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Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

July 28, 2010 1 Comment

Forces are at Work Beneath the Feet that Must be Reckoned With Before
Designing an Underground Structure
By Claude Goguen, P.E., LEED AP and Ronald Thornton, P.E.

Everyone probably remembers the images of US Airways Flight 1549 drifting

in the middle of the Hudson River Jan. 15, 2009, while frightened passengers
disembarked onto the wings. The courageous actions of the pilots and flight
crew were credited for saving the lives of all on board. But it was physical
force that kept the airplane afloat

force known as buoyancy.

Buoyancy is also an important element of the annual National Concrete Canoe

Competition hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. More than 200
university teams compete for Americas Cup of Civil Engineering. The
University of Berkeley won the 22nd NCCC title this past June.


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

In the case of Flight 1549, or if youre building concrete canoe, buoyancy is

good thing. For those in the underground utility business, however, it can be
pain if it is not accounted for in the design.
Buoyancy is defined as the tendency of fluid to exert supporting upward
force on body placed in fluid. The fluid can be liquid, as in the case of
boat floating on lake, or the fluid can be gas, as in helium-filled balloon
floating in the atmosphere.

simple example of buoyancy can be seen when

trying to push an empty water bottle downward in sink full of water. When
applying downward force to the water bottle from your hand, the water
bottle will stay suspended in place. But as soon as you remove your hand, the
water bottle will float to the surface. The buoyant force on the object
determines whether or not the object will sink or float.
Buoyancy wasnt officially documented and conceptually grasped until
Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) established the theory of flotation and defined the
buoyancy principle. He realized that submerged objects always displace fluid
upward. Then with that observation, he concluded that this force (buoyant)
must be equal to the weight of the displaced fluid. Archimedes then went on to
state that solid object would float if the density of the solid object were less
than the density of the fluid and vice versa. But what is the basic procedure to
follow in order to determine whether an underground concrete structure will
resist buoyant forces?
It can be determined if an underground concrete structure will float or sink
using basic principles. Essentially concrete structure will not float if the sum
of the vertical downward forces is greater than the vertical upward force.
When applying this principle to structure below grade, it can be said that if
the buoyant force (Fb) is greater than the mass of the structure and the
combined mass of soil surcharges and objects contained within the structure,
the structure will float.
Why is buoyancy an important factor in the design of an underground concrete
structure? The simple answer is that the buoyant forces created by water need
to be resisted to prevent the structure from floating or shifting upward.
Determining water table levels


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

When designing an underground precast concrete structure, it is necessary to

know what structure to make as well as its intended use. Typically contractors
who need precast structures will present precasters with details on what they
need and give design requirements and information on the underground
Not always, however, do they inform precasters about every detail, especially
job site conditions and problems in the construction area. Site and subsurface
conditions are vital pieces of information needed for the design calculations to
optimize the performance of the structure in the installed condition and to
prevent flotation. So how does the design engineer determine when there
could be potential problem with the jobsite conditions and with flotation?
First, the design engineer should review and investigate the plans,
specifications and soils reports to gain more insight about the project and the
underground conditions. After obtaining the requirements and specifications
for the structural design, the design engineer should obtain extensive
information on the soils and subsurface conditions. One of the first factors that
must be determined when analyzing an area in which the concrete structure
will be placed below grade is the water table, or groundwater level. Obtaining
this information will help the designers identify sites where flotation may or
may not be factor in the design. How can one determine the water table level
in the project area?
The design engineer should check the soils report to obtain more information
on the area. The soils report is typically the most reliable source of data, as its
based on study of the jobsite conditions. If there isnt soils report, core
drilling may be necessary. By core drilling in the vicinity of the project, the
depth of the water level from grade can be determined. It should be noted that
groundwater levels identified on drilling reports are only snapshot in time
and may not account for seasonal variations. Another possible source of
information would be from local well drillers, who typically maintain records
of water table levels.
After the water table level has been determined and it is known that there will
most likely not be problem with buoyancy or flotation issues, the designer
can focus on maximizing the structure without the consideration of buoyant


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

forces. In most cases, flotation will not be problem in areas of the country
without groundwater (parts of Texas, Arizona and Nevada) and where the
groundwater is below the anticipated depth of the structure. The fact that the
buoyancy force exists presupposes that the water table at the site is at an
elevation above the lowest point of the installed structure. If your structure is
to be placed above the groundwater level (according to the sites water table),
less concern is needed. On the other hand, areas where flotation causes
potential problems are typically at low elevation where the water level is at
grade (valleys, ocean shores) and in areas where groundwater is present
below grade at the time of installation (before soil has been compacted).
Be aware of seasonal and regional variations
The water table is the upper level of an underground surface in which the soil
is saturated with water. The water table fluctuates both with the seasons and
from year to year because it is affected by climatic variations and by the
amount of precipitation used by vegetation. It also is affected by excessive
amounts of water withdrawn from wells or by recharging them artificially. The
design engineer should make certain to account for seasonal and regional
fluctuations in the water table level in the design of an underground precast
concrete structure; this will ensure that the underground structure will not
float or shift upward from water table level miscalculation.
Err on the conservative side
If there are no soils reports or previous water table data available for
fluctuations (seasonal and regional), most engineers will design the structure
on the conservative side. This will ensure that the structure will be able to
withstand seasonal and regional fluctuations.
Designing on the conservative side refers to structure with the water level at
grade, even if flooding in that area is not common.

conservative design

pproach may contribute to offsetting unnecessary and unforeseen costs when

sufficient information about the soil/site conditions is unavailable. Therefore,
overdesigning structure should be kept to minimum since this would add
substantial costs to production.


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

Computing downward (gravity)

After the water table level has been
identified, the design engineer needs
to look at computing all the
downward forces that will be acting
on the structure. All vertical
downward forces are caused by
gravitational effects, which need to
be calculated in the design of an
underground structure. Essentially,
the engineer determines if the total
downward forces (gravitational, WT) are greater than the upward force
(buoyant, Fb). The total downward force (WT) is calculated by the summation
of all downward vertical forces (W).
Depending on the design of the underground structure, the total vertical
downward forces (WT) may or may not be the same for all applications. In
conservative approach, the design of underground structures assumes that the
water table at the specific site is at grade. In this case, it is essential to account
for all vertical downward forces (WT) to ensure that the structure will not
float (WT Fb). For an underground structure, designed for worst-case
scenario, the following vertical downward forces (W) need to be considered:
Weight of all walls and slabs
Weight of soil on slabs
Weight of soil on shelf or shelves
Weight of equipment (permanent) inside structure
Weight of inverts inside structure
Friction of soil to soil
Additional concrete added inside structure
Weight of reinforcing steel
As noted previously, not all underground structures are the same, and
therefore some of the listed vertical downward forces (W) above may not be
included in the summation of total vertical downward force (WT).


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

Computing upward buoyant force

As stated in Archimedes Principle, an object is buoyed up by force equal to
the weight of the fluid displaced. Mathematically, the principle is defined by
the equation:


gf nd
buoyant force (lb)
density of water (62.4 lb/ft)
displaced volume of the fluid (ft)

When analyzing buoyancy-related concrete applications, the structure is

typically below grade and stationary. Assuming the application is stationary in
fluid, analysis uses the static equilibrium equation in the vertical direction,

0. Analyzing buoyancy related to underground structures requires use of

the same static equilibrium equation, assuming the structure to be stationary

and either submerged or partially submerged in fluid (in the latter case, the
surrounding soil /fill material and any associated groundwater).
Safety factor guidelines
The Factor of Safety (FS) considers
the relationship between resisting
force and disturbing force. In this
case, its the relationship between
the weight of the structure and the
uplift force caused by buoyancy.
Failure occurs when that factor of
safety is less than 1.0.
Generally speaking, the greater the
FS the greater the impact to the
project/structure. An optimal design
would be an appropriate FS that is
adequate for the conditions present at that specific site. It is recommended
that the designer choose an appropriate FS after reviewing jobsite information.


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

According to ACI 350, the safety factor against flotation is usually computed as
the total dead weight of the structure divided by the total hydrostatic uplift
force. The FS should reflect the risk associated with hydrostatic loading
In situations of flooding to the top of the structure and using dead-weight
resistance only, FS of 1.10 is commonly used. In flood zone areas, or where
high groundwater conditions exist, FS of 1.25 can be used. Where maximum
groundwater or flood levels are not well defined or where soil friction is
included in the flotation resistance, higher FS values should be considered.
Buoyancy countermeasures
There are several methods that can be used in the industry to overcome
buoyancy problem. If the design of the underground structure does not meet
the required safety factor, there are ways to fix the problem. Here are some
different methods used to overcome buoyancy, both before and after shifting
or flotation:
1. Base extension (cast-in-place or precast). Using the additional weight of
soil by adding shelves is common method used to counteract buoyancy.
Extending the bottom slab horizontally creates shelf outside the walls of
the structure and adds additional resistance to the buoyant force. The
additional vertical downward force comes from the additional weight of
the soil acting on the shelves (Wshelf). The size of the shelf can be
designed as large and wide as needed so the buoyant force is resisted.
However, limits in shipping width must be considered. In many cases, this
is the most cost-effective method used to resist the buoyant force (Fb).
When pouring the shelf in place, mechanical connections must be
designed to resist the vertical shear forces. If possible, it is best to have
the shelf monolithically poured with the structure.
2. Anti-flotation slab. Another method that has been used in construction is
to anchor the structure to large concrete mass (shelf) poured on site or
use precast concrete manufactured off site. The structure sits directly on
top of this large concrete mass that has previously been poured in place
or cast, cured and delivered by an off-site manufacturer. This method can
cause problems, however, because both base slabs must sit flush on top of


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

one other. If base slabs are not aligned perfectly, cracking due to point
loads may result. Cast-in-place concrete can be expensive and cause
delays due to strength curing time. Precast concrete alleviates alignment
and delays for strength gain, but the sub-base must be level and set flush.
mortar bed between the two surfaces is recommended. To design the
mechanical connection between the anti-flotation slab and the structure,
the net upward force must be calculated. This calculation can be achieved
by multiplying the buoyant force by the FS, and subtracting the
downward force.
3. Increase member thickness. One method used to overcome buoyancy is
to increase the concrete mass (m). This is accomplished by increasing
member thickness (walls and slabs). Increasing the thickness of the walls
and slabs can add significant downward gravitational force, but this
may not be cost effective. Increasing concrete mass can be an expensive
alternative due to increased materials and production costs.
4. Lower structure elevation and fill with additional concrete. Another
method used to overcome buoyancy is to set the precast structure deeper
than required for its functional purposes. This will add additional soil
weight on top of the structure to oppose buoyant forces. Also, with the
structure being deeper in the soil, some contractors opt to pour
additional concrete into the base of the installed precast concrete
structure. This will add more mass to the structure, which helps
overcome buoyancy (m Fb).
It is fairly simple concept: downward gravitational forces need to exceed
upward buoyant forces. Ignoring this may result in your structure surfacing
like submarine in the South Pacific. Once precast vault is installed
underground, you expect it to stay put. Since concrete is about 2.5 times
heavier than water, one would not expect flotation to be much of an issue with
buried concrete structures, but in fact it is serious consideration in areas of
high ground water.
Claude Goguen, P.E., LEED AP, is NPCAs director of Technical Services.
Ronald Thornton, P.E., is project manager for Delta Engineers in Binghamton,
N.Y., with more than 25 years of experience in the concrete industry. He has


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

extensive experience in the design, manufacture and installation of precast

products for use in state, municipal and private projects. Thornton currently
serves on the NPCA Utility Product Committee as well as the ASTM C27

Filed Under: Archive - 2009-2010, Precast Inc. Magazine, Precast Magazines

Tagged With: buoyancy, underground structure


Bob Grotke says

June 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm
The problem of bouyancy became an issue at my workplace a while back. Our
department has used open bottom fiberglass manholes for years and the typical
installation involved dewatering the excavation as required, placing the fiberglass
manhole in the proper orientation for the sewer pipes, and pouring mass concrete
around the base of the manhole, typically at least 1 foot thick and 1 foot wider than the
manhole diameter all around. After an initial set, the excavation would be backfilled and
compacted while the dewatering system remained operating. The interior base of the
manhole would be finished with additional concrete, formed to provide a flow channel
with built up concrete haunches to direct the flow. After construction was complete, the
dewatering system would be removed and the ground water would return to seek its
own level. Design was typically conservative with satuarated ground assumed up to
finished grade. We had never had any problems with this construction, but the engineers
managing the office one day decided that a 2-way reinforcing steel mat was required in
the concrete base to resist unopposed hydrostatic forces that could cause the cured
concrete to fail. I was assigned to determine what reinforcement was necessary. I
stated that none was necessary as the weight of the manhole, concrete base, manhole
lid and frame and the soil surcharge overcame the bouyant forces, the net force was
downward and any resulting bending stress in the concrete was within the limits
allowed by the ACI plain concrete building code. This resulted in much heated
discussion and agravation. I finally told management that if they sincerely believed the
reinforcement was necessary, they should just direct the crews to install the
reinforcement and they wouldnt get any arguments, however I believed it was not


Why Buoyancy Forces Cannot Be Ignored

necessary. The bad feelings resulting from this situation eventually led me to find
emplyment elsewhere, but to this day I wonder if their thoughts about unopposed
hydrostatic forces had any merit.

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