BACKGROUNDA concrete block is primarily used as a building material in the construction of walls. It is sometimes called a concrete masonry unit (CMU). A concrete block is one of several precast concrete products used in construction. The term precast refers to the fact that the blocks are formed and hardened before they are brought to the job site. Most concrete blocks have one or more hollow cavities, and their sides may be cast smooth or with a design. In use, concrete blocks are stacked one at a time and held together with fresh concrete mortar to form the desired length and height of the wall.
Concrete mortar was used by the Romans as early as 200 B.C. to bind shaped stones together in the construction of buildings. During the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula, in 37-41 A.D. , small blocks of precast concrete were used as a construction material in the region around present-day Naples, Italy. Much of the concrete technology developed by the Romans was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. It was not until 1824 that the English stonemason Joseph Aspdin developed portland cement, which became one of the key components of modern concrete.
These early blocks were usually cast by hand, and the average output was about 10 blocks per person per hour. Today, concrete block manufacturing is a highly automated process that can produce up to 2,000 blocks per hour.
RAW MATERIALSThe concrete commonly used to make concrete blocks is a mixture of powdered portland cement, water, sand, and gravel. This produces a light gray block with a fine surface texture and a high compressive strength. A typical concrete block weighs 38-43 lb (17.2-19.5 kg). In general, the concrete mixture used for blocks has a higher percentage of sand and a lower percentage of gravel and water than the concrete mixtures used for general construction purposes. This produces a very dry, stiff mixture that holds its shape when it is removed from the block mold.
If granulated coal or volcanic cinders are used instead of sand and gravel, the resulting block is commonly called a cinder block. This produces a dark gray block with a medium-to-coarse surface texture, good strength, good sound-deadening properties, and a higher thermal insulating value than a concrete block. A typical cinder block weighs 26-33 lb (11.8-15.0 kg). Lightweight concrete blocks are made by replacing the sand and gravel with expanded clay, shale, or slate. Expanded clay, shale, and slate are produced by crushing the raw materials and heating them to about 2000°F (1093°C). At this temperature the material bloats, or puffs up, because of the rapid generation of gases caused by the combustion of small quantities of organic material trapped inside. A typical light-weight block weighs 22-28 lb (10.0-12.7 kg) and is used to build non-load-bearing walls and partitions. Expanded blast furnace slag, as well as natural volcanic materials such as pumice and scoria, are also used to make lightweight blocks.
The shapes and sizes of most common concrete blocks have been standardized to ensure uniform building construction. The most common block size in the United States is referred to as an 8-by-8-by-16 block, with the nominal measurements of 8 in (20.3 cm) high by 8 in (20.3 cm) deep by 16 in (40.6 cm) wide. This nominal measurement includes room for a bead of mortar, and the block itself actually measures 7.63 in (19.4 cm) high by 7.63 in (19.4 cm) deep by 15.63 in (38.8 cm) wide. Many progressive block manufacturers offer variations on the basic block to achieve unique visual effects or to provide desirable structural features for specialized applications. For example, one manufacturer offers a block specifically designed to resist water leakage through exterior walls. The block incorporates a water repellent admixture to reduce the concrete's absorption and permeability, a beveled upper edge to shed water away from the horizontal mortar joint, and a series of internal grooves and channels to direct the flow of any crack-induced leakage away from the interior surface. Another block design, called a split-faced block, includes a rough, stone-like texture on one face of the block instead of a smooth face. This gives the block the architectural appearance of a cut and dressed stone.
THE MANUFACTURING PROCESSThe production of concrete blocks consists of four basic processes: mixing, molding, curing, and cubing. Some manufacturing plants produce only concrete blocks, while others may produce a wide variety of precast concrete products including blocks, flat paver stones, and decorative landscaping pieces such as lawn edging. Some plants are capable of producing 2,000 or more blocks per hour. The following steps are commonly used to manufacture concrete blocks.
Another type of kiln is the high-pressure steam kiln, sometimes called an autoclave. In this type, the temperature is raised to 300-375°F (149-191°C), and the pressure is raised to 80-185 psi (5.5-12.8 bar). The blocks are allowed to soak for five to 10 hours. The pressure is then rapidly vented, which causes the blocks to quickly release their trapped moisture. The autoclave curing process requires more energy and a more expensive kiln, but it can produce blocks in less time.
QUALITY CONTROLThe manufacture of concrete blocks requires constant monitoring to produce blocks that have the required properties. The raw materials are weighed electronically before they are placed in the mixer. The trapped water content in the sand and gravel may be measured with ultrasonic sensors, and the amount of water to be added to the mix is automatically adjusted to compensate. In areas with harsh temperature extremes, the water may pass through a chiller or heater before it is used. As the blocks emerge from the block machine, their height may be checked with laser beam sensors. In the curing kiln, the temperatures, pressures, and cycle times are all controlled and recorded automatically to ensure that the blocks are cured properly, in order to achieve their required strength.