So, you want to put in a patio, driveway or sidewalk, and you are going to use concrete. A very wise choice, we can all agree. One thing to know before you put in your concrete all concrete cracks. You say, “Wait a minute, I’ve seen concrete that doesn’t have any cracks. How can you say all concrete cracks?” Concrete typically consists of cement, rock, sand and water. In the fresh, or plastic stage, concrete is fluid.
By Kenneth Wayne Meyer
As it hardens, the cement and water begin to shrink, and the stresses created by this shrinking cannot be overcome by the small amount of strength developed by the young concrete. If you place the concrete on a windy day, the top may start to harden before the bottom, which will cause the concrete to shrink unevenly (plastic shrinkage cracks.) Also, if the ground underneath the concrete is not level, there will be an unequal dragging force while the concrete shrinks, also causing stresses the new concrete cannot withstand. So, how do you get concrete with no VISIBLE cracks in it? By following a few simple steps before and after you place the concrete, you will have a very nice looking structure that will require very little maintenance, and give you years of enjoyment.
Before you place the concrete, make sure your subgrade (ground beneath the concrete) is thoroughly compacted and level. The absolute best thing to do is get a garden tiller, till the soil to a depth of 6 inches, then rent a hand operated compactor and compact the soil vigorously. This will help ensure there are no soft spots. You can apply a layer of cushion sand if you want. This will help achieve a totally level surface and allow a consistent friction to the shrinking concrete. Four inches of washed sand ought to be plenty for the cushion. If you use a wire mesh for reinforcement, use panels and not rolls. The rolled wire mesh is extremely difficult to keep in the top half of the concrete, where it HAS to be in order to do its job. You can also use reinforcement bars (rebar) tied together with steel wire, but spacing and size requirements vary based on load and soil conditions, so it is hard to recommend a standard set up for that. If you do use rebar, it is essential that you keep it in the top half of the concrete. You can use stones, broken brick or you can buy plastic chairs that the steel will sit on to keep it in the proper position when you place the concrete. You can also have the ready mix concrete company supply fibers to the mix. These fibers are usually nylon or polypropylene. They help keep the cracking of the concrete on a micro level instead of a macro level (where you can see the cracks with your naked eye.) Steel reinforcement also helps keep cracking in check, but if cracking does occur, the steel, when properly placed in the concrete, will hold the concrete together, whereas fibers will not do that.
Okay, you’ve got your subgrade ready, you have placed a plastic vapor barrier on the subgrade for slabs that will support dwellings, your steel is sitting nicely on your plastic chairs in the proper position, and you now have 14 of your closest friends on their way over to help you place the concrete you have coming. When the concrete arrives, if you don’t have a vapor barrier, wet the subgrade without puddling the water so that the water in the concrete will not be absorbed by the dry subgrade, thus causing uneven drying and the dreaded plastic shrinkage cracks. Once the concrete is placed, make sure to protect it from high winds and direct sunlight so the concrete will dry evenly from top to bottom. You are now ready to perform the most important step in preventing noticeable cracking. Contraction joints are the secret to no cracking! By placing contraction joints that are at least 1/4th the depth of the concrete and on intervals of 25 to 30 times the depth of the concrete (usually easiest with a jointing trowel or tool while the concrete is still fresh), you will almost ensure there will be no visible cracking in your concrete. If your slab is 4 inches thick, the joints must be at least 1 inch deep and placed every 100 to 120 inches. If you cannot use a jointing tool to put the joints in, you can hire a concrete sawing contractor to do this for you. Make sure he cuts the joints a minimum of 1/4th the slab depth. This jointing method helps the concrete crack at the weakest point. This is why it is so important for the joints to be deep enough. Variations in subgrade levels could cause greater stress in the concrete in an area where the joint isn’t deep enough, and the concrete will crack outside the joint. Once your joints are in place, and the concrete has cured for about two weeks, you are ready to seal the joints. This will prevent water from migrating into the subgrade and expanding and contracting, or getting into the joints and freezing, causing the water to expand and breaking out the concrete around the joints. You now have a concrete structure that will serve you well.