Shrink–swell capacity

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The shrink–swell capacity of clay refers to the extent certain clay minerals will expand when wet and retract when dry. Soil with a high shrink–swell capacity is problematic and is known as shrink–swell soil, or expansive soil.[1] The amount of certain clay minerals that are present, such as montmorillonite and smectite, directly affect the shrink-swell capacity of soil.[2] This ability to drastically change volume can cause damage to existing structures, such as cracks in foundations or the walls of swimming pools.[3]


Due to the physical and chemical properties of some clays[4] (such as the Lias Group) large swelling occurs when water is absorbed. Conversely when the water dries up these clays contract (shrink). The presence of these clay minerals is what allows soils to have the capacity to shrink and swell. Some of these clay minerals are: smectite, nontronite, bentonite, chlorite, montmorillonite, beidellite, attapulgite, illite and vermiculite.[5] The amount of these minerals in a particular soil will also determine the severity of the shrink-swell capacity.[5] For instance, soils with a small amount of expansive clay minerals will not expand as much when exposed to moisture as a soil with a large amount of the same clay minerals.[5] If a soil is composed of at least 5 percent of these clay minerals by weight, it could have the ability to shrink and swell.[3] This property is measured using coefficient of linear extensibility (COLE) values. If a soil has a COLE value greater than 0.06, then it can cause structural damage.[2] A COLE value of 0.06 means that 100 inches of soil will expand by 6 inches when wet.[2] Soils with this shrink-swell capacity fall under the soil order of Vertisols.[6] As these soils dry, deep cracks can form on the surface, which then allows water to penetrate to deeper levels of the soil.[7] This can cause the swelling of these soils to become cyclical, with periods of both shrinking and swelling.


Clay groups with a high shrink–swell capacity tend to damage crops during dry spells, as the soil contracts, by pulling roots apart.[4] Soils with shrink-swell capacity can cause engineering problems, or damage to existing structures. The swelling can cause structures to heave or lift, and the shrinking can uneven settling of sediment underneath foundations, potentially causing the structure to fail.[7] Some common structures that sustain soil damage are foundations, walls, driveways, swimming pools, roads, pipelines, and basement floors.[7][8][9] Roughly half of the houses in the United States are built on soils that are considered unstable, and half of those will sustain damage from soil.[8] This damage includes large cracks in walls and foundations, buckling of driveways and roads, and jamming of doors and windows.[10] Shallow pipes, which are buried in the zone of seasonal moisture fluctuation, are put under stress by shrinking soils.[3] This can cause breakage of water or sewage pipes. Swimming pool shells can crack due to this pressure as well. Pools also naturally introduce a lot of water into the surrounding soils over time, which in an area with expansive soils, could end up lifting pool decks and nearby foundations.[3] Annually, there is an estimated $7 billion in damage caused by clay shrink-swell soils.[11] All this is simply caused by the force exerted by the expanding soil, or ground heave.

Expansive soils are the most problematic in regions with very defined wet and dry periods, as opposed to areas that maintain a certain level of moisture throughout the year, as this annual cycle causes the soils to expand and swell every year.[3] Water can also be introduced into the soil through people, or their infrastructure. Damage is quite often caused by differential swelling which is caused by pockets of wet soil situated right next to dry soil.[3] Examples of this include sprinkler systems, cesspools, leaky pipes, and swimming pools.[3]

Identifying Problem Soils[edit]

The best way to see if your area could be affected by expansive soils is to check a soil survey. Soil surveys are created and maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS).[2] A soil survey should list the coefficient of linear extensibility (COLE) value.[2] Professional soil scientists can also analyze samples of a soil to determine its shrink-swell capacity.[2] Expansive soils will form large cracks, in roughly polygonal shapes, on the surface of the soil during dry periods.[3] A lack of these cracks does not mean a soil isn't expansive, however.[7]


Many solutions are often employed to mitigate or prevent the damage caused by expansive soils. When it comes to foundations, one solution is to extend building foundations to a depth where they are below the zone of water content fluctuation.[3] This holds them up when the soil shrinks, and anchors them when the soil swells. Another solution is to simply take the pre-existing expansive soil and replace it with a non-expansive soil.[7] If the depth of the expansive soil is too deep, this option simply isn't economical. Maintaining a constant soil moisture is another solution. This can be achieved by allowing rainwater to properly drain away from the property, fixing areas around structures that have poor drainage qualities, fixing pipe leaks, avoiding over-watering nearby plants, and by planting trees some distance away from your structure.[7] Yet another solution is a process called soil stabilization, in which materials are added to the soil to limit its ability to shrink and swell.[7] Materials for stabilization include cement, resins, fly ash, lime, pozzolana, and lime-pozzolana mixture.[7] The actual material used is dependent on the site and the project goals.


  1. ^ "Soil Properties Shrink/Swell Potential | NRCS". Retrieved 2015-11-13. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Krenz, Jennifer; Lee, Brad; Owens, Phillip. "Swelling Clays and Septic Systems" (PDF). 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Rogers, David; Olshansky, Robert; Rogers, Robert. "Damage to Foundations from Expansive Soils" (PDF). 
  4. ^ a b Nagel, David. "Soil Science for Vegetable Producers." MSU: Coordinated Access to the Research and Extension System. 2001. Mississippi State U. 6 July 2008
  5. ^ a b c King, Hobart. "Expansive Soil and Expansive Clay". Retrieved 3 November 2015. 
  6. ^ "The Twelve Soil Orders". University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Mokhtari, Masoumeh; Dehghani, Masoud. "Swell-Shrink Behavior of Expansive Soils, Damage and Control" (PDF). Retrieved 3 November 2015. 
  8. ^ a b "Problem Soils" (PDF). Retrieved 3 November 2015. 
  9. ^ British Geological Survey
  10. ^ "What Are Expansive Soils?". Property Risk. 
  11. ^ "Clays, Clay Minerals and Soil Shrink/Swell Behavior" (PDF).