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Black Cotton Soil

Black cotton soil has a tendency to shrink and swell excessively. When these type of soil come in
contact with water, they swell and when becomes dry, it shrinks. This alternate process of swelling
and shrinking results in the differential settlement of foundation which in turn causes cracks in
building. The cracks thus formed are sometimes 15 to 20 cm wide and 2.5 to 4.5 m deep.
Therefore necessary precautions need to be taken during construction to avoid any damage to
building foundation.
Following precaution should be employed during construction on black cotton soil.

Characteristics of black cotton soil

Typical characteristics of black cotton soil in Ethiopia.
1)They are very fertile
2) They are black in colour
3) they are high in organic matter.
4) They often form in grasslands and wetlands.
5)Organic matter contains plant nutrients and it also improves the physical properties of the soil,
enhancing it for plant growth
6) It is also known as regur soil

Problems of foundation on black cotton soil

Black cotton soil, a cohesive soil, is considered a problematic soil for civil engineers.
It has characteristics of swelling during rains and shrinking during summer. In both
the conditions, it poses problems. During swelling, structure has uplift pressure and
produces heave in the foundations, plinth beams, bottom of floors of buildings and
canals, roads surfaces etc. and on shrinkage, cracks develop in walls, slabs, plinth
protection, floors etc. Though, local construction technology has been developed
traditionally in the places where such type of soil is found, still cracks are observed in
the structures as sufficient precautions are not taken during construction and
maintenance period of the buildings. Various types of damages can occur in the
buildings due to up lift forces and settlement caused by the expansive soils such as
1. Diagonal and vertical cracks in smaller direction of slab.
2. Vertical cracks in internal and external walls.
3. Horizontal cracks in slab as cantilever action is created in slab.
4. Detachment of slab in outer walls towards outside.
5. Bending action in outer walls towards outside.
6. Detachment of plinth protection.
7. Heave & settlement in floors.
Black cotton soil cannot damage the structure if there is no change in its moisture content. The
damages are caused by up heaving or settlement due to change in moisture content of the black
cotton soil. It is the water which creates the uplift pressure which cause up heaving and when again
it is the water which on removal from the soil causes settlement due to drying. Thus without water,
even the black cotton soil cannot cause the damages to the buildings. There are two ways of
preventing damages due to black cotton soils, one: replacement of black cotton soil and two: by
prevention of water coming in contact with black cotton soil as given below;
Replacement of Black Cotton Soil: This is the easiest method in which black cotton soil is
replaced with some other suitable soil like a mix of moorum and sand with cohesive soil to avoid
shrinkage characteristics or water bound macadam mix and compacted at OMC. It is often asked up
to what depth, black cotton soil should be replaced? Simple answer to this question is – replace all
the black cotton soil up to whatever depth it occurs. But there are two issues over this answer, one,
whether it is economically feasible and two, whether it is technically required? Black cotton soil has
the swelling and shrinkage characteristics up to a certain depth called active zone. The soil of this
zone only swells and shrinks. In case, this soil is replaced with other type of suitable soil and the
replaced soil is suitably compacted, the soil would not have swelling/shrinking characteristics.
Preventing Water Coming in Contact with Black Cotton Soil: It is not always economically
viable to replace all the black cotton soil. Hence, damages need to be avoided by preventing water
coming into contact with foundation soil or soil below floors. It is known that the soil which is 1.5
to 2 times of the width of foundation below footing level takes the load. Therefore, if width of
foundation is 1.2 m and depth is 1.2 m, effect of pressure would be between 3 m to 3.6 m. The zone
up to which the soil gets affected for swelling and drying is called active zone. Water table in the
areas of black cotton soils is deep hence it is the rain water and storm water which is to be
prevented from coming into contact with black cotton soil of the active zone. Rain water can come
in contact with black cotton soil of the foundation from the followings:
1. Water from rain water pipes.
2. Water from open courtyards.
3. Water from broken drains constructed near foundation of the buildings.
4. Water from broken road side drains.
5. Water entered through joint between plinth protection and the walls.
6. Water coming into contact from the outside unpaved area.
7. From the roots of plants/tress planted near foundation.
Hence, it is essential that the water coming on the surface and percolating into the soil below
foundation or floors from above points is taken care in such a way that either water does not enter
into the black cotton soil or flow path of the water is lengthened in a way that water does not enter
into the active zone. The water flow and length of flow path depends on various parameters like
intensity of rain, quantity of water, permeability of the soil above footing level, length of horizontal
flow path of water, length of vertical path of flow and the vegetation in the vicinity etc. Following
are the measures by which water ingress into the soil can be avoided or length of flow path can be
increased through following measures.
Plinth Protection: Plinth protection in the buildings is provided for preventing water entering into
the foundation. In normal cases, 0.9 m to 1.2 m wide plinth protection is provided with brick bats.
But in case of black cotton soils, due to expansion and drying characteristics of soil, such plinth
protection gets damaged within a short time. Rain water pipes are also left on plinth protection.
Plinth protection acts as very important barrier in the areas of black cotton soil to prevent water
coming into contact with black cotton soils. Thus plinth protection should be impervious and as
wide as feasible. 2 to 3 m wide plinth protection in such conditions is recommended considering
site requirements, space availability and depth of black cotton soil. RCC plinth protection with lime
concrete as base concrete is recommended. No space should be left for planting trees or plants near
plinth protection as the plantation requires water and such water is harmful to the structures. It
should also be ensured that in no case, level of plinth protection is lower than the adjoining ground
as there is a possibility of a crack between wall and plinth protection from where water can seep
through. It is also better to cast RCC horizontal plinth with drain and vertical plinth.
Vertical Plinth: Vertical plinth along with horizontal one is more effective in preventing water into
the foundation as minor cracks develop at the junction of wall and horizontal plinth protection due
to construction sequence and different materials. Thus, the water flowing along the wall enters into
the foundation. Also in case of flooding around the building, and even due to splashes during heavy
rains, there is a likelihood of water entering into the foundation through brickwork. Vertical plinth
in such conditions also keeps water away. Such plinth can be provided in the form of stone cladding
supported on plinth protection. RCC wall connected with plinth beams overlapped over plinth
protection is very helpful as it works like an umbrella over junction of plinth and the wall. It is to be
ensured that no flooding occurs around the building.
Vertical Barrier and Drains: Vertical barrier on the outer edge of the plinth monolithically cast
with the plinth also lengthens the flow path and keeps moisture away from the foundation. Though,
the depth of vertical barrier depends upon active zone but more the depth, higher the length of the
flow path. Since the drain also helps in keeping the moisture away, vertical barrier can be used as a
part of the drain. Inner wall of the drain can be constructed monolithic to the plinth protection.
More the depth of the drain, higher the length of the flow path and better to keep moisture away
from the foundation. If geo-membranes are used vertically, they will also be effective but it is to be
ensured that they do not get punctured from the pressure of filling material and have leak proof
joints. In case, wide horizontal plinth cannot be provided due to site constraints, long vertical
barriers should be provided to lengthen the flow path.
Damp Proof Course (DPC): Normally, DPC is provided with cement concrete over which a
bitumen coating is done. During continuous rains, water flows along the surface and enters the
foundation along the external surface. Therefore, it is recommended that RCC damp proof course
should be provided to make it impervious compared to ordinary cement concrete and vertical plinth
provided up to DPC.
Road and Plinth Protection: If the road/pavement surface is near the building, no space should be
left between plinth protection and the road/pavement surface. The space should be paved to avoid
water to seep through by continuing the road/pavement surface up to plinth protection. Leaving no
space between the plinth protection/building and road lengthens the flow path.
Rain Water Pipes: Normally rain water pipes are left on plinth protection. When plinth protection
gets damaged, water percolates into the foundation soil. Therefore, rain water pipes should be
connected into chambers and chambers to the drain. In internal courtyards, rain water pipes are to
be connected to outside drains. If these pipes are left inside and water is not properly taken outside,
this leads to heave of floors, cracks in walls and other damages to the structure. It is always better to
pave all the internal courtyards so that water is kept away from the foundation as well as floors.
Horticulture Works: Horticulture works are undertaken in the buildings for the beautification and
also for better environment. It must be understood that the horticulture works require water
throughout the year. Hence, water comes into contact with adjoining soil. Since in case of black
cotton soil, water is to be kept away from the structure, it is better to plant trees away from the
structures. Therefore, plantation is to be carried out in consultation with civil engineers else the
plantation helps in damaging the structure in such soils due to moisture attraction. Trees should be
planted away from the buildings and on other side of the road.
Base Concrete and Filling Under floors: Normally cement concrete is provided as base concrete.
In black cotton soil, lime concrete is effective as it alters the characteristics of the expansive soil.
Hence, lime concrete should be provided as base concrete in place of cement concrete. It is said that
2-6% lime prevents swelling characteristics of expansive soil. Below footing level and floors, layers
of non swelling soil mixed with moorum or WBM material are effective and are better than sand
filing. A combination of RCC damp proof course, vertical plinth, and monolithically constructed
RCC horizontal plinth with RCC drain helps in preventing water entering into the black cotton soil.
Wide horizontal plinth protection large depth of monolithically cast drains help in lengthening the
flow path to avoid water entering into active zone.

Points keept in mined while constructing foundations in black cotton soils

In designing footings on these solis, the following points should be keept in mind:

1. The safe bearing capacity should be properly determined, taking into account Ihe effect of
susained loading. The long term effect of loading results in slow consolidation. In absence of tests,
the bearing capacity of these soils may be limited to 5 to 10 t/m2.

2. The foundation should be taken at Ieast 50 cm lower than the depth of moisture movement. This
depth should also be much more than depth of tension cracks.

3. Where this soil occurs only in top layer, and where the thickness of this layer does fol exceed 1 to
1.5 m, the entire layer of black cotton soil (or other expansive soil) should be removed, and the
foundation should be laid on non-shrinkable non- expansive soil.

4. Where the depth of clay layer is large, the foundation or footing should be prevented from
coming in contact with the soil. This can be done by excavating wider and deeper foundation trench
and interposing layer of sand/mooram around and beneath the footing.

5. Where the soil is highly expansive, it is very essential to have minimum contact between the soil
and the footing. This can be best achieved by transmitting the loads through deep piles or piers and
by supporting wall loads on capping beams which are kept some distance (5 to 15 cm) above the
ground surface, to permit free expansion of the soil.
6. Where the bearing capacity of soil is poor, or soil is very soft, the bed of the foundation trench
should be made firm or hard by ramming mooram and ballast mio it.
7. The foundations should be constructed during dry season. Also suilable plinth protection around
the external wall should be made on the ground surface, with its slope away from the wall, so that
moisture does not penetrate the foundation during rainy season.

Types of foundation in black cotton soils

Foundation in black cotton soils may be of the following types:

1. Strip or pad foundatíon. For medium loads, strip foundation (for walls) and pad foundation (for
columns) may be provided, along with special design features discussed above. some typical
section of shallow footings sutable for black cotton and other expansive soils.

2. Pier foundation :- Pier foundation used in black coton soil for a wall carrying heavy loads. Piers
are dug at regular interval and filled with cement concrete. The piers may rest on good bearing
3. Under-reamed pile foundation. An under-reamed pile is a pile of shallow depth (1 to 6 m)
having one bulb a its lower end. If this bulb is taken or provided at a level lower than the critical
depth of moisture movement in expansive solis.

Precautions to be Taken
1. The maximum load on black cotton soil should be limited to 5 tonnes/m2. If there is a
chance for water to come in contact with foundation, then the load should be limited to 4.9
2. Foundation should be placed at a depth where the cracks cease to extend. The minimum
depth of foundation should be at least 1.5 m.
3. The main wall of the building must be provided with all round reinforced concrete ties or
4. Reinforced concrete ties or bands having 10 to 15 cm deep should be placed at plinth
level, lintel level and eaves level.
5. In case the depth of black cotton soil is only 1 m to 1.5 m, then completely remove the entire
black cotton soil and place the foundation below that depth.
6. Try to avoid direct contact of black cotton soil with foundation material. This can be
achieved by making wider trenches for foundation and filling spaces on either side of the
foundation masonry with sand or morroum.
7. Ram the bed of the foundation trench to make it farm and hard. On this rammed bed, spread
a thick layer of morroum (i.e. 30 cm) in two layers, each layer being 15 cm. each layer
should be water and rammed properly to get highest possible density. On this compacted
layer of morroum, place either sand or stone upto desired height where concrete foundation
bed has to be made.
8. In case of important structures, raft foundation should be provided.
9. For less important structures (such as boundary wall construction), the foundation should
preferably taken at least 15 cm below the depth at which cracks in soil cease to occur.
10.Construction should be done in dry season.
11.For main walls or for load bearing walls, the width of the trench should be dug 40 cm wider
than width of foundation. Then fill the space on either side of the trench (i.e. 20 cm in each
side) with coarse sand. This is done to separate the foundation masonry from direct contact
with black cotton soil. In case of compound wall this width of sand filling can be reduced to
15 cm on each side.
12.Under reamed pile foundation is also a good choice of foundation in black cotton soil.