Jobsite: Dealing with Concrete Joints

By Ray Thompson, Jr.

One of the most perplexing segments of the commercial flooring installation is how to handle joints in a concrete slab. Flooring manufacturer’s insist flooring contractors honor all joints that are active (moving) and to cover all dormant (non-moving) joints. The general contractor, architects, designers or owners do not want to place a joint cover down the middle of the room just to accommodate the flooring manufacturer, nor do want to deal with the aesthetics left by the joint cover.

With fast-track construction, lack of environmental controls, concrete joints are going to keep moving long after the structure is occupied. Just how do you know whether a concrete joint is active or dormant? You cannot look at a concrete joint and make that determination. Just how long will the concrete movement be a problem? We know that 80% of the concrete movement peaks once the slab stabilizes — normally in 6-9 months, but has been known to move for as long as three years after the temperature and humidity has been normalized.

In this article we are going to look at this dilemma and what needs to be done with joints. Cracks in concrete cannot be prevented entirely, but they can be controlled and minimized by properly designed joints.

Active concrete joint that was prepared only to find movement.
Active concrete joint that was prepared only to find movement.

Why Concrete Cracks

Concrete is weak in tension and, therefore, if it’s natural tendency to shrink is restrained, tensile stresses that exceed its tensile strength can develop, resulting in cracking.

At early ages, before the concrete dries out, most cracking is caused by temperature changes or by the slight contraction that takes place as concrete sets and hardens. Later, as the concrete dries, it will shrink further and either an additional crack will form, or existing cracks will become wider.

Joints provide relief from the tensile stresses, are easy to maintain and are less objectionable than uncontrolled or irregular cracks.

Concrete cracks that are wider than .035” lose their aggregate interlock and are potential problems waiting to happen.
Concrete cracks that are wider than .035” lose their aggregate interlock and are potential problems waiting to happen.

Types of Concrete Joints

Isolation or Expansion Joints – Isolation joints should be used wherever complete freedom of vertical and horizontal movement is required between the floor and adjoining building elements. Isolation joints should be used at junctions with walls, (not requiring lateral restraints from the slab), columns, drains, manholes and stairways. Isolation joints are formed by the insertion of preformed joint filler between the floor and the adjacent element. The joint material should extend the full depth of the slab and not protrude above it. Isolation joint are usually active joints and are rarely without movement as they permit independent vertical and horizontal movement between adjoining parts of the structure.

Construction Joints – Construction joints are placed in a slab to define the extent of individual placements, generally in conformity with a predetermined joint layout. They are typically placed at the end of a day’s work but may be required when concrete placement is stopped for longer than the setting time of concrete. Construction joints may be doweled, keyed or butted depending upon the intended usage of the slab. Regardless of the usage construction joints are generally active and should be treated as such.

Contraction or Control (Sawcut) – Sawcut contraction joints (control joints) are used to limit random, out of floor joint, floor slab cracking. These joints are usually on column lines, with intermediate joints located at equal spaces between column lines. These joints must be carefully designed and properly constructed if uncontrolled cracking of concrete slabs is to be avoided.

Depending upon the size of the large aggregate, the maximum spacing of contraction joints should be 24 to 36 times the thickness of the slab. For example, in a 4-inch [100mm] thick slab, the joint spacing should be about 10 feet [3 m]. It is further recommended that joint spacing be limited to a maximum of 15 feet [4.5 m]. The depth of the sawcut should be a minimum of ¼ the depth of the thickness of the slab and/or a minimum of 1 inch [25mm]. All construction joints should be square or nearly so and L-shaped panels should be avoided. Sawcut joints are generally cut 4 to 12 hours after the concrete has been finished. Contraction/control joints can be either active or dormant. Active contraction joints are caused by the slab not being dry or stabilized by temperature and humidity.

When the control joints are too far apart or there are no joints at all the concrete will develop its own joints. These cracks usually will quarter the slab between other joints.
When the control joints are too far apart or there are no joints at all the concrete will develop its own joints. These cracks usually will quarter the slab between other joints.

Concrete movement is caused by temperature and moisture and/or humidity. The movement from thermal coefficient is about twice that of moisture. This combined movement is a very small amount roughly 1/8-inch per 100 l/f per 5 degrees Fahrenheit. It is enough to affect the joints. For instance, with joints 10 feet apart this would represent about 1/64-inch of movement at each joint. Now imagine you have filled the joint with high compressive strength Portland-based patching compound restricting the slab movement. The movement is going to occur, so something has to give. The result will be additional cracking, more telegraphing of existing cracks or a pushing up of the patching compound.

The moisture side of movement is even more complex. Moisture in concrete causes expansion of the Portland cement, the only part of concrete that moves. If a slab is not entirely dry, water as a liquid will go to the bottom of the slab, causing it to expand at the bottom. The surface of the slab is exposed open elements which, normally is a drying condition, as the slab dries the surface of the slab shrinks. This effect is known as slab curl.  Slab curl is variable and will change as the slab continues to dry. Once the slab is dry the slab will go into equilibrium, this means the moisture content is equal from top to bottom. That is when the slab movement becomes dormant.

A concrete slab being readied for preparation at many of the control joints.
A concrete slab being readied for preparation at many of the control joints.

Flooring contractors will send their installation crew out and start the floor preparation with no idea of whether there is any potential for movement at the concrete joints. First, a calcium chloride test, done to ASTM F-1869 standards, will give you no indication of the amount of moisture down in the slab as it measures moisture movement at the surface of the slab down as far as about ¾”. The hygrometer probe test, (in-situ), done to ASTM F-2170 standards, will give you a more realistic look at the internal moisture content. If you were to do both tests and the calcium chloride was indicating a slab dry enough to install over and the hygrometer probe test was high you could expect the slab to be curled and the joints to be active. Any high compressive Portland-based filler, used to fill any active joints, will be pushed up showing through the finished floor only to be found on the deficiency (punch) list.

Be sure to thoroughly clean out and vacuum the entire depth of a saw cut. Getting the floor patch, the entire depth of the saw cut is imperative.
Be sure to thoroughly clean out and vacuum the entire depth of a saw cut. Getting the floor patch, the entire depth of the saw cut is imperative.

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