The Basics of Concrete

Sometimes it helps to understand the foundation before you start adding to it.


In its simplest form, concrete is a mixture of paste and aggregates, or rocks. The paste, composed of portland cement and water, coats the surface of the fine (small) and coarse (larger) aggregates. Through a chemical reaction called hydration, the paste hardens and gains strength to form the rock-like mass known as concrete. Within this process lies the key to a remarkable trait of concrete: it’s plastic and malleable when newly mixed, strong and durable when hardened. These qualities explain why one material, concrete, can build skyscrapers, bridges, sidewalks and superhighways, houses and dams.

Proportioning is the key to achieving a strong, durable concrete rests in the careful proportioning and mixing of the ingredients. A mixture that does not have enough paste to fill all the voids between the aggregates will be difficult to place and will produce rough surfaces and porous concrete. A mixture with an excess of cement paste will be easy to place and will produce a smooth surface; however, the resulting concrete is not cost-effective and can more easily crack.

Portland cement’s chemistry comes to life in the presence of water. Cement and water form a paste that coats each particle of stone and sand—the aggregates. Through a chemical reaction called hydration, the cement paste hardens and gains strength. The quality of the paste determines the character of the concrete. The strength of the paste, in turn, depends on the ratio of water to cement. The water-cement ratio is the weight of the mixing water divided by the weight of the cement. High-quality concrete is produced by lowering the water-cement ratio as much as possible without sacrificing the workability of fresh concrete, allowing it to be properly placed, consolidated, and cured. A properly designed mixture possesses the desired workability for the fresh concrete and the required durability and strength for the hardened concrete. Typically, a mix is about 10 to 15 percent cement, 60 to 75 percent aggregate and 15 to 20 percent water. Entrained air in many concrete mixes may also take up another 5 to 8 percent.

Other Ingredients Almost any natural water that is drinkable and has no pronounced taste or odor may be used as mixing water for concrete. Excessive impurities in mixing water not only may affect setting time and concrete strength, but can also cause efflorescence, staining, corrosion of reinforcement, volume instability, and reduced durability. Concrete mixture specifications usually set limits on chlorides, sulfates, alkalis, and solids in mixing water unless tests can be performed to determine the effect the impurity has on the final concrete. Although most drinking water is suitable for mixing concrete, aggregates are chosen carefully. Aggregates comprise 60 to 75 percent of the total volume of concrete. The type and size of aggregate used depends on the thickness and purpose of the final concrete product

Relatively thin building sections call for small coarse aggregate, though aggregates up to six inches in diameter have been used in large dams. A continuous gradation of particle sizes is desirable for efficient use of the paste. In addition, aggregates should be clean and free from any matter that might affect the quality of the concrete.

Hydration Begins Soon after the aggregates, water, and the cement are combined, the mixture starts to harden. All portland cements are hydraulic cements that set and harden through a chemical reaction with water call hydration. During this reaction, a node forms on the surface of each cement particle. The node grows and expands until it links up with nodes from other cement particles or adheres to adjacent aggregates.

Once the concrete is thoroughly mixed and workable it should be placed in forms before the mixture becomes too stiff.

During placement, the concrete is consolidated to compact it within the forms and to eliminate potential flaws, such as honeycombs and air pockets.

For slabs, concrete is left to stand until the surface moisture film disappears, then a wood or metal handfloat is used to smooth off the concrete. Floating produces a relatively even, but slightly rough, texture that has good slip resistance and is frequently used as a final finish for exterior slabs. If a smooth, hard, dense surface is required, floating is followed by steel troweling.

Curing begins after the exposed surfaces of the concrete have hardened sufficiently to resist marring. Curing ensures the continued hydration of the cement so that the concrete continues to gain strength. Concrete surfaces are cured by sprinkling with water fog, or by using moisture-retaining fabrics such as burlap or cotton mats. Other curing methods prevent evaporation of the water by sealing the surface with plastic or special sprays called curing compounds.

Special techniques are used for curing concrete during extremely cold or hot weather to protect the concrete. The longer the concrete is kept moist, the stronger and more durable it will become. The rate of hardening depends upon the composition and fineness of the cement, the mix proportions, and the moisture and temperature conditions. Concrete continues to get stronger as it gets older. Most of the hydration and strength gain take place within the first month of concrete’s life cycle, but hydration continues at a slower rate for many years.


Portland cement is the basic ingredient of concrete. Concrete is formed with portland cement creates a paste with water that binds with sand and rock to harden. Cement is manufactured through a closely controlled chemical combination of calcium, silicon, aluminum, iron and other ingredients. Common materials used to manufacture cement include limestone, shells, and chalk or marl combined with shale, clay, slate, blast furnace slag, silica sand, and iron ore. These ingredients, when heated at high temperatures form a rock-like substance that is ground into the fine powder that we commonly think of as cement. Bricklayer Joseph Aspdin of Leeds, England first made portland cement early in the 19th century by burning powdered limestone and clay in his kitchen stove. With this crude method, he laid the foundation for an industry that annually processes literally mountains of limestone, clay, cement rock, and other materials into a powder so fine it will pass through a sieve capable of holding water. Cement plant laboratories check each step in the manufacture of portland cement by frequent chemical and physical tests. The labs also analyze and test the finished product to ensure that it complies with all industry specifications.

The most common way to manufacture portland cement is through a dry method. The first step is to quarry the principal raw materials, mainly limestone, clay, and other materials. After quarrying the rock is crushed. This involves several stages. The first crushing reduces the rock to a maximum size of about six inches. The rock then goes to secondary crushers or hammer mills for reduction to about three inches or smaller.

The crushed rock is combined with other ingredients such as iron ore or fly ash and ground, mixed, and fed to a cement kiln. The cement kiln heats all the ingredients to about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit in huge cylindrical steel rotary kilns lined with special firebrick. Kilns are frequently as much as 12 feet in diameter—large enough to accommodate an automobile and longer in many instances than the height of a 40-story building. The large kilns are mounted with the axis inclined slightly from the horizontal.

The finely ground raw material or the slurry is fed into the higher end. At the lower end is a roaring blast of flame, produced by precisely controlled burning of powdered coal, oil, alternative fuels, or gas under forced draft.

As the material moves through the kiln, certain elements are driven off in the form of gases. The remaining elements unite to form a new substance called clinker. Clinker comes out of the kiln as grey balls, about the size of marbles.

Clinker is discharged red-hot from the lower end of the kiln and generally is brought down to handling temperature in various types of coolers. The heated air from the coolers is returned to the kilns, a process that saves fuel and increases burning efficiency.

After the clinker is cooled, cement plants grind it and mix it with small amounts of gypsum and limestone. Cement is so fine that one pound of cement contains 150 billion grains. The cement is now ready for transport to ready-mix concrete companies to be used in a variety of construction projects. Although the dry process is the most modern and popular way to manufacture cement, some kilns in the United States use a wet process. The two processes are essentially alike except in the wet process, the raw materials, are grounded with water before being fed into the kiln.

A few answers to common questions:

HOW DO YOU CONTROL THE STRENGTH OF CONCRETE? The easiest way to add strength is to add cement. The factor that most predominantly influences concrete strength is the ratio of water to cement in the cement paste that binds the aggregates together. The higher this ratio is, the weaker the concrete will be and vice versa. Every desirable physical property that you can measure will be adversely affected by adding more water.

HOW DO YOU PROTECT YOUR CONCRETE FROM THINGS LIKE ACID? Many materials have no effect on concrete. However, there are some aggressive materials, such as most acids, that can have a deteriorating effect on concrete. The first line of defense against chemical attack is to use quality concrete with maximum chemical resistance, followed by the application of protective treatments to keep corrosive substances from contacting the concrete. Principles and practices that improve the chemical resistance of concrete include using a low water-cement ratio, selecting a suitable cement type (such as sulfate-resistant cement to prevent sulfate attack), using suitable aggregates, water and air entrainment. A large number of chemical formulations are available as sealers and coatings to protect concrete from a variety of environments; detailed recommendations should be requested from manufacturers, formulators or material suppliers.

HOW DO YOU REMOVE STAINS FROM CONCRETE? Stains can be removed from concrete with dry or mechanical methods, or by wet methods using chemical or water.

Common dry methods include sandblasting, flame cleaning and shotblasting, grinding, scabbing, planing and scouring. Steel-wire brushes should be used with care because they can leave metal particles on the surface that later may rust and stain the concrete.

Wet methods involve the application of water or specific chemicals according to the nature of the stain. The chemical treatment either dissolves the staining substance so it can be blotted up from the surface of the concrete or bleaches the staining substance so it will not show.

WHAT CAUSES CRACKS AND SPALLS? Alkali-silica reactivity is an expansive reaction between reactive forms of silica in aggregates and potassium and sodium alkalis, mostly from cement, but also from aggregates, pozzolans, admixtures and mixing water. External sources of alkali from soil, deicers and industrial processes can also contribute to reactivity. The reaction forms an alkali-silica gel that swells as it draws water from the surrounding cement paste, thereby inducing pressure, expansion and cracking of the aggregate and surrounding paste. This often results in map-pattern cracks, sometimes referred to as alligator pattern cracking. ASR can be avoided through 1) proper aggregate selection, 2) use of blended cements, 3) use of proper pozzolanic materials and 4) contaminant-free mixing water.

Concrete surfaces can flake or spall for one or more of the following reasons: In areas of the country that are subjected to freezing and thawing the concrete should be air-entrained to resist flaking and scaling of the surface. If air-entrained concrete is not used, there will be subsequent damage to the surface. The water/cement ratio should be as low as possible to improve durability of the surface. Too much water in the mix will produce a weaker, less durable concrete that will contribute to early flaking and spalling of the surface. The finishing operations should not begin until the water sheen on the surface is gone and excess bleed water on the surface has had a chance to evaporate. If this excess water is worked into the concrete because the finishing operations are begun too soon, the concrete on the surface will have too high a water content and will be weaker and less durable.

Concrete, like all other materials, will slightly change in volume when it dries out. In typical concrete this change amounts to about 500 millionths. Translated into dimensions-this is about 1/16 of an inch in 10 feet. The reason that contractors put joints in concrete pavements and floors is to allow the concrete to crack in a neat, straight line at the joint when the volume of the concrete changes due to shrinkage.

TELL ME AGAIN HOW CEMENT AND CONCRETE ARE DIFFERENT? Although the terms cement and concrete often are used interchangeably, cement is actually an ingredient of concrete. Concrete is a mixture of aggregates and paste. The aggregates are sand and gravel or crushed stone; the paste is water and portland cement.

Cement comprises from 10 to 15 percent of the concrete mix, by volume. Through a process called hydration, the cement and water harden and bind the aggregates into a rocklike mass. This hardening process continues for years meaning that concrete gets stronger as it gets older.

Portland cement is not a brand name, but the generic term for the type of cement used in virtually all concrete, just as stainless is a type of steel and sterling a type of silver. Therefore, there is no such thing as a cement sidewalk, or a cement mixer; the proper terms are concrete sidewalk and concrete mixer.

WILL CONCRETE HARDEN UNDER WATER? Portland cement is a hydraulic cement which means that it sets and hardens due to a chemical reaction with water. Consequently, it will harden under water.

IS THERE A UNIVERSAL SPECIFICATION FOR PORTLAND CEMENT? Each country has its own standard for portland cement, so there is no universal international standard. The United States uses the specification prepared by the American Society for Testing and Materials-ASTM C-150 Standard Specification for Portland Cement. There are a few other countries that also have adopted this as their standard, however, there are countless other specifications.

HOW IS PORTLAND CEMENT MADE? Cement manufacturers mine materials such as limestone, shale, iron ore, and clay, crushed and screened the rock, and place it in a cement kiln. After being heated to extremely high temperatures, these materials form a small ball called “clinker” that is very finely grounded to produce portland cement. Lime and silica make up about 85 percent of the ingredients of cement. Other elements include alumina and iron oxide. The rotating kiln that cooks the materials resembles a large horizontal pipe with a diameter of 10 to 15 feet and a length of 300 feet or more. One end is raised slightly. The raw mix is placed in the high end and as the kiln rotates the materials move slowly toward the lower end. Flame jets at the lower end heat all the materials in the kiln to high temperatures that range between 2,700 and 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This high heat drives off, or calcines, the chemically combined water and carbon dioxide from the raw materials and forms new compounds (tricalcium silicate, dicalcium silicate, tricalcium aluminate and tetracalcium aluminoferrite). For each ton of material that goes into the feed end of the kiln, two thirds of a ton comes out the discharge end, called clinker. This clinker is in the form of marble sized pellets. The clinker is very finely ground to produce portland cement. Manufacturers often add gypsum and/or limestone during the grinding process.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CEMENT? Though all portland cement is basically the same, eight types of cement are manufactured to meet different physical and chemical requirements for specific applications: Type I is a general purpose portland cement suitable for most uses. Type II is used for structures in water or soil containing moderate amounts of sulfate, or when heat build-up is a concern. Type III cement provides high strength at an early state, usually in a week or less. Type IV moderates heat generated by hydration that is used for massive concrete structures such as dams. Type V cement resists chemical attack by soil and water high in sulfates. Types IA, IIA and IIIA are cements used to make air-entrained concrete. They have the same properties as types I, II, and III, except that they have small quantities of air-entrained materials combined with them.

White portland cement is made from raw materials containing little or no iron or manganese, the substances that give conventional cement its gray color.

Concrete has relatively high compressive strength, but significantly lower tensile strength, and as such is usually reinforced with materials that are strong in tension (often steel). The elasticity of concrete is relatively constant at low stress levels but starts decreasing at higher stress levels as matrix cracking develops.

Concrete has a very low coefficient of thermal expansion, and as it matures concrete shrinks. All concrete structures will crack to some extent, due to shrinkage and tension. Concrete which is subjected to long-duration forces is prone to creep. Tests can be made to ensure the properties of concrete correspond to specifications for the application. The density of concrete varies, but is around 2,400 kg/m³ (150 pounds per cubic foot or 4,050 lb/yd³).[1] As a result, without compensating, concrete would almost always fail from tensile stresses – even when loaded in compression. The practical implication of this is that concrete elements subjected to tensile stresses must be reinforced with materials that are strong in tension.

Reinforced concrete is the most common form of concrete. The reinforcement is often steel, rebar (mesh, spiral, bars and other forms). Structural fibers of various materials are available. Concrete can also be prestressed (reducing tensile stress) using internal steel cables (tendons), allowing for beams or slabs with a longer span than is practical with reinforced concrete alone.

Inspection of existing concrete structures can be non-destructive if carried out with equipment such as a Schmidt hammer, which is sometimes used to estimate relative concrete strengths in the field. The ultimate strength of concrete is influenced by the water-cementitious ratio (w/cm), the design constituents, and the mixing, placement and curing methods employed. All things being equal, concrete with a lower water-cement (cementitious) ratio makes a stronger concrete than that with a higher ratio. The total quantity of cementitious materials (portland cement, slag cement, pozzolans) can affect strength, water demand, shrinkage, abrasion resistance and density.

All concrete will crack independent of whether or not it has sufficient compressive strength. In fact, high Portland cement content mixtures can actually crack more readily due to increased hydration rate. As concrete transforms from its plastic state, hydrating to a solid, the material undergoes shrinkage. Plastic shrinkage cracks can occur soon after placement but if the evaporation rate is high they often can actually occur during finishing operations, for example in hot weather or a breezy day.

In very high-strength concrete mixtures (greater than 70 MPa) the crushing strength of the aggregate can be a limiting factor to the ultimate compressive strength. In lean concretes (with a high water-cement ratio) the crushing strength of the aggregates is not so significant. The internal forces in common shapes of structure, such as arches, vaults, columns and walls are predominantly compressive forces, with floors and pavements subjected to tensile forces. Compressive strength is widely used for specification requirement and quality control of concrete. The engineer knows his target tensile (flexural) requirements and will express these in terms of compressive strength.

Expansion and shrinkage Concrete has a very low coefficient of thermal expansion. However, if no provision is made for expansion, very large forces can be created, causing cracks in parts of the structure not capable of withstanding the force or the repeated cycles of expansion and contraction. The coefficient of thermal expansion of Portland cement concrete is 0.000008 to 0.000012 (per degree Celsius) (8 to 12 microstrains/°C)(8-12 1/MK).[5] As concrete matures it continues to shrink, due to the ongoing reaction taking place in the material, although the rate of shrinkage falls relatively quickly and keeps reducing over time (for all practical purposes concrete is usually considered to not shrink due to hydration any further after 30 years). The relative shrinkage and expansion of concrete and brickwork require careful accommodation when the two forms of construction interface. Because concrete is continuously shrinking for years after it is initially placed, it is generally accepted that under thermal loading it will never expand to its originally placed volume. Due to its low thermal conductivity, a layer of concrete is frequently used for fireproofing of steel structures.

All concrete structures will crack to some extent. One of the early designers of reinforced concrete, Robert Maillart, employed reinforced concrete in a number of arched bridges. His first bridge was simple, using a large volume of concrete. He then realized that much of the concrete was very cracked, and could not be a part of the structure under compressive loads, yet the structure clearly worked. His later designs simply removed the cracked areas, leaving slender, beautiful concrete arches. The Salginatobel Bridge is an example of this.

Concrete cracks due to tensile stress induced by shrinkage or stresses occurring during setting or use. Various means are used to overcome this. Fiber reinforced concrete uses fine fibers distributed throughout the mix or larger metal or other reinforcement elements to limit the size and extent of cracks.

In many large structures joints or concealed saw-cuts are placed in the concrete as it sets to make the inevitable cracks occur where they can be managed and out of sight. Water tanks and highways are examples of structures requiring crack control. Shrinkage cracking Shrinkage cracks occur when concrete members undergo restrained volumetric changes (shrinkage) as a result of either drying, autogenous shrinkage or thermal effects. Restraint is provided either externally (i.e. supports, walls, and other boundary conditions) or internally (differential drying shrinkage, reinforcement). Once the tensile strength of the concrete is exceeded, a crack will develop. The number and width of shrinkage cracks that develop are influenced by the amount of shrinkage that occurs, the amount of restraint present and the amount and spacing of reinforcement provided.These are minor indications and have no real structural impact on the concrete member.

Plastic-shrinkage cracks are immediately apparent, visible within 0 to 2 days of placement, while drying-shrinkage cracks develop over time. Autogenous shrinkage also occurs when the concrete is quite young and results from the volume reduction resulting from the chemical reaction of the Portland cement. Tension cracking Concrete members may be put into tension by applied loads. This is most common in concrete beams where a transversely applied load will put one surface into compression and the opposite surface into tension due to induced bending. The portion of the beam that is in tension may crack. The size and length of cracks is dependent on the magnitude of the bending moment and the design of the reinforcing in the beam at the point under consideration. Reinforced concrete beams are designed to crack in tension rather than in compression. This is achieved by providing reinforcing steel which yields before failure of the concrete in compression occurs and allowing remediation, repair, or if necessary, evacuation of an unsafe area. Creep Creep is the permanent movement or deformation of a material in order to relieve stresses within the material. Concrete that is subjected to long-duration forces is prone to creep. Short-duration forces (such as wind or earthquakes) do not cause creep. Creep can sometimes reduce the amount of cracking that occurs in a concrete structure or element, but it also must be controlled. The amount of primary and secondary reinforcing in concrete structures contributes to a reduction in the amount of shrinkage, creep and cracking.