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Preconsolidation pressure

Preconsolidation pressure is the maximum effective vertical overburden stress that a particular soil sample has sustained in the past. This quantity is important in geotechnical engineering, particularly for finding the expected settlement of foundations and embankments. Alternative names for the preconsolidation pressure are preconsolidation stress, pre-compression stress, pre-compaction stress, and preload stress. A soil is called overconsolidated if the current effective stress acting on the soil is less than the historical maximum.

The preconsolidation pressure can help determine the largest overburden pressure that can be exerted on a soil without irrecoverable volume change. This type of volume change is important for understanding shrinkage behavior, crack and structure formation and resistance to shearing stresses. Previous stresses and other changes in a soil's history are preserved within the soil's structure. If a soil is loaded beyond this point the soil is unable to sustain the increased load and the structure will break down. This breakdown can cause a number of different things depending on the type of soil and its geologic history.

Preconsolidation pressure cannot be measured directly, but can be estimated using a number of different strategies. Samples taken from the field are subjected to a variety of tests, like the constant rate of strain test (CRS) or the incremental loading test (IL). These tests can be costly due to expensive equipment and the long period of time they require. Each sample must be undisturbed and can only undergo one test with satisfactory results. It is important to execute these tests precisely to ensure an accurate resulting plot. There are various methods for determining the preconsolidation pressure from lab data. The data is usually arranged on a semilog plot of the effective stress (frequently represented as σ'vc) versus the void ratio. This graph is commonly called the e log p curve or the consolidation curve.

The preconsolidation pressure can be estimated in a number of different ways but not measured directly. It is useful to know the range of expected values depending on the type of soil being analyzed. For example, in samples with natural moisture content at the liquid limit (liquidity index of 1), preconsolidation ranges between about 0.1 and 0.8 tsf, depending on soil sensitivity (defined as the ratio of undisturbed peak undrained shear strength to totally remolded undrained shear strength). For natural moisture at the plastic limit (liquidity index equal to zero), preconsolidation ranges from about 12 to 25 tsf.

  • Change in total stress due to removal of overburden can cause preconsolidation pressure in a soil. For example, removal of structures or glaciation would cause a change in total stress that would have this effect.
  • Change in pore water pressure: A change in water table elevation, Artesian pressures, deep pumping or flow into tunnels, and desiccation due to surface drying or plant life can bring soil to its preconsolidation pressure.
  • Change in soil structure due to aging (secondary compression): Over time, soil will consolidate even after high pressures from loading and pore water pressure have been depleted.
  • Environmental changes: Changes in pH, temperature, and salt concentration can cause a soil to approach its preconsolidation pressure.
  • Chemical weathering: Different types of chemical weathering will cause preconsolidation pressure. Precipitation, cementing agents, and ion exchange are a few examples.


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