5 Things GCs Need to Know about Moisture in Concrete

General Contractor
As a general contractor, you’re expected to know every aspect of the construction project. Of course, you need to trust the trade specialists on the team, but having key information can be crucial to your role in overseeing the schedule and budget of the project as a whole.

Nowhere is this more important than in the area of moisture testing in concrete. Concrete provides the foundation for key systems in most modern building projects, so understanding the need for accurate moisture testing can provide the basis for better schedule management, and prevent future problems down the road.

Moisture Matters in Concrete

It may be stating the obvious to say that moisture is part of concrete, but considering the billions of dollars in damage that moisture intrusion or moisture-related problems cause each year in the building and construction industry, it’s worth saying again: concrete has moisture.

For concrete, water is a key ingredient in the hydration process that sets and cures the cement portion of any concrete blend. Even with the rapidly changing innovations in admixtures and concrete science, water still is part of every batch mix.

Why is that so important? Because if that initial water isn’t given time to leave the slab, it will cause damage that ranges from roof system to floor adhesive failures to environmental health hazards through mold and mildew growth. Moisture cannot be ignored in any construction project.

Moisture Moves in Concrete

From the initial batch mix, concrete hydrates (or cures) and then must release any excess moisture through the drying process. During that process, a large percentage of the excess moisture in the slab must be able to reach the surface and evaporate.

Moisture within a concrete slab follows a number of small pathways, or capillaries, that form as it combines with the initial mix elements – cement, aggregate and any other admixtures.

As it evaporates, more moisture moves up through these pathways in a cycle and forms a gradient effect within the slab. Until the concrete is sealed, this cycle generally means that the moisture level is typically higher deeper in the slab. This is crucial to understand when choosing a concrete moisture test method.

It’s also important to understand that this process can reverse if the ambient conditions around the slab have higher humidity levels than are present in the slab. Those pathways go two directions so that unsealed concrete can also absorb moisture, whether through contact with a direct water source (like groundwater or leaking plumbing) or through ambient moisture.

Once the concrete has been sealed, moisture continues to move within the slab until it reaches a state of balance referred to as equilibration.

Concrete Can’t Be Rushed

Drying ConcreteIt’s all well and good to apply a rule of thumb to drying concrete (a typical one is one month of drying time for each inch of slab depth), but the reality of concrete is that too many factors come into play to assume you can predict when it will be dry.

There are a number of products or processes that are intended to speed the drying time for concrete. Self-desiccant products in the initial mix, dehumidification, manipulating ambient conditions, lower initial water mix – all are intended to speed up the drying process by reducing the amount of moisture necessary to achieve a strong, faster drying concrete slab. However, if not incorporated correctly, they can cause more problems than they correct.

Mechanical processes can also impede drying time. A rushed or misjudged troweling job, a surface curing compound, or any other process or material that minimizes the moisture ability to leave If these pathways are blocked for any reason, or if they are not dispersed well through the slab, will result in the amount of time it takes for the moisture to move out of the slab to slow significantly. Ambient conditions also have a very significant impact on concrete drying times, so any change in relative humidity (RH), air movement, temperature (as it relates to ambient RH), or HVAC impact will ultimately affect the final drying schedule.

Try to rush it, and the performance of the slab can be compromised; too slow and your schedule is in danger.

Moisture Must Be Measured in Concrete

Ultimately, the amount of moisture in the slab must be the final guideline for decided when the next step in the building process can take place. This requires accurate concrete moisture measurement.

What are the options?

There are two main standards in the industry right now – calcium chloride (CaCl) testing and RH testing. Also known but less common in use are the hood method, plastic sheet method, and concrete moisture meters. What is the difference?

CaCl testing (also sometimes referred to as moisture vapor emissions rate or MVER) is a test method that uses an anhydrous desiccant material on the surface of the concrete slab and then seals it with a cover intended to prevent ambient conditions from influencing the test results.

The theory is that the amount of moisture absorbed by the desiccant will reflect the amount of moisture evaporating from the slab surface, and the moisture conditions of the slab as a whole.

The challenge with any surface-based test, like CaCl testing, the hood method, or plastic sheet method, is that they can only be considered reliable for the surface of the concrete.

Lightweight Concrete In understanding how moisture tends to have a gradient concentration in concrete, it’s obvious how a surface-based test method cannot be an accurate indicator of internal conditions. The method has proven so problematic that ASTM International has specifically disallowed CaCl testing for lightweight concrete applications.

RH testing uses in situ probes or sensors placed in holes drilled into the slab itself to measure the moisture content at a depth proven to give the best indicator of the moisture level that the slab would have if the surface were sealed at that point. ASTM International provides guidelines for RH testing in its standard F2170. RH testing puts the test in the right spot to give accurate concrete moisture measurement.

RH Testing: Have the Right Tool for the Job

When your project and your reputation are on the line, you always want the right tool for the job. In understanding the realities and challenges of concrete moisture testing, it doesn’t take much to realize that RH testing is the best choice for monitoring drying concrete and managing a building project.

RH testing has decades of scientific testing and field experience behind it to prove that it provides accurate, actionable information to trade professionals and specialists. For more than just flooring professionals, RH testing provides the foundation for a cooperative approach to moisture management.

The Rapid RH® gives you the best in affordable, accurate, and easy-to-use concrete moisture testing on the job site. Simple to install, the award-winning design of the Rapid RH® puts patented Smart Sensors™ to work with touch-n-go technology to make readings a matter of minutes that could save you months.

In addition, with the Rapid RH® DataMaster™, recording and reporting are easier than ever for providing job site documentation and ASTM-compliant reporting.

As every general contractor knows, time is money, and so is lost time. With the Rapid RH® for concrete RH, you can manage the time of each building project with accurate and actionable test results.

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Jason Spangler

Jason has 20+ years' experience in sales and sales management in a spectrum of industries and has successfully launched a variety of products to the market, including the original Rapid RH® concrete moisture tests. He currently works with Wagner Meters as our Rapid RH® product sales manager.

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