Transportation agencies have long placed high importance on the thickness of their concrete roadways, making it a major focus of control and inspection during construction. While it is commonly believed thicker concrete pavements last longer, there is little data to support this claim.
“One big reason for the lack of data on the relationship between concrete pavement thickness and performance is the destructive nature of these measurements,” says Lev Khazanovich, a former professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering. “Concrete thickness is typically assessed by coring—a destructive, expensive, and time-consuming test that only offers widely spaced measurements of thickness.”
In a MnDOT-funded study, U of M researchers set out to fill this knowledge void by leveraging recent advances in the nondestructive testing of pavements that allow for large-scale, rapid collection of reliable measurements for pavement thickness and strength. They conducted four evaluations on three roadways in Minnesota using ultrasonic technology to collect more than 8,000 measurements in a dense survey pattern along with a continuous survey of observable distress.
“We found that both pavement thickness and stress measurements are highly variable, with a half-inch of variation in thickness about every 10 feet,” Khazanovich says. “Interestingly, three of the four surveys averaged less than design thickness, which is contrary to typical accounts of contractors building slightly thicker slabs in order to avoid compensation deductions.”
Data analysis showed that exceeding design thickness did not seem to increase or decrease pavement performance. However, a measurement of pavement strength and quality known as “shear wave velocity” did produce valuable findings. “A drop in the shear wave velocity strength measurement corresponded to an increase in observable pavement distresses such as cracking and crumbling,” Khazanovich explains. “This was especially apparent when we were able to easily identify locations of construction changes, where significant changes in shear wave velocity matched up with observable distress.”
The results of this study illustrate the importance of material quality control and uniformity during construction, since alterations in pavement strength and quality may significantly influence pavement performance. In addition, researchers say that despite inconclusive thickness results, it is still important that pavement has significant thickness to carry its intended traffic load over its service life. Finally, the study demonstrates that new methods of ultrasonic shear wave velocity testing are useful for identifying changes in construction and design that could lead to higher rates of pavement distress.