Cracks are common to most of the concrete structures. Concrete cracks easily due to its low tensile strength. When a crack appears in concrete, our first assumption is that something wrong with the concrete. But this is not true for every crack that appears in the concrete structure. In fact, the American concrete institute has also stated that “even with best floor designs and proper construction, it is unrealistic to expect crack-free and curl-free floor”.

Concrete can crack due to many reasons. Some are avoidable and some are not. So it is important to investigate the severity of the crack at first and decide on treatment methods. Concrete mostly subjected to cracks due to the following major reasons

  • Joint arrangement
  • Construction speed and sequence
  • The heat of hydration and temperature
  • Restraints
  • Change of sections
  • Possible settlements, movements
  • Composition of concrete
  • Type, maximum size, and grading of aggregate
  • Admixtures using
  • Environmental temperature (cooling and heating rate)
  • Amount of compaction and re-vibration
  • Lift height and volume
  • The time between concrete placing
  • Curing condition and insulation
  • Evaporation rate
  • Quality of the formwork and supports
  • Chemicals present in water
  • Alkali aggregate effect
  • Freezing and thawing
  • Seismic action

The crack investigation is the first phase after the appearance of the crack. Making necessary observations and taking records is the immediate step. Soon after the appearance of the cracks, investigating the following parameters are mandatory.

  • Time of cracking  
  • Appearance
  • Length
  • Width
  • Crack depth
Taking core samples for crack investigation

Concrete crack types

The best parameter to categorize the cracks is the cause of cracking. Identifying what are the reasons behind cracking is also helpful when treating.

Plastic settlement cracks

Plastic settlement cracks are categorized as very early age cracks. These cracks can appear in 15 minutes to 3 hours after placement. Reasons for plastic settlement cracks are bleeding and compaction of air pores. Plastic settlements cracks are possible in concrete members with different thicknesses, arches, and over reinforcement.

When concrete members change their thickness, different plastic settlements take place. This generates a separation between members and ultimately turns in to a plastic settlement crack.

Concretes having a high amount of reinforcement as top layer are most likely to have plastic settlement cracks. Heavy particles tend to settle between rebars during compaction time as well as setting time. This leaves weak concrete composition on top of rebars and ultimately cause a crack.

Settlement cracks along the top reinforcements

Formwork settlement

Concrete can settle down due to the low quality of the formwork material and supports. Weak formwork material may sag as a result of concrete weight itself. Note that formwork bears the highest concrete load immediately after the pour. When the concrete hardens, the lateral load on the formwork reduces. This way we can reduce the risk of formwork failure.

Plastic shrinkage cracks

Cement has a shrinking property during hardening. Cement rich concrete mixes shrink more than the leaner mixes. Shrinkage at the plastic stage of concrete can result in random cracking on the surface.

Desiccation cracks.

Concrete subjected to self-drying because of hydration consumes internal water. The process has a considerable impact on the concretes with w/c is below 0.45. Generally, self-desiccation cracks do not affect the structure directly. However, it can speed up deterioration and reduce the lifetime.


Crazing is known as pattern cracking or map cracking. Cracks due to crazing can appear at 1 to 7 days. This closely spaced shallow crack appears on the surface due to the rapid hardening of the top concrete layer. The reasons for these cracks are high temperature and surface drying due to wind.

Thermal cracking

Thermal cracks belong to the early age category cracks. These can appear at 1 day to a few weeks. The main reason for thermal cracks is the hydration heat of cement. Concrete increases its internal temperature during hydration and starts to cool down after a few days. During this heated time concrete undergoes thermal stresses that are large enough to crack the concrete. Usually, thermal cracks are straight and develop through the whole concrete lift.

Cracks due to excessive heat of hydration

Drying shrinkage cracks

Drying shrinkage cracks can occur due to different drying rates on different sides. One side drying, different external restraints, and differential final shrinkage make the situation severe. Cracks can appear even after a few months.

Different shrinkage due to ground restrains

When the concrete dries it shrinks slowly. A different side of the concrete may open to different exposure conditions. This makes the concrete dries different rates through those sides. Ultimately the drying shrinkage rate is going to be different on those faces of concrete, making drying shrinkage cracks.

Cracks due to pre-stressing

These are loading cracks that appear in pre-stressed concrete elements while pre-stressing. Most cracks appear due to excessive loading rate or construction errors.

Loading cracks

During the service life of the structure, loading cracks appear. Typical loading cracks are,

Tensile cracks: Cracks due to tensile forces, the crack propagates through the weakest section.

Cracking due to tensile force

Flexural cracks: These cracks appears due to bending. In most cases, the mid-span of beams undergo flexural cracks. Usually, cracks propagate only half of the section

Cracking due to bending

Shear cracks: Appears near high shear zones. A commonplace for these cracks is beam-column joints.

Shear cracks

Torsional cracks: Beams having voids on one side and cantilever slabs on other sides are the most common example of torsional members. These cracks propagate around the beam

Foundation movements: Differential ground settlements can cause cracks in the structure.

Chemicals can create unfavorable conditions for concrete as well as reinforcements. Both deteriorations lead to cracks.

Cracks due to corrosion of reinforcements

These cracks appear after years of time. Reinforcements swell with the corrosion reaction and cracks appear due to this. When chlorides are available cracks appear after 1 to 2 years and carbonation can leads to corrosion in more than 5 years.

Cracks due to chemical attack

Common chemical attacks that lead to cracks are,

  • Sulfate attack
  • Alkali – silica reaction: silica in the aggregates reacts with the alkaline ingredients in the cement and forms a gel that expands with external water. This movement in the hardened concrete creates cracks. Normally these cracks appear more than 5 years.
  • Alkali – carbonation reaction: This occurs due to impure dolomitic limestone or marble.

Cracking due to heat

Generally concrete is better against heat compared to steel. Both the aggregates and cement expand slowly with the heat and comes back to the original size when cooling. However, at higher temperatures, cement paste starts to shrink because of internal water evaporation. This will develop the micro crack around the aggregates.


Time of crackingCrack typePossible reasons
10 minutes to 3 hoursPlastic settlement cracksThin cover Change of concrete depths
1 hour to 5 hoursCracks due to formwork settlementInsufficient supports Low-quality form boards
Mostly within the first 5 hoursPlastic shrinkage cracksHigh evaporation rate
During hardeningSelf – desiccation cracksLow w/c
Generally within the first weekCracks due to crazingHigh environment temperature
First few weeksThermal cracksHigh contrast between internal and external temperature
Within several monthsDrying shrinkage cracksDifferent drying rates in the concrete External restraints
After pre-stressingPre-stressing cracksToo much pre-stressing rate
While loading the structureLoading cracksDefects in the construction Foundation movements
At least 1 to 5 yearsCracks due to rebar corrosionAccelerated corrosion due to chemicals
More than 5 yearsCracks due to deteriorationAlkali – silica reaction Alkali – carbonation reaction Sulfate attack
Summery of common cracks and reasons for cracking


Kalhara Jayasinghe is a civil engineer currently engage with hydropower construction works in Sri Lanka. He has completed his bachelor's degree & master's in structural engineering from the University of Peradeniya and achieved chartered engineer title in 2019 from the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka.

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