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Part 1 of a 3-part series

Control of shrinkage and curling

in slabs on grade
By Robert F. Ytterberg

Shrinkage problems: Causes and cures

Shrinkage cracking and up- dustrial floor slabs on grade. These prob- everything possible has been done to
ward curling, which result lems can be caused by: minimize shrinkage. Shrinkage testing
• Moist subgrades should be every bit as important as com-
from shrinkage differentials, pressive strength testing for enclosed
• Dry air on the upper slab surface
are common troubles for en- slabs on grade.
• Excess water needed to make con- Compressive strength is overempha-
closed industrial slabs on crete workable but not needed to hy-
grade. The most important sized. The commonly specified 28-day
drate the cement compressive strength has been increased
factor contributing to shrink- Evaporation of moisture from the up- to as much as 5000 psi to permit the re-
age is the amount of water per surface of the slab causes drying duction of calculated slab thickness. De-
per unit volume of concrete. shrinkage. Slab edges curl upward be- spite a lower water-cement ratio, these
cause the top of the slab dries to a lower higher 28-day-strength concretes usually
Understanding this, design- moisture content than the bottom of the have a higher total water content and thus
ers should select materials slab, and therefore shrinks more than the have increased shrinkage. This required
and specify concrete to mini- bottom. early strength development, which aggra-
mize shrinkage and therefore Designers often overlook the effects of vates the problem, is supported by the
shrinkage and curling due to moisture American Concrete Institute (ACI) 302
reduce curling and cracking. loss from slab surfaces because of the requirement for a minimum of 1800 psi at
great emphasis placed on compressive 3 days (Ref. 2).
ndustrial slabs are not covered with car- strength and slump testing and because of
I pet or tile. Since the concrete surface is
the wearing surface, cracking and curling
the lack of information on curling. But
owners expect floor slabs to be relatively
Clean, low-shrinkage aggregates are
less available today than 25 years ago be-
cause environmental considerations re-
seriously reduce their productive and aes- free of shrinkage cracks and free of curled strict quarry operations.
thetic value. This article deals primarily edges at control and construction joints. Floor slabs are being built on higher-
with shrinkage and upward curling of Designers specify control joints at clos- moisture-content subgrades as the cost of
these industrial slabs on grade that are un- er spacings today mostly because of the good industrial land has risen. Moist sub-
der roofs and inside buildings where they Portland Cement Association (PCA) rec- grades increase the moisture gradient
are not exposed to the sun. Most of the ommendations given in Reference 1, first through the slab, and this increases up-
principles, however, also apply to other published in 1978. The additional joints ward curling at free edges.
flatwork. For example, highway and air- recommended by that publication reduce
port pavements, exposed to the sun, are shrinkage cracking. But curling and break- Defining drying shrinkage
subject to both moisture and temperature down of joint edges, at the increased num- In this article drying shrinkage of con-
gradients. For simplicity, the moisture ber of joints, is often a bigger maintenance crete is defined as the reduction in con-
gradients are expressed in equivalent de- problem than the shrinkage cracks elimi- crete volume resulting from a loss of wa-
grees per unit of slab thickness. nated by the extra joints. ter from the concrete after hardening.
Concepts developed here do not apply Unfortunately, enclosed slabs on grade Drying shrinkage is believed (Ref. 3) to
to slabs on grade for tilt-up construction made with portland cement concrete have be caused principally by the contraction
until after the panels have been raised and worse shrinkage and curling problems to- of the calcium silicate gel component of
the roof constructed. To improve floor day than 25 years ago for several reasons: the cement paste when the moisture con-
slabs for tilt-up buildings, cast the wall Shrinkage is neglected. Basic recom- tent of the gel is decreased.
panels on waste slabs rather than on the mendations in References 1 and 2 fail to All practical portland cement concrete
finished floor slab. emphasize the need for low-shrinkage shrinks about 0.04% to 0.08% due to drying
Shrinkage cracking and upward slab concrete for floor slabs on grade. They (Ref. 4), but restraint by reinforcement can
edge curling are common in enclosed in- imply that if slump is low, then almost reduce drying shrinkage by up to one-half.
Effects of aggregate size Table 1. Cumulative Effect of Adverse Factors on Shrinkage
To provide the workability needed for (from Reference 7, Tremper and Spellman)
placement, practical concrete mixes al-
ways contain more water than is needed to Effect of departing from Equivalent
hydrate the cement. When this excess wa- use of best materials increase in Cumulative effect
and workmanship shrinkage %
ter evaporates, the cement paste shrinks.
To fully restrain shrinkage of the cement Concrete temperature at
paste, concrete should contain the maxi- discharge allowed to
mum practical amount of an incompress- reach 80° F, whereas with 8 1.00 1.08 1.08
ible and clean aggregate. reasonable precautions,
If the dry-rodded volume of an incom- temperature of 60° F could
pressible and clean coarse aggregate was have been maintained
equal to the concrete volume, then the
coarse aggregate would fully restrain ce- Used 6- to 7-inch slump
where 3- to 4-inch slump 10 1.08 1.10 1.19
ment-paste shrinkage. That is never the
case, though, for conventional floor slab could have been used
concrete because such a stony concrete Excessive haul in transit
mix would be totally unworkable. mixer, too long a waiting
In actual practice, the dry-rodded vol- period at jobsite, or too 10 1.19 1.10 1.31
ume of the coarse aggregate is only 50% many revolutions at mixing
to 60% of the concrete volume if 1⁄2-inch- speed
maximum size aggregate is used, but can
be as high as 75% of the concrete volume Use of 3⁄4-inch-maximum
if 11⁄2-inch-maximum size aggregate is size aggregate under 25 1.31 1.25 1.64
used (Ref. 5). Therefore, using a larger conditions where 11⁄2-inch
maximum size coarse aggregate will re- could have been used
duce shrinkage if the aggregate itself is Use of cement having
low in shrinkage. relatively high shrinkage 25 1.64 1.25 2.05
Selecting the best mix
Water demand of the separate materials Excessive “dirt” in aggre-
used in concrete is the major determinant gate due to insufficient
25 2.05 1.25 2.56
of concrete shrinkage. Variations in water washing or contamination
demand caused by the separate concrete during handling
ingredients have a far greater effect on Use of aggregates of poor
concrete shrinkage than does the common inherent quality with 50 2.56 1.50 3.84
concern over the variation in slump. respect to shrinkage
Research on shrinkage (Ref. 6) shows
there is a cumulative effect on shrinkage Use of admixture that
50 3.84 1.50 5.00
of making poor choices in the selection produces high shrinkage
of material to be used. One study (Ref. 7) Total increase Summation Cumulative 400%
of eight factors that influence the water 183%
content of concrete concluded that their
influence on shrinkage could total 400%
(Table 1). discussed later, slab warping increases as Water reducers and shrinkage
Concrete made with 3⁄4-inch-maximum the modulus of elasticity E of concrete Frequently it is assumed that high-range
size aggregate will shrink about 30% more increases. Unfortunately, low-shrinkage water reducers (HRWRs) or superplasticiz-
than concrete with 11⁄2-inch-maximum size aggregates usually have a high modulus ers will reduce shrinkage in proportion to
aggregate. But concrete placing costs may of elasticity and aggregate is the main their ability to reduce water. This is not the
increase slightly when larger aggregate is determinant of the concrete’s modulus. case. Few designers and specifiers realize
used. Designers, therefore, should specify Designers must compromise between that ASTM C 494, “Standard Specification
that the maximum size coarse aggregate be specifying low-modulus concrete and for Chemical Admixtures for Concrete,”
slightly less than one-third the slab thick- low-shrinkage concrete. To select the (Ref. 8) allows concrete made with admix-
ness, with the understanding that the small best possible mix, specify that shrinkage tures to have shrinkage 35% greater than
increase in cost will be offset through low- tests be made of several concrete mixes, the same concrete without the admixture.
er shrinkage and a better floor slab. each with different aggregates and ce- This permitted increase in shrinkage when
However, the designer often has to ments, to obtain concrete with the lowest admixtures are used means that the reduc-
make tradeoffs. For example, as will be shrinkage for a particular job. tion in water achieved by using water re-
ducers is no guarantee that concrete shrink- low-slump concrete properly cured in a shrinkage reduction by specifying low-
age also will be reduced. The only way to moist environment, with or without rein- shrinkage, stony concrete mixes with
know if a particular water reducer will re- forcement, will have minimum shrinkage large maximum size coarse aggregate.
sult in lower shrinkage is to test it with a and few cracks.” The reader is left to as-
particular mix design. sume that if slump is kept low, then Early strength and shrinkage
everything necessary for low shrinkage Since shrinkage of cement paste is the
Slump and shrinkage has been accomplished. However, sub- primary cause of concrete shrinkage, it
ACI and PCA literature emphasize stantial research evidence (Ref. 6) shows seems appropriate to choose a cement that
low-slump concrete, thereby implying that slump control is only a small factor in produces a hardened paste with low
that low slump is the key to low shrink- the shrinkage equation. shrinkage in order to reduce slab-on-
age. PCA’s “Concrete Floors on Ground” Instead of expecting slump to control grade shrinkage.
(Ref. 1, page 19) states: “Slabs made of shrinkage, designers should effect real Researchers have emphasized (Ref. 6)
coarseness of grind and low C3A content
of cement as important to low-shrinkage
concrete. However, in an effort to obtain
the 1800-psi 3-day strengths formerly re-
quired by ACI 302, Types I and III ce-
ments are frequently specified (Figure 1).
Since they are finer and have relatively
high C3A content, they contribute to un-
desirable shrinkage. The designer who
wants to limit shrinkage should specify
Type II cement, which is coarser-ground
and with less C3A, so long as the amount
of traffic on the slab can be controlled at
early ages. Figure 2 shows that Type II
cement concrete catches up in strength
with Types I and III at 60 to 80 days and
goes on to surpass them.
Figure 1. Concrete made from different types of cement gains early-age strength ACI 302 should require a minimum 3-
at different rates. (From the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Concrete Manual) day concrete strength only for formed, el-
evated structural slabs or for tilt-up slabs
on ground, where early strength really is
needed. I believe that ACI 302 should re-
strict the C3A content of cements to 8% or
10% to reduce slab-on-grade shrinkage.

28-day strength and shrinkage

In addition to the 3-day minimum
strength requirement, ACI 302’s 28-day
minimum strength requirement of 4000
and 4500 psi for Class 4, 5, and 6 indus-
trial floor slabs on grade magnifies
shrinkage problems.
ACI 302’s mix proportioning Method A
(but not Method B) protects the owner-
user of floors from concrete floors made
with too little cement to properly finish or
to provide minimum strength for normal
construction loads. This protection is in the
form of minimum cement requirements
adopted many years ago (see Table 2).
The usual way concrete suppliers meet
ACI 302’s 3- and 28-day strength require-
ments is to use a high-early-strength ce-
Figure 2. At about 60 to 80 days, concrete made with Type II cement reaches the ment, add a water reducer, or add more ce-
same strength as concrete made with Types I and III. (From the U.S. Bureau of ment. We have already discussed how these
Reclamation Concrete Manual) measures adversely increase shrinkage.
What is the logic behind a 4000- and
4500-psi 28-day strength requirement for Table 2. Minimum Cement Requirements
industrial single-course floors when ACI
302 requires only a 3500-psi 28-day Nominal maximum Cement content,
strength for almost all other floors, includ- size of aggregate, inches pounds per cubic yard
ing Class 7, the base for two-course in- 11⁄2 470
dustrial floors? The argument most fre- 1 520
quently heard is that the higher 28-day 3
⁄4 540
strengths will assure greater surface abra- 1
⁄2 590
sion resistance for Class 4, 5, and 6 sin- 3
⁄8 610
gle-course industrial floors. This is untrue,
as will be explained. Also, this higher 28-
day strength requirement may lead to in-
creased shrinkage. crete will reach 4200 psi at 90 days, an in- In view of the accumulated evidence
crease of 20%. Slabs on grade should (Ref. 6) that increased strength often is
Abrasion resistance continue to gain strength past 28 days be- obtained at the cost of increased shrink-
ACI 302 recognizes the importance of cause, when cast, they contain twice as age, it is doubtful that a saving of about
proper surface troweling and aggregate much water as is required for cement hy- 7% in slab thickness (typically about 1⁄2
hardness to good surface abrasion resistance dration and because moisture is retained inch) by specifying a 4500-psi instead of
and even specifies them. Surface abrasion by surface curing sealers. For applications a 3500-psi 28-day design strength is
resistance largely depends on the quality other than tilt-up slabs, the designer might worth the risk of increased shrinkage.
and amount of troweling and on the applica- use the higher strength in calculating slab
tion of cement-coated mineral hardeners to thickness, but only if design loads will not Shrinkage testing
the floor surface. In other words, abrasion be applied to the slab during its first 3 The designer should use shrinkage
resistance is a function of the water-cement months of life. tests of both cement and concrete to guide
ratio at the surface of the floor, and of the Instead of using a high design strength the selection of concrete materials and
quantity and quality of aggregate, not of the to minimize slab design thickness, de- mixes. Standardized shrinkage tests have
compressive strength of the concrete as signers might better consider other alter- been the subject of considerable study
measured from a 6x12-inch cylinder. natives. For example, using 8x8-inch base and debate (Ref. 6). The ASTM C 157
Since Chapter 7 of ACI 302 specifies plates for post loads instead of 4x4-inch method (Ref. 11) is a laboratory test that
the minimum acceptable amount of trow- plates would make it possible to reduce does not always correlate well with field
eling, the 4000- and 4500-psi 28-day slab thickness by more than 1 inch, ac- experience. I believe ASTM should adopt
strength requirements should be reduced cording to PCA design aids (Ref. 10).
to 3500 psi because 6x12-inch cylinder
strength does not correlate with floor sur-
face abrasion resistance. Also, the higher
strength can cause increased shrinkage.
Figure 3 shows how abrasion resistance
of slabs made from the same concrete can
vary, depending on the finishing method.

Calculating slab thickness

Controlling compressive strength in
slabs on grade assures that the slab is
thick enough to carry the imposed loads.
Designers calculate and specify slab-on-
grade thickness using a square root func-
tion of design compressive strength to
convert it to modulus of rupture, which is
then reduced by a factor of safety and
used to find the required slab thickness
from various published design aids (Ref.
9). When calculating slab-on-grade thick-
ness, the designer should consider using Figure 3. Comparison of surface abrasion resistance of two slabs made from the
the 90-day concrete strength rather than same concrete mix, having the same compressive strengths. Slab 1 was a com-
the 28-day strength, if the slabs will not mon, commercially finished slab, and Slab 2 had a hard-trowel, surface-hardened
be subjected to design loads during the finish. Three different ASTM C 799 abrasion test machines were used. The ball
first 90 days of their life. A typical slab on bearing machine reports the time it takes to reach a depth of 60 mils; the other
grade with 3500-psi 28-day strength con- two report abrasion depth after a 60-minute test period. (Adapted from work by
both a new laboratory shrinkage test us- 5. ACI 211.1-81, Revised 1984, “Stan-
ing cylindrical specimens that remain in dard Practice for Selecting Propor-
their molds until the start of shrinkage tions for Normal, Heavyweight, and For More Information
Mass Concrete,” ACI, 1984.
measurements, and a field shrinkage test For additional information about
as well. Detailed suggestions were pre- 6. Robert F. Ytterberg, “Shrinkage and slabs on grade, consult Designing
Curling of Slabs on Grade” (published
sented in Reference 6. Floor Slabs on Grade, by Boyd C.
in three parts), Concrete International,
Bazant’s cylinder mold shrinkage test April 1987, pp. 23-31; May 1987, pp. Ringo and Robert B. Anderson.
(Ref. 12) that gives meaningful results in 3 54-61; and June 1987, pp. 72-81. This comprehensive book pro-
weeks should be specified for initial shrink- 7. Bailey Tremper and D. L. Spellman, vides a single-source answer for se-
age testing. Kraii’s test (Ref. 13) that deter- “Shrinkage of Concrete—Comparison lecting the most cost-effective ap-
mines the cracking potential of a given con- of Laboratory and Field Performance,” proach for each job in order to
crete mix within 24 hours should be used Highway Research Record No. 3, achieve superior crack control, sta-
daily to detect any changes in the concrete 1963, pp. 30-61. bility, flatness, and overall strength.
as a job progresses. Kraii’s test method 8. ASTM C 494-90, Standard Specifica- The book features step-by-step pro-
should be supplemented with concrete tion for Chemical Admixtures for Con- cedures, as well as charts, tables, and
cylinder shrinkage specimens made each crete, 1991 Annual Book of ASTM Stan- equations. For more information and
dards, ASTM, Vol. 04.02, pp. 254-269.
day on slabs requiring more than 1,000 cu- to order, see the advertisement on
bic yards of concrete. 9. ACI 360.1R-92, “Design of Slabs on page 843 of this issue.
Grade,” ACI, 1992.
10. Robert G. Packard, Slab Thickness
Editor's note: This three-part series
Design for Industrial Concrete Floors
has been condensed and updated
on Grade, PCA, 1976.
from Ref. 6. Parts two and three will Robert F. Ytterberg is president of Kalman
appear in December and January. 11. ASTM C 157-89, Standard Test
Method for Length Change of Hardened Floor Co., Evergreen, Colo., a national
References subcontractor specializing in construction
Hydraulic Cement Mortar and Concrete,
1. Concrete Floors on Ground, 1991 Annual Book of ASTM Standards, of exposed concrete floors for industrial
2nd ed., Portland Cement Associa- ASTM, Vol. 04.01, pp. 101-106. and warehouse use. He is a member and
tion (PCA), 1983.
12. Z. P. Bazant, F. H. Wittmann, J. K. former chairman of the American Concrete
2. ACI 302.1R-89, “Guide for Concrete Kim, and F. Alou, “Statistical Extrapo- Institute Committee 360, Design of Slabs
Floor and Slab Construction,” Ameri- lation of Shrinkage Data—Part I: Re-
can Concrete Institute (ACI), 1989. on Grade, and a former member of Com-
gression,” ACI Materials Journal, Jan- mittee 302, Concrete Floor Construction.
3. George W. Washa, “Volume uary-February 1987, pp. 20-33.
Changes and Creep,” Significance of 13. Paul Kraii, “A Proposed Test to
Tests and Properties of Concrete and Determine the Cracking Potential
Concrete Aggregates, STP-169, Due to Drying Shrinkage of Con-
ASTM, 1955, pp. 115-128. crete,” Concrete Construction,
4. Volume Changes of Concrete, PCA, September 1985, pp. 775-778.

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