What’s in a Name? How ACI is changing the discussion on waterproofing

by Elaina Adams | December 1, 2012 10:04 am

All images courtesy Kryton International[1]
All images courtesy Kryton International

By Kevin Yuers
Water is the enemy of hardened concrete. It causes expansive damage when it freezes, carries corrosive salts to attack the reinforcing steel, reacts with certain aggregates to cause disruptive expansion, and provides an essential ingredient for the growth of mould. Water-retaining structures like reservoirs, dams, and waste treatment facilities must prevent water from escaping; other structures such as tunnels and buildings must prevent water from entering.

For as long as anyone can remember, the construction industry has used the word ‘waterproof’ to describe construction materials. People commonly refer to something as being waterproof if it holds water in or out and does not leak. However, the word waterproof is technically not defined this way. Most dictionaries define it as being impervious to water, that water cannot penetrate it at all. This raises a serious question: Can anything really be completely impervious to water?

The American Concrete Institute[2] (ACI) is an international organization dedicated to the advancement of knowledge about concrete. Recognizing the problematic nature of the term ‘waterproof,’ ACI has discouraged its use, stating:

Because nothing can be completely ‘impervious’ to water under infinite pressure over infinite time, this term should not be used.

Instead, ACI has over the years preferred to use the term ‘watertight.’ However, its definition of this word is very similar to that of waterproof (which, in practice, remains far more frequently employed). Another commonly used industry term is ‘dampproofing,’ which is defined by ACI to mean:

Treatment of concrete or mortar to retard the passage or absorption of water.

The word is typically used to describe liquid coatings or plastic sheets applied to the outside of concrete in contact with damp soil. Its goal is to prevent the absorption/wicking of moisture by the porous concrete.

Waterproof, watertight, dampproof… the trouble has been all three of these terms are imprecisely defined and tend to overlap each other in common use. This is especially problematic when they are used to define admixture products because testing methods and performance standards are relatively new and still being developed. Where does the performance of a dampproofing admixture end and a waterproofing admixture begin? How can a professional expect to write a proper specification using such terms?

Water penetration test results under Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN) 1048-Part 5, Testing Concrete: Testing of Hardened Concrete (Specimens Prepared in Mould).[3]
Water penetration test results under Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN) 1048-Part 5, Testing Concrete: Testing of Hardened Concrete (Specimens Prepared in Mould).

Advent of permeability-reducing admixtures
Permeability-reducing admixtures are not new; people have been adding things to concrete to reduce its permeability for centuries. These range from plant and animal products to modern plasticizers. Additionally, supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs)—such as silica fume, fly ash, and slag—are technically not categorized as admixtures, but can nonetheless be added to a concrete mixture to reduce permeability.

The ACI sub-committee responsible for concrete admixtures is Technical Committee 212, Chemical Admixtures. Its members recognized something needed to be done to clarify any confusion. Professions needed more precise language with clearly understood meanings. Standardized testing methods and performance criteria that could be included in written specifications was also necessary.

The revised technical document, ACI 212.3R-10, Report on Chemical Admixtures for Concrete, contains a completely new section specifically written to address issues relating to permeability-reducing admixtures. This Chapter 15 describes three general categories for these materials:

Since products may contain one or more of these materials, they cannot simply be classified based on their ingredients alone. Instead, Chapter 15 classifies permeability-reducing admixtures by their ability to resist hydrostatic pressure:

Most products will fall into the PRAN classification. Water-repelling or hydrophobic materials can be very effective at preventing water absorption into concrete. They work by way of surface tension in the same way fabric treatment repels spills on clothing and furniture. They can be easy to use and cost-effective for applications not subjected to hydrostatic conditions.

However, even a modest amount of this pressure can overcome and push past the surface tension created by these materials. If acted on by water under pressure, concrete protected by only a PRAN may allow water to pass through.

Another term, ‘finely divided solids,’ refers to materials that improve the packing of the concrete’s ingredients, causing its pores to be as small as possible. These materials may also act to block the pores with loose particles. The category includes:

All these materials can significantly reduce permeability. However, because they cannot reliably plug all the pores and because they are unable to bridge cracks, they cannot be counted on to withstand hydrostatic pressure, especially over extended periods. For these reasons, finely divided solids are also classified as PRAN.

The exposed architectural concrete of Jameson House in Vancouver was a good candidate for a permeability-reducing admixture for non-hydrostatic conditions (PRAN), but the architect chose to specify a permeability-reducing admixture for hydrostatic conditions (PRAH) just to be sure.[4]
The exposed architectural concrete of Jameson House in Vancouver was a good candidate for a permeability-reducing admixture for non-hydrostatic conditions (PRAN), but the architect chose to specify a permeability-reducing admixture for hydrostatic conditions (PRAH) just to be sure.

Crystalline chemicals react with water and the cementing materials in concrete or mortar to form distinct crystalline structures within the pores and small cracks of the concrete. These crystals effectively block the concrete’s pores in a similar way to the finely divided solids. Additionally, these crystalline structures have the ability to bridge small cracks. Since any concrete structure has a high likelihood of developing cracks, this bridging ability is critical to successfully creating a watertight structure.

Further, since crystal formation only takes a small amount of crystalline materials in reaction with a larger amount of water and cementing materials, the admixture is not used up. This means when new cracks form later, and moisture begins to penetrate the concrete, more crystals grow to seal the crack. This self-sealing ability is unique to crystalline materials. Consequently, crystalline products have been shown to withstand very high hydrostatic pressures over long periods.

Specifiers should be aware not all products calling themselves ‘crystalline’ actually fall into this category—some merely crystallize as they harden or dry. For example, sodium silicate is a solution that forms a crystalline structure as it dries, whereas ‘true’ crystalline materials are PRAHs that cause a chemical reaction to form distinctly new crystals. More importantly, the material remains continuously reactive, allowing new crystal formation in the face of future moisture penetration. To be a PRAH, the crystalline material must possess this self-sealing ability.

This photo shows the pouring of a concrete slab treated with a PRAH at a BC Hydro substation in Vancouver. Waterproofing was absolutely essential, as the project sits well below the water table and houses critical electrical equipment.[5]
This photo shows the pouring of a concrete slab treated with a PRAH at a BC Hydro substation in Vancouver. Waterproofing was absolutely essential, as the project sits well below the water table and houses critical electrical equipment.

Testing methods
Various testing methods have been used to indicate the permeability of concrete. Perhaps the most often referenced being ASTM C1202, Standard Test Method for Electrical Indication of Concrete’s Ability to Resist Chloride Ion Penetration, more commonly known as the rapid chloride permeability (RCP) test.

There is much debate over the value of this method; its accuracy is an issue, as results from identical test specimens are often found to vary greatly from each other. More importantly, the test does not actually measure permeability—it deals with electrical conductivity, and there are many factors influencing this attribute beside permeability. Other common test methods measure capillary absorption or wicking potential of concrete. These are useful for PRANs, but are inappropriate for PRAHs because they exert no hydrostatic pressure.

A suitable testing method for PRAHs must directly measure permeability of the concrete when it is subjected to hydrostatic pressure. Chapter 15 cites U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) CRD C48-92, Standard Test Method for Water Permeability of Concrete, and two nearly identical European tests that accomplish this goal:

Each of these methods subject concrete specimens to water under pressure for a time. They measure the actual penetration and transport of water within the concrete matrix. Methods such as these come closest to replicating the actual service conditions of concrete in water-retaining structures in the field.

Practical application
Chapter 15 of the ACI report recommends using a permeability-reducing admixture in any concrete that will benefit from moisture protection. Choosing to specify a PRAN or PRAH depends on the presence or absence of hydrostatic pressure. PRANs are appropriate for applications where resistance to water and waterborne chemicals may be needed, but hydrostatic pressure is absent. Foundations in contact with damp soil, concrete masonry units (CMUs), and exposed slabs, columns, or beams are just a few examples.
Where resistance to water under hydrostatic pressure is required,
a PRAH must be used. Examples of these are:

Where the application is critical, it may be worthwhile to include a PRAH instead of a PRAN even when hydrostatic pressure is not expected. Elevator pits are a good example of this.

Tunnels, dams, and reservoirs must be waterproofed to prevent water from escaping or entering. This tunnel under construction in Ontario was waterproofed using PRAH technology.[6]
Tunnels, dams, and reservoirs must be waterproofed to prevent water from escaping or entering. This tunnel under construction in Ontario was waterproofed using PRAH technology.

The final sections of Chapter 15 give advice for proportioning, batching, and quality control—much of which is good practice for most concrete work.

Conclusion
ACI-212’s new Chapter 15 has given design/construction professionals several new tools. The identification and categorization of different materials shows not all permeability-reducing materials are the same. Its classification of various admixtures based on performance rather than chemistry has a more practical benefit. Chapter 15 also introduces new, descriptive, and much more precise language to employ in specifications. The Portland Cement Association (PCA) has already adopted this new language and included PRAN and PRAH in its book, Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures.

Chapter 15 recommends improved testing methods that closely replicate the real world. All of this helps industry professionals to choose the proper product for their application. With the assistance of ACI 212’s new Chapter 15, Canadian engineers and architects can now agree that when protecting concrete from water not under pressure, a PRAN should be specified. In cases when one is building a watertight structure, a PRAH is what is needed.

Kevin Yuers is a veteran of the construction industry, having spent many years running his own contracting company before joining Kryton International in 1994. He is the vice-president responsible for product development and technical services at the crystalline concrete waterproofing company. Yuers is an active member of several industry and business associations and has travelled extensively throughout the world. He has written numerous articles and is the named inventor on patents related to the concrete industry. Yuers can be contacted at (800) 267-8280.

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/TheOra-Richmond.jpg
  2. American Concrete Institute: http://www.concrete.org/Technical/CCT/ACI-Terminology.aspx
  3. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/DIN1048.jpg
  4. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/JamesonHouse.jpg
  5. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/BCHydro.jpg
  6. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Tunnel.jpg

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