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Evaluating cracks

To repair cracks in masonry properly, you must first determine what caused them
By Bruce A. Suprenant

Figure 1. To measure the width of cracks, most
investigators use a crack comparator. A
graduated magnifying device is more
accurate, but costs $50 to $100. The crack
comparator usually is free from firms that
investigate failures.

racks in masonry can scar a building’s architectural appearance. They can be the
cause of leaks from wind-driven rain. Or
they can be the first telltale signs of a potential wall collapse. Thus no crack should go unexamined. For every crack, a trained investigator should
record, with photographs and sketches, the following
information:

C

and pattern of cracks are the most important in determining what caused them. In the drawings shown
here, the causes of some typical cracks in brick and
block masonry are explained, based on the location
and pattern of the cracks.

• Location on the building

Measuring crack width
To measure the width of cracks, most investigators
use a crack comparator although a graduated magnifying device is more accurate. Both of these devices are
shown in Figure 1. The crack comparator is easy to
use, sufficiently accurate for most jobs, and usually is
supplied free by firms specializing in failure investigations. The graduated magnifiers cost $50 to $100.

• Pattern (horizontal, vertical, straight diagonal, or
stepped diagonal)
• Length
• Width (uniform or tapered; if tapered note how)
• Depth (through paint, plaster, or entire wall)
• Age (clean crack indicates new; coated with paint or
dirt indicates old)
•Moving crack or dormant crack
Based on this information, an investigator can assess
the cause of the crack, how harmful it is, and how best
to repair it, if repair is deemed necessary. The location

When is a crack too wide?
Whether a crack is too wide depends on the material, the type of building, the climate, and the type of
crack. If the owner spared no cost on the building’s architectural design, cracks that are 0.01 inch wide may
be totally unacceptable. But a homeowner with a 20year-old brick house would be happy—and lucky—to
have cracks that are only 0.01 inch wide.
According to the Portland Cement Association
(PCA), a crack that is 0.010 to 0.015 inch wide neither
hurts the surface appearance nor alarms the viewer

004 <CW ≤ 0.012 <CW ≤ 0.012 Extensive (Interior exposure. Based on these values. So how does one evaluate the width of cracks? Table 1 lists typical tolerable crack widths for reinforced concrete.016 0.004 Source: Modified from Ref. dry) Severe 0.008 Where watertightness is required 0. 3.016 CW > 0. Norwegian tests show that wind-driven rain doesn’t enter cracks narrower than 0.016 Cause: Vertical deflection of concrete beam (Ref.008 <CW ≤ 0. These tolerable crack widths also should be reasonable for reinforced masonry structures.004 inch (Ref. CW CW ≤ 0. a way to classify and evaluate crack widths in masonry is given in Table 2. 2). INCHES Interior exposure Dry atmosphere Wet or moist atmosphere 0. wet) 0. once the investigator classifies the Cause: Shrinkage of mortar and concrete masonry units . 1). 3. Using Table 2.TABLE 1 TOLERANCE CRACK WIDTHS.012 Exterior exposure 0.004 0.008 Fine (Exterior exposure) Medium (Interior exposure. modified from Ref. Even cracks wider than this may not allow enough water penetration to damage masonry or the building. TABLE 2 CLASSIFICATION OF CRACK WIDTHS Classification Very fine (Watertight) Crack Width.

For example. Live cracks are created by repeated overloading or by temperature or moisture changes that continually cause the crack to open and close. Dormant cracks can be filled with epoxy or cement.014 inch wide would be classified as “extensive” and usually allowed only in a dry interior wall. but a dormant crack has stopped moving. a new crack parallel to the repaired crack probably will occur. every day or every week. but active cracks that are still moving should be filled with a flexible sealant. this diagonal shear crack is plastered to determine if the crack is active or dormant. then it can be filled with a rigid filler. How do you tell if a crack is active or dormant? There are three ways. the patch will crack at a later date. If they’re repaired with a rigid material.014-inchwide crack occurs in an exterior wall it probably should be repaired. Working cracks. Dormant cracks tend to be caused by a temporary overload. crack. use a waterproof marker. Do this at three or four places along the crack. If the crack is dormant. If the crack is active. a crack that is 0. Always measure the crack width at the same location. An active crack may open or close. The easiest is to measure the crack width with a crack comparator at regular time intervals. Beware of the moving crack The difference between an active or working crack and a dormant crack is important. On exterior walls. he or she also has identified the allowable exposure for that crack. should be filled with flexible sealants. Caused by lateral loads. Draw a line across the crack to mark where you measured it.Figure 2. they’ll only crack again. If the filler is stronger than the masonry. on the other hand. Record both crack width and date of recording. such as epoxy or cement. Cause: Foundation settlement or soil heave . If a 0.

Suprenant is a consulting engineer. Use hot water to speed the set of the patch. and a contributing writer to this magazine. ASTM. one of the plastic pieces moves. and if it freezes it can spall the masonry. Copeland. Skokie. use a nonshrink patching material. ACI Manual of Concrete Practice. Birkeland and S. Part 3. originally at zero. Clayford T. 4. about 24 hours for epoxy). Grimm. Box 19150. Building Movements and Joints. the other piece has a grid system with a zero mark at the center. E. The red Evaluate cracks early If cracks aren’t examined. Figure 3. A two-piece crack monitor that sells for less than $15 also can be used to detect crack movement (Figure 3). Sevendsen. One of the two plastic pieces has red cross hairs. the tape holding the two pieces together is cut. they can grow from an eyesore into a costly headache. P. “Masonry Cracks: A Review of the Literature. Another inexpensive method is to spot patch the crack with plaster (Figure 2). D. Laid across a crack and adhered to the wall on both sides of the crack. Cracks are a warning that shouldn’t be ignored. The two pieces come taped together so that the intersection of the red cross hairs on the one piece coincide with the zero mark on the grid of the other piece. “Control of Cracking in Concrete Structures. ASTM.. Philadelphia. A cracked patch shows that the crack is active. 5.. slide over the grid system indicating the amount of horizontal and vertical crack movement. 1989. 3.O. “Norwegian Test Methods for Rain Penetration through Masonry Walls. If the crack moves. American Concrete Institute. Construction. References 1. Design. evaluated. Some cracks can even lead to veneer or wall failures. PA 19103. MI 48219. 1982. IL 60077. February 1957. Bruce A. and Maintenance.” Masonry: Materials. Be sure the patching material doesn’t crack from drying shrinkage. O. and—if necessary—repaired. Now. The monitor is laid across a crack and each end is attached to the wall with epoxy or a fast-setting glue.cross hairs. The Aberdeen Group All rights reserved .” ACI 224.” Journal of the American Concrete Institute. 1916 Race St. cause efflorescence. the red cross hairs on one of the two pieces becomes offset from the center of the grid on the other piece. Both the amount and direction of movement can be observed. Usually the monitor is checked at the same time each day. “Shrinkage and Temperature Stresses in Masonry. 2. 5420 Old Orchard Rd. if either side of the crack moves. R. He also took the photographs for this article. Portland Cement Association. The larger cracks get. 1963. After the adhesive cures (about 15 minutes for fast-setting glue. Water in turn can corrode metal components. STP 320. STP 992. 1988. the more winddriven rain they let into the wall. Note the date the patch was placed and inspect it at regular intervals to see if it has cracked. this two-piece crack monitor detects crack movement. PUBLICATION #M900076 Copyright © 1990.” Symposium on Masonry Testing. an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Detroit.