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4 Corrosion of metals B2 Exterior closure

Corrosion of metals
Summary: Corrosion of metals affects nearly all parts of
buildings and their environment, evidenced in still extant
but corroding iron masonry dowels used by the ancient

Greeks in the Parthenon to vastly more critical corrosion
of contemporary parking garages and highway structures.

Design guidelines are offered to mitigate and control cor-
rosion conditions in buildings.

Uniformat: B2010
Corroded steel beam, with web totally
destroyed as removed from under a Key words: Anodic protection, cathodic protection, corro- MasterFormat: 05050
masonry bearing wall. sion, paint, rust, rust-resistant treatments and coatings.

Corrosion in general
Current opinion is that all metal corrosion reactions are electrochemi- nia passed off, the droppings fermented, producing acidic condi-
cal, and that these reactions are best understood by application of ther- tions at the steel, retaining water from dew and other sources. The
modynamic principles. The following summary is, however, in terms steel then corroded. After cleaning, the diagnostic remedy was
of “classic” corrosion theory. For a discussion of modern thermody- relatively simple, to close the small openings through which pi-
namic corrosion theory, see Fontana (1986). For more information on geons gained access and to maintain the tight closure.
corrosion of different iron and steel structures, see Steel Structures
Painting Council (1993). Iron and steel corrosion
The corrosion of iron and steel is among the most harmful natural
Even if only one metal is involved, small differences in electric po- environmental forces acting on buildings. Iron can corrode under a
tential cause electrons to flow in the metal. If adjoining metals are number of different conditions in damp environments. The following
different, and especially if they are far apart on the galvanic series, are some of the more common modes:

the reaction will be more rapid. In a fresh water environment, the
following galvanic series, from “more noble” to “less noble” applies • Iron in oxygen-free acid environment.
(in a wet environment, metals toward the bottom of the series will Fe + 2(HCl) -> FeCl2 + H2
corrode in contact with those toward the top).
Cathodic reaction: 2H+ + 2e -> H2
Monel (Hydrogen ions in solution combine with electrons at the cathode
Copper to form hydrogen.)
Stainless steel Anodic reaction: Fe -> Fe+2 + 2e
Lead (Iron gives off electrons which pass through the metal to the cath-
Tin on steel ode; ferric ions go into solution.)
Galvanized iron or steel
Zinc See Fig. 1 on next page.
• Iron in aerated environment, neutral or basic.
O2 + 2H2 O + 2Fe -> 4OH- + 2Fe +2 -> 2 FeOH2
One of the most common examples of galvanic corrosion with dis- Cathodic reaction: O2 + 2H2 O + 4e -> 4OH-
similar metals is the corrosion of steel domestic water pipe coupled to (Oxygen in solution and water combine with electrons at the cath-
copper pipe. The galvanic series is different in sea water and other ode and form hydroxyl ions in solution.)
aqueous solutions (Fontana 1986).
Anodic reaction: Fe -> Fe+2 + 2e

“Biological corrosion” is corrosion in which living organisms affect (Iron gives off electrons which pass through the metal to the cath-
the corrosion. Examples are destruction of protective coatings and ode; ferric ions go into solution.)
changing the pH of the environment. One actual case example is the Then: Fe+2 + 2(OH)- -> Fe(OH)2
rusting of a microwave tower, in which shrouding of the tower was (Ferric ions and hydroxyl ions combine to form ferric hydroxide.)
required by a local architectural review board.
Then: 2Fe(OH)2 + O2 -> Fe2O3 + H2O
• The shrouding protected the interior from rain and high winds. (Ferric hydroxide and oxygen combine to form hematite
TOC The shelter allowed pigeons to nest within and also prevented the
droppings from being washed away by the rain. The droppings
produced ammonia-rich conditions against the protective paint on
[brown rust] and water.)
And this product can be further oxidized to FeO

i the steel which then saponified and peeled off. After the ammo-

Author: Donald Baerman, AIA

(Ferric oxide)

W References: Brantley, L. Reed and Ruth T. Brantley. 1995. Building Materials Technology: Structural Performance and Environmental
Impact. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Fontana, Mars G, and Norbert D. Greene. 1986. Corrosion Engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Steel Structures Painting Council. 1993. Steel Structures Painting Manual. Pittsburgh: Steel Structures Painting Council.

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B2 Exterior closure B2.4 Corrosion of metals

• Iron in aerated acid water. See Fig. 2.

2Fe + O2 + 4H + -> 2H 2O + 2Fe2
Cathodic reaction: 02 + 4H+ + 4e -> 2H 2O
(Oxygen and hydrogen ions in solution combine with electrons at
the cathode to form water.)

Anodic reaction: Fe -> Fe+2 + 2e


(Iron gives off electrons which pass through the metal to the cath-
ode; ferric ions go into solution.) See Fig. 3.
• Iron and copper, or other “noble” metal, coupled.
The reactions are similar to those described above, but the coupled
metals may create a greater differential in potentials between the
anode and cathode, and the reaction is more rapid. See Fig. 4.
In aerated water, it is as follows:
The primary harm from steel corrosion is the weakening of the struc-
tural steel itself.

Some of the products of corrosion reactions, in addition to destruc-

Fig. 1. Iron in oxygen-free acid environment (solution) tion of the steel itself, can be harmful to the building.

• Hydroxyl ions can attack the paint. Atomic hydrogen, produced

in some corrosion reactions, can embrittle certain steels, especially
high strength steels, and it can form “blisters” where there are
voids within the metal. Note the unfortunate coincidence: parking
garages are often built with prestressed concrete, which contains
reinforcing strands of high-strength steel under stress. Parking
garages in cold regions have salt tracked into them. The cover of
precast, prestressed concrete over reinforcing is generally less than
1-1/2", because the flanges are thin.

• The iron oxides and hydroxide are hydrates; they contain bonded
water. They are roughly about 10 times as voluminous as the iron.
Their expansive force is mighty; they can burst concrete and ma-
sonry, and they can break fasteners. Rust expansion is a major
destroyer of the built environment. See Fig. 5.

Other types of corrosion of concern to architects

In building locations subject to acid deposition (acid rain), a residue
of acid may remain on roofs after the rain dries and acid aerosols may
settle there. When the acid rain dries on chemically inert surfaces,
Fig. 2. Iron in aerated environment, netural or basic and when additional acid aerosols settle, the acids become concen-
trated. Rain will dilute the acid and wash it off, but mist and dew on
the roof may dissolve the acid residue without diluting it much, and
the resulting acid may attack copper, lead-coated copper, and some
other roofing metals, removing the protective patina. Without a coat-
ing of protective patina, copper’s durability is reduced. If the copper
is designed not to accept runoff from other surfaces, or if it is pro-
tected by zinc sacrificial anodes, it is very durable. See Fig. 6.

• Intergranular corrosion (corrosion of one alloy component) may

occur in alloys. One type is dezincification of brass, commonly
called “crystallization.”

• Lead may leach out of domestic water lines, solder, and fixtures,
and make the domestic water toxic.

• Stainless steel in an environment with halide ions suffers “auto-


catalytic corrosion;” the corrosion occurs in small pits and may
cause premature failure. Thus, stainless steel ceiling hangers over
chlorinated swimming pools are not a wise design choice.
Aluminum will corrode in the presence of hydroxyl ions. Hydroxyl
ions are found in concrete and masonry mortar. This is a rapid W
reaction. If aluminum is embedded in fresh concrete, an area of
hydrogen bubbles can sometimes be seen at the surface above it.
Since concrete is rich in hydroxyl ions, wetting of the concrete-

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B2.4 Corrosion of metals B2 Exterior closure

aluminum boundary may continue to cause corrosion in the com-

pleted building.
Some methods of corrosion prevention
In general, subvert any part of the corrosion reaction. The following
are some of the strategies for doing so:

• Since the reactions listed above are aqueous reactions, prevent the
metals from getting wet. This protection must be highly reliable.
The writer has seen unpainted, uncorroded steel in the attics of
buildings nearly a century old and an unrusted twenty year old
tobacco can in the Nevada desert. However, if a leak occurs and
the steel gets wet, corrosion will proceed.
• Select proper materials. For severe service, consider high-silica
cast iron, certain types of wrought iron (if available), stainless
steel, bronze, or other noncorroding metals. Where materials vul-
nerable to corrosion are used in a damp environment, protect them
by one of the methods listed below.
• Provide anodic protection. This is based on a property of iron and Fig. 3. Iron in aerated acid water
some other metals to “passivate” at an intermediate level of oxi-
dizing power. Paint coatings such as zinc chromate and red lead
protect by this mechanism.
• Provide cathodic protection. This is similar to the galvanic corro-
sion noted above, but the protective metal is less noble than the
material being protected. The protected base metal becomes the
cathode, and the less noble metal, such as zinc or aluminum, be-
comes the sacrificial anode. This is the basis for protection by the
zinc coating on galvanized steel. However, since the protective

anodic metal is sacrificed, there is a time limit to this protection.
In some cases the sacrificial anode may be replaced, but galva-
nized steel inside construction cannot easily be replaced.

Cathodic protection can be provided by blocks of sacrificial anodic

metal. Cathodic and anodic protection can also be provided by apply-
ing a direct current to the metal and its environment. Protection using
these methods should be designed by a corrosion engineer. A com-
monly seen use of cathodic protection is the zinc blocks coupled to
underground steel fuel tanks.
Maintaining a high pH (hydroxyl-rich) environment will protect
steel unless there are halide ions present. (“pH” is a measure of the Fig. 4. Galvanic couple (similar to example in Fig. 3)
acidity and alkalinity of a solution. “7” is neutral, below 7 is acid,
and above 7 is alkaline. The numbers are on a logarithmic scale;
each unit above 7 is 10 times the previous unit, and every unit
below 7 is 1/10 the previous unit.) Thus steel framing and reinforc-
ing steel encased in concrete and masonry are generally not subject
to corrosion. However:
- The embedment must be great enough to avoid neutralizing the

alkaline environment by acid deposition. Special quality control
is needed to maintain the proper separation of embedded steel from
exterior surfaces. Using “chairs” between the reinforcing and the
side and bottom forms is one method of maintaining proper separa-
tion. Vigilant inspection with a mirror or flashlight is another.
- The concrete or masonry must be sound and relatively uncracked.

TOC - There must be no penetration by chloride and other halide ions.

Chlorides and other halides “depassivate” the surface of the metal.

i The chemical mechanism by which they do this is apparently not

known with certainty, but appears to concern complex reactions
with the passivation layer. Therefore some methods which protect
steel in an salt-free environment don’t work in an environment
W rich in chlorides and other halides.
- Corrosion-inhibiting admixtures for concrete are available. Also,
highly impermeable concrete and concrete with durable coatings
will resist the penetration of halide ions.

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B2 Exterior closure B2.4 Corrosion of metals

• Apply coatings. This is the predominant method of corrosion pro-

tection, but has its problems. Most paints of most types are some-
what porous, and many paints do not contain corrosion-inhibitive
pigments. Corrosion-protective coatings for each specific envi-
ronment should be selected through consultation with a technical

representative of the selected paint manufacturer or, for critical

applications, a corrosion engineer. The Steel Structures Painting

Manual (1993) contains recommendations for preparing, prim-

ing, and painting steel structures under numerous service condi-
tions. Preparation, priming, and painting may be specified by ref-
erence to SSPC standard specifications.
- A few coatings, including coal tar enamel, are totally non-
porous, but it is prudent to assume that paint coatings are some-
what porous.
- Most organic corrosion-resistant coatings (paints), such as red lead
and zinc chromate, protect by creating an oxidizing polarized layer
at the metal surface. See “anodic protection” above. They are not
recommended for total or frequent immersion, however.
- A few organic corrosion-resistant coatings (paints), such as zinc
dust primer, protect by becoming sacrificial anodes and thus mak-
ing the steel the cathode. The zinc must be tightly packed and
within a few angstrom units of the surface of the metal (the zinc-
rich primer must be applied almost immediately after abrasive
blasting). These paints are called “zinc rich primers and paints.”
- Epoxy coatings are commonly applied to concrete reinforcing bars
in critical environments. Epoxy coatings are not harmed by an
alkaline environment, while most alkyd and oleoresinous paints

are saponified and loosened in that environment.

- Applying most finish paints directly to the metal does not give
good protection; they need a proper primer. The preparation must
also be proper.
- There is a synergistic effect with the use of coatings and catalytic
Fig. 5. Brick masonry cracked by expansion of corroding lintel protection. There is an advantage to using zinc dust polymer coat-
ings over abrasive-blasted steel, in that both cathodic protection
and an impermeable layer are employed. Applying a proper pro-
tective coating over galvanized steel protects the zinc coating and
thus prolongs the life of the coating and its protection.
Good design practice
While specialized corrosion protection may require the services of a
corrosion engineer, the following good design practices can be imple-
mented by the architect, and can be highly effective.
• Protect corrosion-vulnerable components from water. Design all
details to be free-draining.
• Maintain a proper environment near corrodible metals. For ex-

ample, don’t locate lead-acid batteries near structural steel. Don’t

locate steel structures in a place formerly or presently used to store
salt. Low temperatures retard corrosion. Hot, steamy environments
hasten corrosion.
• Protecting steel from corrosion in a halide-rich environment is
difficult and often unreliable. Parking garage decks in areas where

Fig. 6. Pitting and corrosion of copper flashing as a result of

melting salts are used in winter, especially the floors which are
not exposed to rain washing, are highly vulnerable to corrosion.
Cathodic and anodic protection is currently being used for bridge
runoff from membrane roof structures, and such protection can be used for parking structures
as well. The design of such protection is performed by corrosion
engineers, but it is the architect’s role to request consultation with
the corrosion engineer when appropriate. One beneficial mainte-
nance operation is to wash the lower floors of parking garages W
with clear water in the spring, but the designer can’t be sure that
this maintenance will be performed.

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B2.4 Corrosion of metals B2 Exterior closure

• Increase wall thicknesses to allow some corrosion without affect-

ing required strength. Example: cast iron roof drains corrode, but
their thickness, together with the slow corrosion rate of cast iron,
allows them to function for the life of the roof.
• Avoid open joints. Welded joints and rolled sections resist inter-

nal corrosion, while riveted and bolted connections are more prone

to such corrosion. Where it is appropriate to use riveted or bolted
connections exposed to a corrosive environment, provide special
protection (See Fig. 7).
• Design to facilitate cleaning, maintenance, and replacement. De-
sign inspection panels at critical joints.
• Avoid corrosive conditions at stress concentrations (or, avoid stress
concentrations in corrosive environments). Stress concentrations
cause differences in potential and thus galvanic corrosion.
• Avoid electrical circuits in metal in corrosive environments. Elec-
trical circuits cause differences in potential and thus galvanic
• Avoid heterogeneity of metals, especially metals far apart in the Fig. 7. Corrosion between bolted steel plates
galvanic series.
• Observe and learn from experience in the locale where you prac-
tice. What works in Houston won’t necessarily work in Montpe-
lier. When practicing outside of your familiar area, confer with
architects and engineers familiar with the environmental factors
specific to the locale of the building project.
• Insulate galvanic couples. For example, isolate steel from copper
pipe in water supply lines.

• Keep the exposed area of the cathode small, and keep the exposed
area of the anode large. A copper nail in a steel sheet is not very
harmful, but a steel nail in a copper sheet is harmed. If you can
only protect half the system, protect the cathodic part.
• Note that “weathering steel” (“Corten” and “Miari-R”) resists
corrosion except in salt atmospheres and where exposed to stand-
ing water. Follow the manufacturer’s precautions.
• In metals imbedded in concrete:
- Maintain adequate cover, following the recommendations of the
American Concrete Institute and increasing the cover where prac-
ticable. Exercise tight quality control regarding this. Inspect the
formwork, using a good flashlight on dark days and a mirror on
bright days. Do not permit the concrete to be placed until certain
that there is no metal near the outside forms. This applies to tie
wires as well as reinforcing. Specify “chairs” between the rein-
forcing and the outside forms.
- Maintain a high pH. Note that acid deposition can neutralize the
concrete, especially if the concrete cover is thin. To some extent,

coating old concrete with lime wash (calcium hydroxide plus bind-
ers and other admixtures) may stop neutralizing by acid deposition.
- Concrete should be of high quality and nonporous. Avoid excess
water in the mix. Use water-reducing admixture or other means to
lower the water content. Consider silica fume precipitate. Remem-
ber that nonstructural concrete must be treated with the same care
as structural concrete.
Avoid chlorides. Don’t add them, and don’t allow use of aggre-

i gates and water containing chlorides (salt sand; salt used to melt
ice in the mixer, etc.). Note that some proprietary products may
contain chlorides without saying so. Consider having plastic con-
crete tested for chlorides. The chloride content allowed under codes
W may not be safe; consider using a lower limit. A desirable limit,
but hard to attain, is 0.1%. by weight of cement. ACI permits 2%,
with less for prestressed work.

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B2 Exterior closure B2.4 Corrosion of metals

- If the concrete will be exposed to chlorides (near ocean, in park-

ing garage, in swimming pool, etc.), the integral or applied pro-
tection to exclude chlorides must be in place before exposure.
Such methods do not work after the chlorides have already pen-
etrated the concrete. Methods of sealing the concrete include coat-

ings, penetrating water repellents, and very nonporous concrete.

Some success has been reported regarding removal of chlorides

by setting up an electrical current. A positive charge is imposed

on the top of the concrete, drawing the chloride anions to the top
where they can be washed off.
- Avoid cracking. Discuss methods with the structural engineer.
Remember that nonstructural concrete must be protected from
cracking as well as structural concrete. Cracking is especially likely
at areas of tension and thermal movement concentration.
- Galvanize reinforcing, or use epoxy-coated reinforcing, or use
stainless steel, or use nonmetallic reinforcing such as alkali-resis-
tant fiberglass and aramid fiber. These methods should be used in
conjunction with good design; they may not be adequate by them-
- Patches in concrete at reinforcing can create a galvanic cell which
makes other parts of the reinforcing anodic. For this reason the
steel should be coated with an electrically insulating coating be-
fore the concrete is patched.
- Salt splash zones in concrete and masonry are vulnerable to cor-
rosion. Salt splash zones which are covered and not washed by
rain are especially vulnerable.
- Don’t necessarily trust older concrete; the problem of chloride

was not adequately recognized until the mid-1960’s. Older build-

ings may be in the process of corroding. Many of the buildings on
Alcatraz Island were allegedly built of concrete mixed with sea
water, and they are in ruin.
- Apply phosphate or other pretreatment of steel surfaces. This of-
fers corrosion protection, and it aids in paint adhesion.
• On every project consider possible corrosion problems, and seek
professional advice when in doubt. For example:
- Parking garages in climates where melting salt is used.
- Swimming pools.
- Structures near highways where melting salt is used.
- Structures near salt water.
- Structures with strong underground electrical currents.
- Structures in contaminated soil.
- Structures with critical metal components which cannot be in-
spected and repaired in the future.

Other sources of information

- MIT Corrosion Laboratory, Cambridge, MA and other University-
affiliated corrosion laboratories.
- Members of National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE),
1440 South Creek Drive, Houston, TX 77084-4906.

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