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6 Types of Backfill Materials Used in Construction

Different types of backfill materials are used in construction industry. Backfill materials that are commonly used are described below with their engineering properties.

1. Coarse-grained soils

6 Types of Backfill Materials Used in Construction
Coarse-grained soils include gravelly and sandy soils and range from clayey sands (SC) through the well-graded gravels of gravel-sand mixtures (GW) with little or no fines. They will exhibit slight to no plasticity. All of the well graded soils falling in this category have fairly good compaction characteristics and when adequately compacted provide good backfill and foundation support.
(a) One difficulty that might arise with soils in this category would be in obtaining good compaction of the poorly graded sands and gravels. These poorly graded materials may require saturation with downward drainage and compaction with greater compaction effort to achieve sufficiently high densities. Also, close control of water content is required where silt is present in substantial amounts. Coarse-grained materials compacted to a low relative density are susceptible upon saturation to liquefaction under dynamic loads.
(b) For sands and gravelly sands with little or no fines, good compaction can be achieved in either the air dried or saturated condition. Downward drainage is required to maintain seepage forces in a downward direction if saturation is used to aid in compaction.
Consideration may be given to the economy of adding cement to stabilize moist clean sands that are particularly difficult to compact in narrow confined areas. However, the addition of cement may produce zones with greater rigidity than untreated adjacent backfill and form “hard spots” resulting in non uniform stresses and deformations in the structure.
(c) Cohesionless materials are well suited for placement in confined areas adjacent to and around structures where heavy equipment is not permitted and beneath and around irregularly shaped structures, such as tunnels, culverts, utilities, and tanks. Clean, granular, well-graded materials having a maximum size of 1 inch with 95 percent passing the No. 4 sieve and 5 percent or less passing the No. 200 sieve are excellent for use in these zones. However, a danger exists of creating zones where seepage water may accumulate and saturate adjacent cohesive soils resulting in undesirable consolidation or swelling. In such cases, provisions for draining the granular backfill, sealing the surface, and draining surface water away from the structure are necessary.

2. Fine-grained soils of low to medium plasticity

In organic clays (CL) of low to medium plasticity (gravelly, sandy, or silty clays and lean clays) and inorganic silts and very fine sands (ML) of low plasticity (silty or clayey fine sands and clayey silts) are included in this category. The inorganic clays are relatively impervious and can be compacted fairly easily with heavy compaction equipment to provide a good stable backfill.
Soils in the CL group can be compacted in confined areas to a fairly high degree of compaction with proper water content and lift thickness control. The clayey sands of the SC group and clayey silts of the ML group can be compacted to fairly high densities, but close control of water content is essential and sometimes critical, particularly on the wet side of optimum water content. Some ML soils, if compacted on the dry side of optimum, may lose considerable strength upon saturation after compaction. Considerable settlement may occur.
Caution must therefore be exercised in the use of such soils as backfill, particularly below the ground water level. Also, saturated ML soils are likely to be highly susceptible to liquefaction when dynamically loaded. Where such soils are used as backfill in seismic prone areas, laboratory tests should be conducted to determine their liquefaction potential.

3. Rock

The suitability of rock as backfill material is highly dependent upon the gradation and hardness of the rock particles. The quantity of hard rock excavated at most subsurface structure sites is relatively small, but select cohesionless materials may be difficult to find or may be expensive. Therefore, excavated hard rock may be specified for crusher processing and used as select cohesionless material.

4. Shale

Although shale is commonly referred to as rock, the tendency of some shales to breakdown under heavy compaction equipment and slake when exposed to air or water after placement warrants special consideration.
(a) Some soft shales break down under heavy compaction equipment causing the material to have entirely different properties after compaction than it had before compaction. This fact should be recognized before this type of material is used for backfill. Establishing the proper compaction criteria may require that the contractor construct a test fill and vary the water content, lift thickness, and number of coverages with the equipment proposed for use in the backfill operation. This type of backfill can be used only in unrestricted open zones where heavy towed or self-propelled equipment can operate.
(b) Some shales have a tendency to break down or slake when exposed to air. Other shales that appear rocklike when excavated will soften or slake and deteriorate upon wetting after placement as rock fill. Alternate cycles of wetting and drying increases the slaking process. The extent of material breakdown determines the manner in which it is treated as a backfill material. If the material completely degrades into constituent particles or small chips and flakes, it must be treated as a soil-like material with property characteristics similar to ML, CL, or CH materials, depending upon the intact composition of the parent material. Complete degradation can be facilitated by alternately wetting, drying, and disking the material before compaction.

5. Marginal materials

Marginal materials are these materials that because of either their poor compaction, consolidation, or swelling characteristics would not normally be used as backfill if sources of suitable material were available. Material considered to be marginal include fine-grained soils of high plasticity and expansive clays. The decision to use marginal materials should be based on economical and energy conservation considerations to include the cost of obtaining suitable material whether from a distant borrow area or commercial sources, possible distress repair costs caused by use of marginal material, and the extra costs involved in processing, placing, and adequately compacting marginal material.
(a) The fine-grained, highly plastic materials make poor backfill because of the difficulty in handling, exercising water-content control, and compacting. The water content of highly plastic fine grained soils is critical to proper compaction and is very difficult to control in the field by aeration or wetting. Furthermore, such soils are much more compressible than less-plastic and coarse grained soils; shear strength and thus earth pressures may fluctuate between wide limits with changes in water content; and in cold climates, frost action will occur in fine-grained soils that are not properly drained. The only soil type in this category that might be considered suitable as backfill is inorganic clay (CH). Use of CH soils should be avoided in confined areas if a high degree of compaction is needed to minimize backfill settlement or to provide a high compression modulus.
(b) The swelling (and shrinking) characteristics of expansive clay vary with the type of clay mineral present in the soil, the percentage of that clay mineral, and the change in water content. The active clay minerals include montmorillonite, mixed-layer combinations of montmorillonite and other clay minerals, and under some conditions chlorites and vermiculites.
Problems may occur from the rise of groundwater, seepage, leakage, or elimination of surface evaporation that may increase or decrease the water content of compacted soil and lead to the tendency to expand or shrink. If the swelling pressure developed is greater than the restraining pressure, heave will occur and may cause structural distress. Compaction on the wet side of optimum moisture content will produce lower magnitudes of swelling and swell pressure. Expansive clays that exhibit significant volume increases should not be used as backfill where the potential for structural damage might exist. Suitability should be based upon laboratory swell tests.
(c) Additives, such as hydrated lime, quicklime, and fly ash, can be mixed with some highly plastic clays to improve their engineering characteristics and permit the use of some materials that would otherwise be unacceptable. Hydrated lime can also be mixed with some expansive clays to reduce their swelling characteristics.
Laboratory tests should be performed to determine the amount of the additive that should be used and the characteristics of the backfill material as a result of using the additive. Because of the complexity of soil-additive systems and the almost complete empirical nature of the current state of the art, trial mixes must be verified in the field by test fills.

6. Commercial by-products

The use of commercial by-products, such as furnace slag or fly ash as backfill material, may be advantageous where such products are locally available and where suitable natural materials cannot be found. Fly ash has been used as a lightweight backfill behind a 25-foot-high wall and as an additive to highly plastic clay. The suitability of these materials will depend upon the desirable characteristics of the backfill and the engineering characteristics of the products.

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