Foundation Rebar Primer

I received some feedback to my journal posting yesterday that was suggesting I should look at the ‘other’ ICF manufacturers if I wanted to know how Rebar was ‘supposed’ to be placed.  I did and the result sure is scary.  Because you are allowed to install ICF walls without ANY engineering assistance (as long as you meet the building codes requirements including max unsupported wall height) and therefore engineering inspection, there is a plethora of miss-information out there regarding the requirements for rebar reinforcing of an ICF wall.

At least the BC Building code makes it pretty clear on the requirements, but I suspect that because the Municipal inspector is not present at time of pour, these requirements may not be adhered to – at least that is what is evidenced by one of the discussion forums I visited last night.

So – lets first look at the BC Building Code requirements.

The Horizontal rods are to be installed every 2 ft vertically and are to have 1-3/16″ inside minimum cover (30mm) meaning that the rod is to be held off the outboard surface of the inside ICF panel to allow 1-3/16″ of concrete to be present on the inside face of the bar.

The Vertical rods are to be installed per tables BCBC A to C depending on core thickness and height of wall.  The first options calls for vertical rod placed every 16″ horizontally with again 1-3/16″ inside cover (30mm) minimum.

Obviously both vertical and horizontal bars are unable to occupy the same plane off the inside face of the foundation, so the code also specifies a max cover by stating the bars are to be “located located in the inside half of the wall section”.

My requirements were much more stringent because of the height of the wall.  The engineer specified vertical bars every 12″ horizontally and horizontal bars every 2′ vertically.  I was not given a range for the vertical bar – it required 1.5″ of inside cover.  When I asked if 2″ or even 2.5″ would be OK, I was informed that they would have to rerun all of the calculations and that they suspected there would be problems.  So, I did by best to ensure 1.5″ cover.

My drawings also specified 1.5″ cover for the horizontal bars, but I failed to abide by that when placing the bars.  Because I drew up the structural drawings (with the instructions received from the engineer), and had drawn the horizontal in the centre of the core, and because I am more of a visual person instead of word person – I placed the horizontal bar down the middle of the blocks during installation.  Fortunately, my blunder was forgiven.  When doing the calculations for the wall, the engineer had generally only used the vertical bars in the strength calculations and the horizontal bars were more present for crack control. I was very relieved (and thank-full to Tacoma for providing very fast responses to all of my rebar questions), as by the time I had discovered the blunder, all of the horizontal bar had already been placed.  While waiting for the reply to come the following morning, I tossed and turned all night worrying I was going to have to disassemble the wall or pay for a fibre additive to add to the concrete for strength, like the Helix fibre (you may remember from an earlier posting, I was looking at this but had ruled it out as being too costly considering it could not replace ALL of the vertical rods).

The most important point of this primer is that you MUST pay attention to the cover stated for each bar installation.  A bar placed without the appropriate cover almost becomes a bar that no longer contributes to the strength of the wall. For instance, if the bar was placed on the outside half of the core, you may as well not even have it there.  This brings me to the next part of my primer.

Rebar chair is used to hold rod at a precise cover off the inside face of the forms

Rebar chair is used to hold rod at a precise cover off the inside face of the forms

Why is rebar installed in concrete anyway?

Concrete has awesome compression strength but is quite poor in tension. Because the weight of the back-filled soil is pressing on the foundation, it wants to  ‘bow’ inward under the pressure.  This would place the outside half of the core into compression but would place the inside half under tension (just like a floor joist but in a vertical plane).  The inside half of the concrete core is trying to stretch to accommodate the bow.  As concrete is not good when pulled on, the stretching would eventually cause the concrete to fracture.  By placing rebar into the concrete, it prevents the concrete from stretching too far and fracturing.  The closer the bar is to the inside face of the concrete core, the more tension forces it will encounter.  Another way to look at this is the distance it would take to run or drive around the outside of a track compared to the inside lane of a track.  The further outboard you get, the farther you run or the longer the circuit is.

So, if your wall is designed with 1.5″ inside cover, that means the engineer has calculated the stresses of the wall at that 1.5″ plane and ensured to call out a rebar pattern that can accommodate those stresses. If there is not enough cover, then there will not be enough concrete to properly capture the bar and keep it in place, but if there is too much cover the rebar will not be able to remove enough of the load from the ‘stretch’ of teh wall and the concrete will fracture. If the rebar was placed in the outside half of the core, it would no longer be subjected to ANY tension and in fact would be being squeezed by the surrounding concrete that is under compression forces.

While researching this last night if came across the installation instructions for a very popular rigid foam based ICF (and the manufacturer that was reportedly sued in the West Vancouver failure).  They instruct the installer to “Place plastic sleeves (1½” [38mm] conduit) over stub steel for later placement of vertical steel” meaning to slip chunks of plastic conduit over the dowels placed in the footing to later capture the bottom end of the vertical rod.  But as the dowels are placed typically down the centre of the footing, this would place the vertical rods down the neutral plane of the foundation wall, or a spot it will do very little good to resist the tensions of the foundation wall.

I also came across this forum on discussing the placement of the steel and it was very clear a majority of the contributors did not truly ‘get it’. Lets quickly correct some of the miss-information.

  • Why do we tie off rebar under some circumstances?

Simply to hold the bar in the RIGHT position until the concrete has been poured and can hold the bar for us.  It provides NO structural strength whatsoever.

So why is the tying off of the rebar inspected before pouring by the engineers? Why is it important that the tie-off securely fastens the bars together?  Because as we have discussed above, it is critical that the bar is placed in the right position to ensure it can bare the intended load.  As the tie wire is quite brittle, if the bars can move slightly because of not being tied-off tightly, there is a chance the sudden shock of the movement could break the wire which would now allow for the bar to move substantially out of position.

  • Is it important that the horizontal bars are tied to the vertical bars (something that cannot be done in ICF construction)?

No – full stop.  Each orientation of the bar is typically handling separately calculated loads and not considered an ‘assembly’ (In some extreme cases I do believe it is a ‘grid’ that is designed, but in these cases sophisticated FEA software is used and the bar must be welded together not tied).

  • Is staggering the horizontal bars to capture the vertical bar the required solution?

No – this is only appropriate for above grade ICF installations.  In order to ensure the vertical bar was placed inboard enough on the core, the inside horizontal bar would not have enough cover.

  • Why is it important to tie-off splices?

You need to ensure that the bars are fully encased in concrete.  If the bars were not tied tight to each other, they would allow small pockets to form between the bars that were too small for the flow of concrete.  This would provide a weak point because the bar would now not be in communication with the concrete and therefore unable to bare the intended load.  This is why bars in close proximity, and in the same plane, need to be tightly bundled or held apart a minimum distance by means of chairs or other securing.

  • Why do the vertical bars not need to be tied-off or otherwise captured to the footing dowels?

Footing dowels or any other dowels have nothing to do with the tension stresses a concrete  assembly is under.  Their sole purpose is to tie the concrete on each side of a cold seam (concrete poured at two different occasions) together.  SO in the case of a footing dowel, the purpose is to ensure the foundation wall cannot ‘slip off (shear)’ off the footing.  This is why most codes also allow the formation of a key in the footing, instead of the dowels, to capture the bottom side of the foundation.

Hope this has been of some assistance. Should there be something that you disagree with, then please provide documented background for your disagreement and I will reconsider.

Thanks for visiting.




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