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FATIGUE Concrete vs. Steel


W. Jack Wilkes, P.E.

Senior Vice President/Manager Figg and Muller Engineers, Inc.

Austin, Texas

The greatest number of bridge failures occur during construction, and the second largest cause of bridge failure is from flood water either from scour or from overtopping. However, the failures that seem to attract the most media attention are those that occur to aging bridges that have been in service for many years, particularly if there is loss of life involved. In many cases, the offending culprit, an overweight truck on a load posted bridge, can be identified because it is trapped in the wreckage. Unfortunately, it is often only a lightly loaded vehicle that is on the bridge when it collapses. 76

failures are the ultimate C atastrophic nightmare of structural engineers.

It may be unfair to point out that, invariably, the collapsed bridge or span is a steel beam or steel truss bridge; in years past, most long span structures in the United States were constructed with steel. Therefore, it is rare that the collapsed structure is a concrete bridge. When one searches for a reason for the collapse of older bridges, the usual cause is a fatigue failure of the steel members. Since all concrete structures require steel elements, strands or bars, to take the imposed tensile stresses in the structure, there needs to be an explanation of why concrete structures are tougher, more durable and more tolerant of frequent overloads.

It is shown that the inherent high dead load to live load ratio in concrete bridges allows such structures to be particularly effective in resisting fatigue.

Perhaps the single most important feature of concrete structures is the favorable dead load to live load ratio. Since concrete structures have greater mass, they are designed for greater dead load. For equal span lengths, the total moments for concrete spans are greater than those for steel spans because of the additional weight of the concrete. Also, concrete structures have greater total moment capacity than steel structures', therefore, the same live load results in a lower stress range in concrete structures. Fatigue is a phenomenon that affects all construction materials: wood, concrete, steel and aluminum. The insidious feature of fatigue is that the load induced stress effects are cumulative in the material for both magnitude and frequency. The AASHTO Bridge Committee was the first code writing agency to develop comprehensive specifications for fatigue design. Fatigue design is based upon the principle of range of stress. The upper fatigue limit for structural steel design for redundant structures is a range of 24.000 psi (165 MPa) for the base metal at two million cycles. As defects are introduced into the base metal through fabrication, the allowable stress range is markedly reduced to 18,000 psi (124 MPa) for welded plate girders and rolled beams with cover plates down to only a few thousand pounds per square inch for some very poor welding details. For nonredundant or single load path structures, the allowable range of stress is even lower. The metallurgical treatment of metals has improved the strength and notch toughness (brittleness) of the material, but these changes have
PCI JOURNAL/July-August 1989

had little or no effect upon the stress range fatigue properties. To compare the effect of stress range for steel and concrete structures, analyses were made of typical standard simple span designs prepared by the Federal Highway Administration. The standard plans used were for HS 20-44 live loads and generally comply with the AASHTO working stress design specifications for both rolled beam and welded plate girders and a variety of concrete structures. An analysis of a 150 ft (45.7 m) concrete box girder span was included to provide a comparison for the long span welded plate girder span. The summaries and comparisons of the various spans are shown in Table 1. In every case, the ratio of live load moment to the total moment is smaller for the concrete spans and is significantly smaller for the concrete box spans. These live load percentages for the various spans are shown in Fig. 1. Table 2 illustrates the effect that a live load which produces the maximum allowed range of stress upon steel spans would have upon concrete structures of equal span lengths. Such a live load would exceed the design load, but all bridges are occasionally subjected to overload conditions, particularly the older bridges that were designed for less than HS 20 loadings. Table 2 illustrates the favorable total moment capacity of the concrete structures and their smaller live load ratios, in some cases less than one-half of the steel counterpart. These attributes of the concrete bridges may partially explain why concrete structures are mo p e tolerant of overload conditions and why they pro77

Table 1. Summary of moments.'

Span, ft

Dead load, ft-kips

Live load plus Impact, ft-kips


Live load plus impact, total percent

Reinforced concrete girders 40 60 388 1046 381 668 Prestressed I-girders 40 60


769 1714


100 120 130

331 822 1657 3243 4796 5037

416 729 I031 1608 1958 1739 Concrete box systems

1551 2688

4851 6754 6776

55.7 47.0 38.4 33.1 29.0 25.7

80 100

2171 3659



845 1086 1323 8775 Steel beams

3016 4745 6965 47,278

28.0 22.9 19.0


40 60 80

250 572

1104 1662 2473 2960 4062

416 729 1031 Welded girders

666 1301 2135

62.5 56.0


100 120 130 150

1325 1614 1757 2082

2987 4087 4717 6144


37.2 33.9

*All rnornents are for typical girders except for the special 151) N (45.7 m) concrete box girder which is for entire span. Quantities and details for other designs determined from Standard Plans For Highway 8 rirdges, Volumes 1 & II, prepared 6y I'[ I WA. Simple spans, 44 11 (13.4 m) roadway, HS 20-44 design.

Table 2. Live load plus impact ratios and equivalent ranqe of stress. Steel Reinforced concrete girders Prestressed 1-girders Concrete box systems

Live Ioad Range Live load Range Live load Range Live load Range plus of plus of plus of of plus Span, Impact ratio, stress, Impact ratio, stress, Impact ratio, stress, Impact ratio, stress, ft percent ksi percent ksi percent ksi percent ksi 40 62.5 18 50.0 14.4 55.7 16.1) 60 56.0 18 39.0 12.5 47.0 15.1 80 48.3 18 38.4 14.3 28.0 104 100 44.4 18 33.1 13.4 22.9 9.3 120 39.5 18 29.0 13.2 19.0 8.7 130 37.2 18 25.7 12.4 150 33.9 1 18.6 9.9



6O0 2 J <50I0 O F 40U STE L BEAMS


\ ^'^E





w >20 J I z w

W 10



100 d0 SPAN, FEET



Fig. 1. Ratios of live load and impact to total moments.

vide more strength and durability. If bridge owners selected only concrete structures, can they forget about fatigue? Not entirely. Researchers have been able to induce fatigue failures in a few prestressed beams under laboratory conditions. To accomplish these failures. the y first had to crack the beams with gross overloads, then apply repeated loads to the cracked beams until failure was induced. The solution to inhibit the failure was to provide a small amount of mild PCI JOURNAL/July-August 1989

reinforcement throughout the bottom flange of the beam to distribute the cracking over a greater length of the beam. When this nominal change in the specification was proposed, the AASHTO Bridge Committee elected not to make the change for the simple reason that there had been no experience of fatigue failures in prestressed beams in actual service. For durable, long lasting and economical bridges, the clear choice is concrete. 79