CONCRETE CRACKS CAUSES AND TYPES BASIC INFORMATION

What causes concrete cracks? Several factors, when combined, can lead to restraint cracks in two-way reinforced-concrete slabs. Concrete slabs tend to shorten, and structurally stiff elements such as walls, elevator and stairwell cores, and columns can restrain the slab.

When the tensile stress exceeds the tensile strength of the concrete, a restraint crack occurs (ACI Committee 224, 1997). Depending on many factors, including the stiffness of the restraining elements and the length of the slab spans, multiple restraint shrinkage cracks may form.

The specific factors that cause shortening of concrete slabs include:
• Shrinkage of concrete
• Creep of concrete due to sustained loads (including precompression)
• Elastic shortening (prestressed slabs only)
• Fall in temperature


For a typical parking structure in Southern California with 70% ambient humidity and a moderate temperature variation of 40°F, the contributions of the above factors to slab shortening are as given in Figure 35.1 and Table 35.1. It is noteworthy that two thirds of slab shortening is typically due to concrete shrinkage.


Axial creep and elastic shortening, which are the only direct consequences of post-tensioning, contribute about one sixth of the total shortening.

To appreciate the magnitude of shortenings that are likely to occur in a post-tensioned slab, consider the example shown in Figure 35.2. For the 200 × 100-ft slab shown, the shortenings (if free to take place) are estimated to be 0.8 in. per 100 ft of slab length.

Obviously, this shortening cannot materialize in most cases, because the slabs are commonly tied to supporting structural elements. The interaction of the slab with its restraining structural elements is the crucial factor in the formation of cracks.

Referring to the breakdown of shortenings in Figure 35.2, only 18% of the calculated shortening is due to post-tensioning.

FIGURE 35.2 Reflected ceiling view of slabs: (a) post-tensioned slab; (b) reinforced concrete slab.

The balance is common to nonprestressed as well as post-tensioned slabs. This shows that little difference exists between post-tensioned and nonprestressed slabs as far as crack initiation is concerned; however, crack propagation is fundamentally different between the two types of slabs.


Prominent characteristics of cracks in unbonded post-tensioned slabs as compared to regular reinforced concrete are the following:

• Cracks are fewer in number; instead of a multitude of hairline cracks, fewer cracks form.
• Cracks are generally wider; they are spaced farther apart and generally extend deeper into the slab.

In regular reinforced concrete, the spacing between cracks is of the order of slab depth, whereas in post tensioned slabs it is more related to the span length and the overall dimensions of the slabs. In most cases, crack spacing is more than one quarter of the shorter slab span.

• Cracks are normally longer and continuous, and continuous cracks may extend over one span and beyond. In nonprestressed concrete, cracks are generally shorter in length.

• Cracks commonly do not coincide with locations of maximum moments. Restraining cracks do not necessarily develop at the bottom of midspan or the top of supports where the bending moments are maximum.

• Cracks occur at axially weak locations. Axially weak regions are typically found at construction joints, pour strips, cold joints, paths with reduced discontinuities in slab, and, finally, where precompression is reduced either due to termination of tendons or friction losses in tendons.

Figure 35.2 compares typical crack patterns on the soffit of an interior panel of a two-way slab construction. For the regular reinforced-concrete structure, the shrinkage cracks are shown coinciding with the locations of maximum tension.

Unbonded post-tensioned slabs generally exhibit poorer cracking performance as a result of lesser bonded reinforcement, which mobilizes the concrete in the immediate vicinity of a crack. Hence, a series of large slab segments separated by wide cracks rather than well-distributed small cracks is produced unless either the unbonded post-tensioning is accompanied by a sufficient nonprestressed reinforcement or inplane restraining actions are present that result in a similar improvement of the crack distribution.

Examples of common cracks in slabs, columns, and walls due to restrained movement are illustrated below. Due to the variety of member types and geometry and the array of crack initiation factors, it is imperative that each concrete member be reviewed individually and as part of the overall framing system during the design detailing process.

Concentrated load application and vulnerable member joint conditions may require a very localized review of concrete detailing. On the other hand, the overall framing layout may cause indirect load transfer due to geometry or member incompatibility, resulting in concrete cracking based on overall behavior of the framing system.

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