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Concrete footings 101
Bearing capacity of soil
Understanding soil type and bearing capacities
Footing size
How to determine the minimum size for soil conditions
Footing problems
Pouring in wet soil and more
Frost heave & foundation footings
Frost protected shallow footings
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Concrete calculator for footing pours:
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In addition to providing a level platform for forms or masonry, footings spread out the weight of the house so the soil can carry the load. The load spreads out within the footing itself at about a 45-degree angle, and then spreads out in the soil at a steeper angle, more like 60-degrees from the horizontal.

As the load under a footing spreads out, pressure on the soil diminishes. Soil directly under the footing takes the greatest load, and therefore should be thoroughly compacted.

Find nearby slab and foundation contractors to help with your footings.

Because the load spreads out, the pressure on the soil is greatest right beneath the footing. By the time we get down below the footing a distance equal to the footings width, the unit soil pressure has dropped by about half. Go down the same distance again, and the pressure has dropped by two-thirds. So it's the soil right under the footing that is the most critical and also, typically, the most abused.

When we excavate for the footings, the teeth on the bucket stir up the soil and mix air into it, decreasing its density. Also, soil from the embankment may fall into the trench. Soil that's loose has much less bearing capacity than the original soil.

That's why it is so important to compact the trench bottom. Use a vibrating plate compactor for sand or gravel soils, and a jumping jack compactor for silt or clay (learn more about compaction equipment in this guide to subgrades and subbases). If you don't compact that soil, you could get 1/2 inch of settlement in just the first 6 inches of soil.

If you dig too deep and replace the soil to recover the grade, you are adding back soil that has expanded by as much as 50%. Under load, it will reconsolidate and cause settling. So when you replace material in the trench, compact it thoroughly, or else use large gravel. One-inch-and-a-half or larger gravel is virtually self-compacting as you place it. Under the weight of a wood house, it won't settle to any significant degree.

Learn how to span soft spots in the soil.

Soil Bearing Capacities Chart

Class of Materials Load-Bearing Pressure
(pounds per square foot)
Crystalline bedrock 12,000
Sedimentary rock 6,000
Sandy gravel or gravel 5,000
Sand, silty sand, clayey sand, silty gravel, and clayey gravel 3,000
Clay, sandy clay, silty clay, and clayey silt 2,000

Source: Table 401.4.1; CABO One- and Two- Family Dwelling Code; 1995.

Soil Properties & Bearing

The type and density of the native soil is also important. The International Building Code, like the CABO code before it, lists presumed bearing strengths for different types of soils. Very fine soils (clays and silts) typically have lower capacities than coarse granular soils (sands and gravels).

However, some clays or silts have higher bearing capacity than the values in the code tables. If you have a soil test done, you could discover that you have a denser clay with a much higher bearing strength. Mechanically compacting the soil can also raise its bearing capacity.

Determining Bearing Capacity on Site

Check soil density in a footing trench using a penetrometer. The bearing capacity of your soil will help you determine if you need a shallow foundation or deep foundation. Soil strength directly under the footing, where loads are concentrated, is crucial to foundation performance.

You can get a pretty good idea of the soil bearing capacity in the trench bottom using a hand penetrometer. This pocket-sized device is a spring-loaded probe that estimates the pressure the soil can resist and is calibrated to give readings in tons per square foot. Every contractor and building inspector should have one of these. It can help you avoid a lot of trouble.