Contraction/control joints are placed in concrete slabs to control random cracking. A fresh concrete mixture is a fluid, plastic mass that can be molded into virtually any shape, but as the material hardens there is a reduction in volume or shrinkage. When shrinkage is restrained by contact with supporting soils, granular fill, adjoining structures, or reinforcement within the concrete, tensile stresses develop within the concrete section. While concrete is very strong in compression the tensile strength is only 8 to 12 percent of the compressive strength. In effect, tensile stresses act against the weakest property of the concrete material. The result is cracking of the concrete.
There are two basic strategies to control cracking for good overall structural behavior. One method is to provide steel reinforcement in the slab which holds random cracks tightly. When cracks are held tightly or remain small, the aggregate particles on the faces of a crack interlock thus providing load transfer across the crack. It is important to recognize that using steel reinforcement in a concrete slab actually increases the potential for the occurrence of random hairline cracks in the exposed surface of the concrete.
The most widely used method to control random cracking in concrete slabs is to place contraction/control joints in the concrete surface at predetermined locations to create weakened planes where the concrete can crack in a straight line. This produces an aesthetically pleasing appearance since the crack takes place below the finished concrete surface. The concrete has still cracked which is normal behavior, but the absence of random cracks at the concrete surface gives the appearance of an un-cracked section.
Contraction joints should be placed to produce panels that are as square as possible and never exceeding a length to width ratio of 1.5 to 1. Joints are commonly spaced at distances equal to 24 to 30 times the slab.
Joints may also be sawed into the hardened concrete surface. It is important to understand that the longer sawing is delayed the higher the potential for cracks to establish themselves before sawing is complete. This means that any cracks that occur before the concrete is sawed will render the sawed joint ineffective. Timing is very important. Joints should be sawed as soon as the concrete will withstand the energy of sawing without raveling or dislodging aggregate particles.
Contraction/control joints must be established to a depth of ¼ the slab thickness (Figure 2). Proper joint spacing and depth are essential to effective control of random cracking.