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racks in masonry can scar a buildings ar-

chitectural appearance. They can be the
cause of leaks from wind-driven rain. Or
they can be the first telltale signs of a po-
tential wall collapse. Thus no crack should go unex-
amined. For every crack, a trained investigator should
re c o rd, with photographs and sketches, the following
i n f o r m a t i o n :
Location on the building
Pattern (horizontal, vertical, straight diagonal, or
stepped diagonal)
L e n g t h
Width (uniform or tapered; if tapered note how)
Depth (through paint, plaster, or entire wall)
Age (clean crack indicates new; coated with paint or
dirt indicates old)
Moving crack or dormant crack
Based on this information, an investigator can assess
the cause of the crack, how harmful it is, and how best
to repair it, if repair is deemed necessary. The location
and pattern of cracks are the most important in deter-
mining what caused them. In the drawings shown
h e re, the causes of some typical cracks in brick and
block masonry are explained, based on the location
and pattern of the cracks.
Measuring crack width
To measure the width of cracks, most investigators
use a crack comparator although a graduated magni-
fying device is more accurate. Both of these devices are
shown in Figure 1. The crack comparator is easy to
use, sufficiently accurate for most jobs, and usually is
supplied free by firms specializing in failure investiga-
tions. The graduated magnifiers cost $50 to $100.
When is a crack too wide?
Whether a crack is too wide depends on the materi-
al, the type of building, the climate, and the type of
crack. If the owner spared no cost on the buildings ar-
chitectural design, cracks that are 0.01 inch wide may
be totally unacceptable. But a homeowner with a 20-
y e a r-old brick house would be happyand luckyto
have cracks that are only 0.01 inch wide.
A c c o rding to the Portland Cement Association
(PCA), a crack that is 0.010 to 0.015 inch wide neither
hurts the surface appearance nor alarms the viewer
Evaluating cracks
To repair cracks in masonry properly, you must first determine what caused them
By Bruce A. Suprenant
Figure 1. To measure the width of cracks, most
investigators use a crack comparator. A
graduated magnifying device is more
accurate, but costs $50 to $100. The crack
comparator usually is free from firms that
investigate failures.
(Ref. 1). Norwegian tests show that wind-driven rain
doesnt enter cracks narrower than 0.004 inch (Ref. 2).
Even cracks wider than this may not allow enough
water penetration to damage masonry or the building.
So how does one evaluate the width of cracks? Ta b l e
1 lists typical tolerable crack widths for re i n f o rced con-
c rete, modified from Ref. 3. These tolerable crack
widths also should be reasonable for re i n f o rced ma-
sonry stru c t u res. Based on these values, a way to clas-
sify and evaluate crack widths in masonry is given in
Table 2.
Using Table 2, once the investigator classifies the
Cause: Vertical deflection of
concrete beam
Cause: Shrinkage of mortar
and concrete masonry units
Interior exposure
Dry atmosphere 0.016
Wet or moist atmosphere 0.012
Exterior exposure 0.008
Where watertightness is required 0.004
Source: Modified from Ref. 3.
Classification Crack Width, CW
Very fine (Watertight) CW 0.004
Fine (Exterior exposure) 0.004 <CW 0.008
Medium (Interior exposure, wet) 0.008 <CW 0.012
Extensive (Interior exposure, dry) 0.012 <CW 0.016
Severe CW > 0.016
crack, he or she also has identified the allowable expo-
s u re for that crack. For example, a crack that is 0.014
inch wide would be classified as extensive and usu-
ally allowed only in a dry interior wall. If a 0.014-inch-
wide crack occurs in an exterior wall it pro b a b l y
should be re p a i re d .
Beware of the moving crack
The diff e rence between an active or working crack
and a dormant crack is important. An active crack
may open or close, but a dormant crack has stopped
moving. Dormant cracks tend to be caused by a tem-
porary overload. Live cracks are created by re p e a t e d
overloading or by temperature or moisture changes
that continually cause the crack to open and close.
If the crack is dormant, then it can be filled with a
rigid filler, such as epoxy or cement. Working cracks,
on the other hand, should be filled with flexible
sealants. If theyre re p a i red with a rigid material,
theyll only crack again. If the filler is stronger than the
m a s o n r y, a new crack parallel to the re p a i red crack
p robably will occur.
How do you tell if a crack is active or dormant?
T h e re are three ways. The easiest is to measure the
crack width with a crack comparator at regular time
intervals, every day or every week. Record both crack
width and date of re c o rding. Always measure the
crack width at the same location. Draw a line acro s s
the crack to mark where you measured it. Do this at
t h ree or four places along the crack. On exterior walls,
use a waterproof marker.
Figure 2. Caused by lateral loads, this diagonal
shear crack is plastered to determine if the crack
is active or dormant. If the crack is active, the
patch will crack at a later date. Dormant cracks
can be filled with epoxy or cement, but active
cracks that are still moving should be filled with a
flexible sealant.
Cause: Foundation settlement
or soil heave
Another inexpensive method is to spot patch the
crack with plaster (Figure 2). Use hot water to speed
the set of the patch. Note the date the patch was
placed and inspect it at regular intervals to see if it has
cracked. A cracked patch shows that the crack is ac-
tive. Be sure the patching material doesnt crack fro m
drying shrinkage; use a nonshrink patching material.
A two-piece crack monitor that sells for less than $15
also can be used to detect crack movement (Figure 3).
One of the two plastic pieces has red cross hairs; the
other piece has a grid system with a zero mark at the
c e n t e r. The two pieces come taped together so that the
intersection of the red cross hairs on the one piece co-
incide with the zero mark on the grid of the other
p i e c e .
The monitor is laid across a crack and each end is at-
tached to the wall with epoxy or a fast-setting glue. Af-
ter the adhesive cures (about 15 minutes for fast-set-
ting glue; about 24 hours for epoxy), the tape holding
the two pieces together is cut. Now, if either side of the
crack moves, one of the plastic pieces moves. The re d
c ross hairs, originally at zero, slide over the grid sys-
tem indicating the amount of horizontal and vertical
crack movement. Both the amount and direction of
movement can be observed. Usually the monitor is
checked at the same time each day.
Evaluate cracks early
If cracks arent examined, evaluated, andif neces-
s a r y re p a i red, they can grow from an eyesore into a
costly headache. The larger cracks get, the more wind-
driven rain they let into the wall. Water in turn can
c o r rode metal components, cause eff l o rescence, and if
it freezes it can spall the masonry. Some cracks can
even lead to veneer or wall failures. Cracks are a warn-
ing that shouldnt be ignored.
1. Building Movements and Joints, 1982, Portland Cement
Association, 5420 Old Orchard Rd., Skokie, IL 60077.
2. O. Birkeland and S. D. Sevendsen, Norwegian Test
Methods for Rain Penetration through Masonry Walls, Sym-
posium on Masonry Testing, STP 320, 1963, ASTM, 1916
Race St., Philadelphia, PA 19103.
3. Control of Cracking in Concrete Structures, ACI 224,
ACI Manual of Concrete Practice, Part 3, 1989, American
Concrete Institute, P.O. Box 19150, Detroit, MI 48219.
4. Clayford T. Grimm, Masonry Cracks: A Review of the Lit-
erature, Masonry: Materials, Design, Construction, and
Maintenance, STP 992, 1988, ASTM.
5. R. E. Copeland, Shrinkage and Temperature Stresses in
Masonry, Journal of the American Concrete Institute, Feb-
ruary 1957.
Bruce A. Suprenant is a consulting engineer, an Adjunct As-
sociate Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder,
and a contributing writer to this magazine. He also took the
photographs for this article.
Figure 3. Laid across a crack and adhered to the
wall on both sides of the crack, this two-piece
crack monitor detects crack movement. If the
crack moves, the red cross hairs on one of the two
pieces becomes offset from the center of the grid
on the other piece.
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