Frost Damage can Wreak Havoc on your Foundations and Footings

Frost Damage is common in northern regions that experience cold winters.  Frost damage to structural supports is a common occurrence every winter when structural supports are not properly installed. This situation is problematic, as it could affect not only the foundations, but could have a destructive impact on the rest of the building. The principal effects to the foundations due to frost are direct heaving, lateral pressure and freezing. Understanding how these issues occur can allow us to avoid them by using specific design practices.

Frost Damage to Footing

Frost heaving
When water freezes, its volume increases by about 9%. Thus, when the water contained in soil freezes, it causes expansion and lifting of the soil level. Freezing of the ground water starts when temperature drops below zero degree Celsius. Progressive ice formation inside the spaces in the soil confines residual water.  Pressure differential between the solid and liquid phases of water attracts the unfrozen water toward the freezing soil and leads to ice lenses formation. Three conditions are essential in this process. The soil has to be susceptible to frost, there has to be a sufficient quantity of water in the soil and the temperature has to be below zero degree Celsius. Soil susceptibility to heaving is generally a function of particles’ size distribution. Actually, fine soils like silt and clay are more sensitive than coarse grain soils.

 Speed and amplitude of heaving depend on many factors such as soil type, load to lift, underground water condition and freezing speed. Heaving forces could, in certain cases, be very important. The Canadian Research Council (CRC) mentions that lifting pressures of 1,820 kPa (185,500 kg/m2) have been recorded and that a seven-story concrete building with a raft foundation has been lifted more than 50 mm due to soil freezing. Heaving can occur under footings or slabs on grade. In some cases, foundations are lifted by frost, but there is no visible sign of damage. Indeed, damage is usually associated with differential foundation movements. Actually, when the frost heaving is uniform over the foundation, it’s possible that no visible damage appears.

In order to avoid damage from frost heaving, the typical approach has consisted of placing the footings deeper than the frost level. Under these conditions, the soil below the elevation of the foundations cannot freeze and thus, there is no heaving. Depth of frost penetration varies with regions, soil nature and type of expositions.  Moreover, foundation type and usage can influence the frost penetration near the structure. For example, the fact that the basement is heated or not, as well as the level of insulation are important factors to consider.

Lateral pressure
One of the principal functions of a foundation wall is to support the lateral earth pressure. Earth or soil placed against a wall pushes horizontally on it. The pressure is distributed triangularly and it depends on the type and height of the backfill soil. Obviously, the higher the backfill is, the higher the stress will be.

When the backfill material freezes, the volume increases and causes additional lateral pressure on the wall. Generally, frost appears first on the surface before going in depth, and so the swelling is usually more prominent near the soil surface. Inversely to the normal earth pressure, one caused by frost is more important at the level of the finished soil than near the bottom of the wall. When the strength of a foundation wall is not sufficient to resist these additional pressures, horizontal type cracks can occur. Cracks are generally located below the level of the finished grade.

Positioning the base of the foundations under the frost penetration elevation is not a guarantee that the freezing soil will not heave the foundation. Actually, one of the damaging forms of soil moving a foundation is called adfreezing. This phenomenon occurs when moist or wet soil adheres to a foundation by freezing at the contact surface. The lifting pressure caused by the formation of ice lenses in the backfill material is transmitted to foundation by adherence. These forces can be sufficient to deteriorate residential foundations.

Ice lenses can only adhere to cold foundations. Generally, heat loss by the concrete basement foundation wall is sufficient to prevent adfreezing. However, some extra precautions have to be taken when the foundation wall encloses a non-heated space or when there is not enough heat loss at the level of the foundations. Installing exterior rigid insulation or impermeable membrane can be an effective protective layer to prevent adfreezing.

As explained, when the exterior temperature decreases below zero degree Celsius, transformation of water into ice can affect building foundations by different methods. It is impossible for us to control the climatic conditions, thus a satisfactory design should take these mechanisms into account. Moreover, the National Building Code of Canada (NBC) has requirements regarding the frost resistance of foundations.


Many Ontario homes have wood burning appliances installed, either for ambiance or secondary heat source.  Your insurance company will most likely require that you have a WETT Certified Inspector inspect your Fireplace or Wood Stove



Contact Information

Roger Frost
Certified Building Code Official
Certified Master Inspector

Phone: 705.795.8255
Email Roger

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