What do Icebergs and Concrete Spalling Have in Common?

11 September 2020
By Hamish

When you think of the Titanic, you will inevitably think of the movie and probably a large iceberg. That iceberg (well all icebergs really—and that is the true point of this blog) was a far larger problem than it first appeared because so much of it was hidden.
And therein lies the commonality with spalling. Sometimes — especially when you catch it early — spalling is something you can take steps to fix without incident. But when you get up close, or when you leave it too long, there is no turning back : the damage is no longer superficial, but could represent a bigger issue under the surface – an issue of spalling concrete foundations.

So what do you need to know and what can you do? Let’s look at three things.

  • Signs to look out for which indicate the potential for spalling concrete;
  • How a swollen foundation can cause significant structural damage; and
  • Why a lick of paint and removing the visible signs is not enough to fix the issue.

Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg

When the Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic back in 1912, nobody thought that it was colossal enough to sink a supposedly “unsinkable” ship. The captain and the crew thought it was just another melted piece of glacier, but THAT “piece of ice” was actually the reason of the deaths of 1,500 people because underneath the tip of the iceberg lied a massive problem.

The same thing can be said of concrete spalling. What you see outside maybe a little of discolouration and tiny bits of cracks but the unsuspecting you will not realise that a much bigger issue lies within.

Beyond the barefaced appearance of rust and maybe some minor chipping in concrete is actually a deteriorating reinforced steel. Now you may ask: how can steelwork corrode when it is encased in concrete?

In reality, spalling is caused by a variety of things but more often than not, moisture seeps through the surrounding concrete and into the rebar because of any of the following:

  • The quality of the concrete encasing the steel is poor;
  • Improper placing of concrete and premature curing, thereby causing gaps; or
  • The lack of water-repellent sealer placed over the concrete slab.

Because of the miniscule gaps resulting from poor workmanship, moisture, along with oxygen, penetrates through the concrete and gets in contact with the reinforced steel. This combination causes the rebar to corrode and form rust, that when worsens and builds up, causes pressure to the surrounding concrete, hence the spalling/concrete cancer.

But how will you know the underlying problem when you can’t see beneath the surface?

Maybe if the Titanic was equipped with high-end marine radar, it could have detected the beast of an iceberg that caused its demise. But it wasn’t, (sadly, not the right technology back then as we all know) so it didn’t, meaning so it was too late for the crew to move the ship and avoid the collision.

So yes, whilst it is a stretch to say that not fixing spalling will lead to imminent destruction, it is not nearly as much of a stretch to imply that left untreated, spalling will lead to the disintegration of your structure. But how do you know if your building is suffering from spalling foundation problem? Here are a few tell-tale signs.

  • Chipping or flaking of concrete;
  • Mild rust staining the surface;
  • Loose portions of concrete that shows the aggregate; and even,
  • Exposed, corroding, reinforced steel

When you see any of these symptoms, your concrete has most likely succumbed to early (or even latter stage) concrete cancer. Obviously therefore, the earlier you detect it and address it, the easier it is for specialists to repair it without dire consequence (and cost).

Don’t Be Like The Titanic Captain! Don’t Let Your “Ship” Sink

Captain Smith knew there was an iceberg ahead but he did not heed the warnings nor did he slow Titanic down when he was informed that the ice was directly in their path. He was overconfident that it was a hiccup that the “unsinkable” ship would be able to surpass.

But he was wrong.

When it comes to dealing with spalling, don’t be like Captain Smith. At the onset of the earliest sign of spalling, treat it right away so that the situation won’t be exacerbated. You might be tempted to hide minor signs such as rust, with some paint, thinking that out of sight = problem solved, but rest assured, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

While the coating will temporarily hide the eyesore, the problem remains within the structural components of your building, meaning a simple lick of paint, or even render over the top first, won’t resolve your issues. Behind the coated surface it is actually a deteriorating situation.

The best way to approach spalling is to contact a licenced engineer who can diagnose and investigate concrete irregularities. If after the building inspection the expert says that you have spalling concrete foundation, you need to have the issue fixed immediately. If not, the reinforced steel will corrode further, putting the building’s structural integrity at risk. And we are not talking getting a handyman or generalsit builder in. You want to know that if you are spending money that you will be treating the issue with specialist methodologies which remove the rust entirely, treat the reinforcement and then use materials to make good which will keep the issue at bay.

There are a variety of foundation spalling repair solutions but only an expert team can tell you which of them is appropriate for your structure—depending on the location of the spalling and the severity of the problem.

If you suspect that you have spalling in your building, schedule an inspection with the Remedial team and we’ll help you treat the structural issue right away.