA). For more information or to order a copy, contact NRMCA, 900 Spring St., Silver
Spring MD 20910 (phone: 301587-1400, fax: 301.585.4219).

Copyright 1995, The Aberdeen Group
All rights reserved