A concrete slab is a common structural element of modern buildings, consisting of a flat, horizontal surface made of cast concrete. Steel-reinforced slabs, typically between 100 and 500 mm thick, are most often used to construct floors and ceilings, while thinner mud slabs may be used for exterior paving .
In many domestic and industrial buildings, a thick concrete slab supported on foundations or directly on the subsoil, is used to construct the ground floor. These slabs are generally classified as ground-bearing or suspended. A slab is ground-bearing if it rests directly on the foundation, otherwise the slab is suspended. For multi-storey buildings, there are several common slab designs :
- Beam and block, also referred to as rib and block, is mostly used in residential and industrial applications. This slab type is made up of pre-stressed beams and hollow blocks and are temporarily propped until set, typically after 21 days.
- A hollow core slab which is precast and installed on site with a crane
- In high rise buildings and skyscrapers, thinner, pre-cast concrete slabs are slung between the steel frames to form the floors and ceilings on each level. Cast in-situ slabs are used in high rise buildings and large shopping complexes as well as houses. These in-situ slabs are cast on site using shutters and reinforced steel.
Energy efficiency has become a primary concern for the construction of new buildings, and the prevalence of concrete slabs calls for careful consideration of its thermal properties in order to minimise wasted energy. Concrete has similar thermal properties to masonry products, in that it has a relatively high thermal mass and is a good conductor of heat.
In some special cases, the thermal properties of concrete have been employed, for example as a heatsink in nuclear power plants or a thermal buffer in industrial freezers.
Thermal conductivity of a concrete slab indicates the rate of heat transfer through the solid mass by conduction, usually in regard to heat transfer to or from the ground. The coefficient of thermal conductivity, k, is proportional to density of the concrete, among other factors. The primary influences on conductivity are moisture content, type of aggregate, type of cement, constituent proportions, and temperature. These various factors complicate the theoretical evaluation of a k-value, since each component has a different conductivity when isolated, and the position and proportion of each components affects the overall conductivity. To simplify this, particles of aggregate may be considered to be suspended in the homogeneous cement. Campbell-Allen and Thorne (1963) derived a formula for the theoretical thermal conductivity of concrete. In practice this formula is rarely applied, but remains relevant for theoretical use. Subsequently, Valore (1980) developed another formula in terms of overall density. However, this study concerned hollow concrete blocks and its results are unverified for concrete slabs.
The actual value of k varies significantly in practice, and is usually between 0.8 and 2.0 W m-1 K-1. This is relatively high when compared to other materials, for example the conductivity of wood may be as low as 0.04 W m-1 K-1. One way of mitigating the effects of thermal conduction is to introduce insulation .
The second consideration is the high thermal mass of concrete slabs, which applies similarly to walls and floors, or wherever concrete is used within the thermal envelope. Concrete has a relatively high thermal mass, meaning that it takes a long time to respond to changes in ambient temperature. This is a disadvantage when rooms are heated intermittently and require a quick response, as it takes longer to warm the entire building, including the slab. However, the high thermal mass is an advantage in climates with large daily temperature swings, where the slab acts as a regulator, keeping the building cool by day and warm by night.
Typically concrete slabs perform better than implied by their R-value. The R-value does not consider thermal mass, since it is tested under constant temperature conditions. Thus, when a concrete slab is subjected to fluctuating temperatures, it will respond more slowly to these changes and in many cases increase the efficiency of a building. In reality, there are many factors which contribute to the effect of thermal mass, including the depth and composition of the slab, as well as other properties of the building such as orientation and windows.
Thermal mass is also related to thermal diffusivity, heat capacity and insulation. Concrete has low thermal diffusivity, high heat capacity, and its thermal mass is negatively affected by insulation (e.g. carpet).
Without insulation, concrete slabs cast directly on the ground can cause a significant amount of extraneous energy transfer by conduction, resulting in either lost heat or unwanted heat. In modern construction, concrete slabs are usually cast above a layer of insulation such as expanded polystyrene, and the slab may contain underfloor heating pipes. However, there are still uses for a slab that is not insulated, for example in outbuildings which are not heated or cooled to room temperature . In these cases, casting the slab directly onto a substrate of aggregate will maintain the slab near the temperature of the substrate throughout the year, and can prevent both freezing and overheating.
A common type of insulated slab is the beam and block system (mentioned above) which is modified by replacing concrete blocks with expanded polystyrene blocks. This not only allows for better insulation but decreases the weight of slab which has a positive effect on load bearing walls and foundations.
Ground-bearing slabs, also known as "on-ground" or "slab-on-grade", are commonly used for ground floors on domestic and some commercial applications. It is an economical and quick construction method for sites that have non-reactive soil and little slope.
For ground-bearing slabs, it is important to design the slab around the type of soil, since some soils such as clay are too dynamic to support a slab consistently across its entire area. This results in cracking and deformation, potentially leading to structural failure of any members attached to the floor, such as wall studs.
Levelling the site before pouring concrete is an important step, as sloping ground will cause the concrete to cure unevenly and will result in differential expansion. In some cases, a naturally sloping site may be levelled simply by removing soil from the uphill site. If a site has a more significant grade, it may be a candidate for the "cut and fill" method, where soil from the higher ground is removed, and the lower ground is built up with fill.
In addition to filling the downhill side, this area of the slab may be supported on concrete piers which extend into the ground. In this case, the fill material is less important structurally as the dead weight of the slab is supported by the piers. However, the fill material is still necessary to support the curing concrete and its reinforcement.
- Controlled fill: Fill material is compacted in several layers by a vibrating plate or roller. Sand fills areas up to around 800 mm deep, and clay may be used to fill areas up to 400 mm deep. However, clay is much more reactive than sand, so it should be used sparingly and carefully. Clay must be moist during compaction to homogenise it.
- Rolled fill: Fill is repeatedly compacted by an excavator, but this method of compaction is less effective than a vibrator or roller. Thus, the regulations on maximum depth are typically stricter.
Proper curing of ground-bearing concrete is necessary to obtain adequate strength. Since these slabs are inevitably poured on-site (rather than precast as some suspended slabs are), it can be difficult to control conditions to optimize the curing process. This is usually aided by a membrane, either plastic (temporary) or a liquid compound (permanent).
Ground-bearing slabs are usually supplemented with some form of reinforcement, often steel rebar. However, in some cases such as concrete roads, it is acceptable to use an unreinforced slab if it is adequately engineered .
For a suspended slab, there are a number of designs to improve the strength-to-weight ratio. In all cases the top surface remains flat, and the underside is modulated:
- A corrugated slab is designed when the concrete is poured into a corrugated steel tray, more commonly called decking. This steel tray improves strength of the slab, and prevents the slab from bending under its own weight. The corrugations run in one direction only.
- A ribbed slab gives considerably more strength in one direction. This is achieved with concrete beams bearing load between piers or columns, and thinner, integral ribs in the perpendicular direction. An analogy in carpentry would be a subfloor of bearers and joists. Ribbed slabs have higher load ratings than corrugated or flat slabs, but are inferior to waffle slabs.
- A waffle slab gives added strength in both directions using a matrix of recessed segments beneath the slab. This is the same principle used in the ground-bearing version, the waffle slab foundation. Waffle slabs are usually deeper than ribbed slabs of equivalent strength, and are heavier hence require stronger foundations. However, they provide increased mechanical strength in two dimensions, a characteristic important for vibration resistance and soil movement.
Unreinforced or "plain" slabs are becoming rare and have limited practical applications, with one exception being the mud slab . They were once common in the USA, but the economic value of reinforced ground-bearing slabs has become more appealing for many engineers. Without reinforcement, the entire load on these slabs is supported by the strength of the concrete, which becomes a vital factor. As a result, any stress induced by a load, static or dynamic, must be within the limit of the concrete's flexural strength to prevent cracking. Since unreinforced concrete is relatively very weak in tension, it is important to consider the effects of tensile stress caused by reactive soil, wind uplift, thermal expansion, and cracking. One of the most common applications for unreinforced slabs is in concrete roads.
Mud slabs, also known as rat slabs, are thinner than the more common suspended or ground-bearing slabs (usually 50 to 150 mm), and usually contain no reinforcement. This makes them economical and easy to install for temporary or low-usage purposes such as subfloors, crawlspaces, pathways, paving, and levelling surfaces. In general, they may be used for any application which requires a flat, clean surface. This includes use as a base or "sub-slab" for a larger structural slab. On uneven or steep surfaces, this preparatory measure is necessary to provide a flat surface on which to install rebar and waterproofing membranes. In this application, a mud slab also prevents the plastic bar chairs from sinking into soft topsoil which can cause spalling due to incomplete coverage of the steel. Sometimes a mud slab may be a substitute for coarse aggregate. Mud slabs typically have a moderately rough surface, finished with a float.
Axes of support
A one-way slab has moment-resisting reinforcement only in its short axis, and is used when the moment in the long axis is negligible. Such designs include corrugated slabs and ribbed slabs. Non-reinforced slabs may also be considered one-way if they are supported on only two opposite sides (i.e. they are supported in one axis). A one-way reinforced slab may be stronger than a two-way non-reinforced slab, depending on the type of load.
A two-way slab has moment resisting reinforcement in both directions. This may be implemented due to application requirements such as heavy loading, vibration resistance, clearance below the slab, or other factors. However, an important characteristic governing the requirement of a two-way slab is the ratio of the two horizontal lengths. If where is the short dimension and is the long dimension, then moment in both directions should be considered in design. In other words, if the axial ratio is greater than two, a two-way slab is required.
A non-reinforced slab is two-way if it is supported in both horizontal axes.
Prefabricated concrete slabs are built in a factory and transported to the site, ready to be lowered into place between steel or concrete beams. They may be pre-stressed (in the factory), post-stressed (on site), or unstressed. It is vital that the wall supporting structure is built to the correct dimensions, or the slabs may not fit.
In-situ concrete slabs are built on the building site using formwork - a type of boxing into which the wet concrete is poured. If the slab is to be reinforced, the rebars, or metal bars, are positioned within the formwork before the concrete is poured in. Plastic-tipped metal or plastic bar chairs, are used to hold the rebar away from the bottom and sides of the form-work, so that when the concrete sets it completely envelops the reinforcement. This concept is known as concrete cover. For a ground-bearing slab, the formwork may consist only of side walls pushed into the ground. For a suspended slab, the formwork is shaped like a tray, often supported by a temporary scaffold until the concrete sets.
The formwork is commonly built from wooden planks and boards, plastic, or steel. On commercial building sites, plastic and steel are gaining popularity as they save labour. On low-budget or small-scale jobs, for instance when laying a concrete garden path, wooden planks are very common. After the concrete has set the wood may be removed, or left there permanently.
In some cases formwork is not necessary - for instance, a ground slab surrounded by brick or block foundation walls, where the walls act as the sides of the tray and hardcore (rubble) acts as the base.
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