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Contraction and Expansion

Materials expand or contract when subjected to changes in temperature. Most materials expand when they are heated, and contract when they are cooled. When free to deform, concrete will expand or contract due to fluctuations in temperature. The size of the concrete structure whether it is a bridge, a highway, or a building does not make it immune to the effects of temperature. The expansion and contraction with changes in temperature occur regardless of the structure’s cross-sectional area.

Concrete expands slightly as temperature rises and contracts as temperature falls. Temperature changes may be caused by environmental conditions or by cement hydration (the exothermic chemical process in which the cement reacts with the water in a mixture of concrete to create the calcium silicate hydrate binder and other compounds). An average value for the coefficient of thermal expansion of concrete is about 10 millionths per degree Celsius (10x10-6/C), although values ranging from 7 to 12 millionths per degree Celsius have been observed. This amounts to a length change of 1.7 centimeters for every 30.5 meters of concrete subjected to a rise or fall of 38 degrees Celsius.

Thermal expansion and contraction of concrete varies primarily with aggregate type (shale, limestone, siliceous gravel, granite), cementitious material content, water cement ratio, temperature range, concrete age, and ambient relative humidity. Of these factors, aggregate type has the greatest influence on the expansion and contraction of concrete.

Severe problems develop in massive structures where heat cannot be dissipated. Thermal contraction on the concrete’s surface without a corresponding change in its interior temperature will cause a thermal differential and potentially lead to cracking. Temperature changes that result in shortening will crack concrete members that are held in place or restrained by another part of the structure, internal reinforcement or by the ground. For example, a long restrained concrete section is allowed to drop in temperature. As the temperature drops, the concrete tends to shorten, but cannot as it is restrained along its base length. This causes the concrete to be stressed, and eventually crack.

Joints are the most effective way to control cracking. If a sizable section of concrete is not provided with properly spaced joints to accommodate temperature movement, the concrete will crack in a regular pattern related to the temperature and restraint directory. Control joints are grooved, formed, or sawed into sidewalks, driveways, pavements, floors, and walls so that cracking will occur in these joints rather than in a random manner. Contraction joints provide for movement in the plane of a slab or wall, and induce cracking caused by thermal shrinkage at preselected locations. One of the most economical methods for making a contraction joint is by simply sawing a continuous cut in the top of the slab with a masonry saw.

Wood floor surfaces may react slightly different to the conditions. Solid wood contracts and expands with the weather. Warm and humid weather causes expansion. Cool and dry causes contraction. This is an important consideration in our Florida environment. Solid wood absorbs moisture. When it does, it expands and can buckle, giving it a wavy appearance. When exposed to a dry period, it contracts, sometimes opening gaps between the planks or along the wall.

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