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Determining the Risk of Damage Due to Expansive Soil – Part 2 of 3
It is well established that extensive soil effects cause multibillion-dollar structural damage to homes, buildings, and other man-made structures each year. These soils can introduce enormous compressive forces of 10,000-20,000 pounds per square foot against foundation systems present in that environment.
What exactly does this mean for your home and me?It’s mind boggling to imagine the scale and scope of such a large number in terms of threats to your home or other real estate investment. Let’s wrap our brains around these big numbers for a moment by looking at two much smaller, opposite numbers.
Imagine taking a circular saw and cutting a 12″ x 12″ square out of a typical basement slab floor. Now take that piece of cement and throw it on a scale. You will find that slab samples weigh between 50-60 pounds. That doesn’t sound like a lot of weight when compared to the resistive forces that we know expansive soils can carry. It’s not really a fair comparison though. The slab is not actually a weight-bearing structural element of the foundation; It is not the best part of the foundation to compare with the huge and contrasting strength of the expansive soil.
Foundation footings have added vertical movement to equalize the expansive soilLook at the part of the foundation known as the footing (or footing, depending on your geographic locale). This is a good part of the foundation to measure because most of the weight of the house is there. Structural engineers say that for every linear foot of “footing” we can randomly sample, we find that 1500 to 3000 pounds of actual house dead weight is present under that footing. Variables that ultimately affect the actual number are one story vs. two, full basement vs. crawlspace, brick exterior vs. siding. However, it is a rare occurrence in residential construction where we will find more than 3000 pounds per linear foot of bearing weight under the footer.
Now compare that number to the natural strength against expansive clay soil—which we’ve already identified at 10,000-20,000 pounds per square foot. It’s not even a contest. Nature brings roughly 3-6 times more force against our foundation than gravity brings to counter it. Expansive soils acting in a vertical, upward direction pose a potential risk of damaging the foundation and causing structural cracks!
What about lateral (horizontal) forces and the damage they can cause?
Can we measure the expansion of clay as it pushes against the side of a foundation wall? Let’s see. Again, we know that 10,000-20,000 pounds per square foot is destructive force and that’s what we’re dealing with and want to mitigate. Imagine that we have a typical poured concrete or block basement wall 8′ high and 50′ long. Let’s also assume that if the wall measures 8′ in height from the inside, the soil grade comes up to a 6′ height on the outside of our basement wall, leaving 2′ of exposed foundation above grade. 2′ of exposed wall is unavailable to push against the ground. If we take the 6′ dimension, which is in direct contact with the ground, and multiply it by our 50′ length, 300 square feet of wall area will be able to be pushed by the ground.
Finally, let’s assume a conservative mid-range soil force number of 15,000 pounds per square foot against each of the 300 square foot foundation walls, and we can quickly see that our humble little basement wall is facing a total of 450,000 pounds. The surrounding forces against it. Think about it—about half a million pounds of force coming into your foundation wall! In hindsight, it is a wonder that buildings and houses built on expansive soil hold up as they do. Nevertheless, structural migration, settlement, bowing and cracking in foundation walls, footings and slabs are a fact of life for many property owners. For those who find themselves in this situation, getting professional help from a qualified engineering firm or foundation repair service company is often a good option to explore.
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