What is the Freeze Thaw Cycle and How to Avoid Its Damage to Concrete?

What is the Freeze Thaw Cycle and How to Avoid Its Damage to Concrete?

Winter, especially farther away from the equator, equals white landscapes and cozying up to a fireplace. To us humans, winter is just another season, but to buildings, roads, bridges and many other concrete structures feel the worst type of distress: the freeze-thaw cycle effect.

What is it and why is it harmful to concrete?

In a nutshell, this phenomenon is a process of distress that concrete experiences through the cyclical freezing and melting of water that has seeped into it. Eventually, this cycle can cause total cracking and permanent damage to the concrete structure.

You might wonder why does a little bit of water cause so much damage? Here is the long answer:

This phenomenon occurs when concrete is saturated with water and the temperature drops, freezing the H2O molecules. Since frozen water expands, it causes distress to the concrete structure. Once the warmer months come by, the H2O molecules melt away and reveal tiny cracks in the surface layer of the structure. The following winter when those tiny cracks are filled with water once again and the temperature drops, the H2O molecules expand, making more room for themselves and causing more distress in the concrete. The continuous freezing and thawing of water causes those tiny cracks to become larger over time and if not repaired, will permanently damage the structure.

How does it occur?

There are two ways this phenomenon happens in nature. The first is through the repeated cycle of melting and freezing of water on the natural cracks and grooves of rocks, such as in mountains, tundra, and the like. The second is through the expansion and contraction of the surface layer of rocks that are baked by direct sunlight and heat, such as in desert regions. Can’t visualize the end result of years of distress and erosion? Example: think The Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA – mighty beautiful, but we want our human-made structures to stand proud and strong for years.

Dry concrete can suffer from both types of distress, either by freezing and thawing of water or its expansion and contraction under extreme heat. The distress cannot be avoided due to the geographic location of certain cities. However, concrete can better withstand the effects of the freeze-thaw cycles with the aid of concrete additives.

Why does this effect damage the concrete?

Distress and damage to concrete from this phenomenon happens when concrete is heavily saturated with water, which happens when more than 90% of its pores are filled with H2O. Added to the fact that frozen water occupies 9% more volume than water at room temperature and there is limited space for the volume increase within the concrete, the freezing of water causes microcracks. This damage begins from the first cycle of the freezing and thawing of water and with continuous exposure to winter seasons, will result in repeated loss of the concrete surface.

What are the signs of concrete damage caused by the freeze-thaw cycle?

Often the diagnosis of the effects of this phenomenon is complicated, since other mechanisms may be involved, such as the Alkali-Silica reaction (ASR). But if all other mechanisms can be excluded, the typical signs could be:

  • Spalling and scaling of the surface
  • Surface parallel cracking
  • Large chunks are coming off the surface of concrete (cm size)
  • Exposure of aggregate
  • Usually, the exposed aggregate is uncracked
  • Gaps around the aggregate


How to avoid the freeze-thaw damage to concrete?

The short answer is: air. It sounds so simple, but if there are built-in “expansion chambers” in the dry concrete, the structure would have room to accommodate the 9% increase in volume of frozen water. Thus, the distress, damage and cracks to the concrete surface would be minimized.

There are two kinds of air in concrete, entrapped and entrained. Entrapped air results naturally from the mixing process, with approximately 1.5% of air becoming trapped when concrete is being made. The entrapped air bubbles are easily seen with the naked eye and irregularly shaped. Due to their shape and large size, entrapped bubbles do not help against the freeze-thaw cycle. They actually weaken the dry concrete. Entrained air bubbles are the opposite. They are innumerous, spherical and microscopic, creating the expansion chambers to accommodate the freeze-thaw action of water.

So, in order to protect concrete from damage, concrete should be air-entrained by adding a surface-active agent to its mix, like Carbofen 6060, Carbofen 5055, Carbofen NCX or Carbofen-X. Once added to the concrete mixture, Carbofen creates thousands of closely spaced, microscopic air bubbles in the hardened concrete. These air bubbles are what help the concrete to withstand the difficulties of the cycle, since they act as expansion chambers for the occupation of frozen water.

Usually, the bubbles should be well distributed, with a distance of 0.25 mm or more between each other in the cement paste. Thus, approximately 4% to 6% air by volume is needed in concrete to achieve the necessary air bubbles to better withstand the strain from the freeze-thaw cycle without greatly decreasing compressive strength.

Pro tip: As a rule of thumb, concrete with high water content and high water to cement ratio is less frost resistant than concrete with lower water content.

Why invest in an air-entraining agent for concrete?

Other than enjoying the lowered maintenance costs of repairing fewer cracks in concrete caused by this cycle and increasing the overall longevity of the structure, air-entraining agents are used for three primary reasons.

The first and foremost reason is to entrain air in concrete and make it more resistant to the effects of repeated freezing and melting of water in colder climates.

Secondly, air entrainers like the ones in the Carbofen line of products are used to prevent bleeding – water coming to the surface of freshly placed concrete (remember, water is required to make air bubbles and entrain the concrete).

Lastly, air-entraining agents are used to reduce the unit weight and the water/cement ratio of concrete.

If those weren’t good enough reasons to invest in an air-entraining agent like Carbofen, here are some other benefits:

  • Air entrainers grant concrete a better resistance to sulfate and chloride in the environment,
  • Reduces the amount of cement and aggregates needed to make the concrete mixture,
  • Wet concrete gains more plasticity, and
  • The water/cement ratio is reduced, thus balancing the loss of mechanical strength.



Let us know by commenting below or get in touch with our team.


Updated 29-May-2020.

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