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Concrete Admixtures

Improving the properties of concrete

Admixtures are materials other than cement, aggregate and water that are added to concrete either before or during its mixing to alter its properties, such as workability, curing temperature range, set time or color. Some admixtures have been in use for a very long time, such as calcium chloride to provide a cold-weather setting concrete. Others are more recent and represent an area of expanding possibilities for increased performance. Not all admixtures are economical to employ on a particular project. Also, some characteristics of concrete, such as low absorption, can be achieved simply by consistently adhering to high quality concreting practices.

The chemistry of concrete admixtures is a complex topic requiring in-depth knowledge and experience. A general understanding of the options available for concrete admixtures is necessary for acquiring the right product for the job, based on climatic conditions and job requirements. Based on their functions, admixtures can be classified into the following five major categories:

  • Retarding admixtures
  • Accelerating admixtures
  • Super plasticizers
  • Water reducing admixtures
  • Air-entraining admixtures

Among other important admixtures that do not fit into these categories are admixtures whose functions include bonding, shrinkage reduction, damp proofing and coloring. The following paragraphs provides details on the above-mentioned categories of concrete admixtures.

Retarding admixtures

Retarding admixtures slow down the hydration of cement, lengthening set time. Retarders are beneficially used in hot weather conditions in order to overcome accelerating effects of higher temperatures and large masses of concrete on concrete setting time. Because most retarders also act as water reducers, they are frequently called water-reducing retarders. As per chemical admixture classification by ASTM-ASTM C 494, type B is simply a retarding admixture, while type D is both retarding and water reducing, resulting in concrete with greater compressive strength because of the lower water-cement ratio.

Retarding admixtures consists of both organic and inorganic agents. Organic retardants include unrefined calcium, sodium, NH4, salts of lignosulfonic acids, hydrocarboxylic acids, and carbohydrates. Inorganic retardants include oxides of lead and zinc, phosphates, magnesium salts, fluorates and borates. As an example of a retardant's effects on concrete properties, lignosulfate acids and hydroxylated carboxylic acids slow the initial setting time by at least an hour and no more than three hours when used at 65 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The concrete contractor, however, need not memorize these chemical-specific results. Given the specific job requirements and goals, the concrete supplier should offer appropriate admixtures and concrete mixes from which to choose.

Accelerating admixtures

Accelerators shorten the set time of concrete, allowing a cold-weather pour, early removal of forms, early surface finishing, and in some cases, early load application. Proper care must be taken while choosing the type and proportion of accelerators, as under most conditions, commonly used accelerators cause an increase in the drying shrinkage of concrete.

Calcium chloride is a common accelerator, used to accelerate the time of set and the rate of strength gain. It should meet the requirements of ASTM D 98. Excessive amounts of calcium chloride in concrete mix may result in rapid stiffening, increase in drying shrinkage and corrosion of reinforcement. In colder climates, calcium chloride should not be used as an anti-freeze. Large amount of calcium chloride is required to lower the freezing point of the concrete, which may ruin the concrete.

Super plasticizers

Super plasticizers, also known as plasticizers, include water-reducing admixtures. Compared to what is commonly referred to as a "water reducer" or "mid-range water reducer", super plasticizers are "high-range water reducers". High range water reducers are admixtures that allow large water reduction or greater flowability (as defined by the manufacturers, concrete suppliers and industry standards) without substantially slowing set time or increasing air entrainment.

Each type of super plasticizer has defined ranges for the required quantities of concrete mix ingredients, along with the corresponding effects. They can maintain a specific consistency and workability at a greatly reduced amount of water. Dosages needed vary by the particular concrete mix and type of super plasticizer used. They can also produce a high strength concrete. As with most types of admixtures, super plasticizers can affect other concrete properties as well. The specific effects, however, should be found from the manufacturer or concrete supplier.

Water reducing admixtures

Water reducing admixtures require less water to make a concrete of equal slump, or increase the slump of concrete at the same water content. They can have the side effect of changing initial set time. Water reducers are mostly used for hot weather concrete placing and to aid pumping. A water-reducer plasticizer, however, is a hygroscopic powder, which can entrain air into the concrete mix via its effect on water's surface tension, thereby also, obtaining some of the benefits of air-entrainment (see below).

Air-entraining admixtures

Air-entraining agents entrain small air bubbles in the concrete. The major benefit of this is enhanced durability in freeze-thaw cycles, especially relevant in cold climates. While some strength loss typically accompanies increased air in concrete, it generally can be overcome by reducing the water-cement ratio via improved workability (due to the air-entraining agent itself) or through the use of other appropriate admixtures. As always, admixtures should only be combined in a concrete mix by a competent professional because some of them can interact in undesirable ways.

Bonding admixtures, including addition of compounds and materials such as polyvinyl chlorides and acetates, acrylics and butadiene-styrene co-polymers, can be used to assist in bonding new / fresh concrete with old / set concrete.

Coloring agents have become more commonly used, especially for patios and walkways. Most are surface applied and often have the additional effect of surface hardening. Such surface applied coloring admixtures generally should not be used on air-entrained concrete. Integrally colored concrete is also available.

Waterproofing and damp proofing admixtures, including soaps, butyl stearate, mineral oil and asphalt emulsions, are used to decrease the amount of water penetration into the larger pores of concrete. "Antifreeze" admixtures typically are accelerators used in very high doses, with a corresponding high price, to achieve a very fast set-time, though they do not have properties to protect against freezing on their own. However, in general, these are not used for residential work.

Cement substitutes also change concrete properties, but typically are not classified as admixtures. See the Technology Inventory article, "Cement Substitutes."

Most organic chemical-type admixtures are affected by cement type and brand, water-cement ratio, aggregate grading, and temperature. Damp proofing and waterproofing admixtures still have uncertain value and hazards. These are just two cases that point to the learning curve required of anyone working with admixtures. In some cases, if exacting directions are not followed, including addition of supplemental materials to balance the negative or undesirable side effects of an admixture, the resulting concrete mix may be compromised. For example, retarding admixtures generally have a possibility of rapid concrete stiffening, resulting in difficulty in concrete placement and finishing. Therefore, an in-depth knowledge of the potentially complex interrelated effects, besides specifications, is required to successfully use a number of admixtures. This is even more critical when a number of parties are involved in the manufacture of the concrete, for example the producer, the placing contractor and the builder, where the finished concrete is a combined result of a number of individual decisions. Choosing an appropriate admixture for a specific job should be the responsibility of an experienced expert. Alternatives to the use of admixtures should always be considered.

The environmental impact of certain admixtures is questionable. Some super plasticizers may impact the environment through pollution of ground and surface waters. More research remains to be carried out in this area.

Finally, admixtures cannot compensate for bad practice and low quality materials.


On the low-end, water reducers should only cost $3 to $5 per cubic yard of concrete.

Quality and Durability

The primary benefit of a particular admixture is generally self-evident from the type of admixture, such as a retardant or a water reducer admixture.


Commonly used admixtures (accelerators, retarders, super plasticizers and air-entraining agents) are usually available at any local concrete supply retailer. If a special admixture is needed, it may only be available by special order or directly through an industrial source. The local concrete supply retailer should know how to find sources for such infrequently used admixtures.

At the high-end are the "mineral" admixtures: silica fume (densify and decrease permeability) sells for as much as $40 per cubic yard of concrete, and corrosion inhibitors sell for approximately $30 per cubic yard of concrete. On the low-end, water reducers should only cost $3 to $5 per cubic yard of concrete.

Not Applicable

ASTM standards address the use of admixtures, for example ASTM C 1017 concerning the requirements for producing flowing concrete or ASTM C 494 regarding standard chemical admixture specifications. Some admixtures have been used in other countries but are not approved here. In general, codes tend towards traditional materials without use of new admixtures.

Not Applicable

Each admixture should have instructions on exactly when and how to mix it into the cement / concrete. Incorporating the admixture itself is generally a relatively simple process that does not significantly affect any other aspect of installing the concrete itself. A thorough understanding is required of which admixtures may be added in what proportions to produce desired concrete properties. In addition, admixtures must not compromise the characteristics of the final product.

Though admixtures can be complex in their variable effects according to concentration and interrelation with other components of the concrete mix, suppliers of admixtures should clearly detail the specific stated effect and offer assurance that the admixture does not negatively affect other concrete properties. Current practice in this regard is the result of years of testing and learning from past problems.

Not Applicable

Numerous benefits are available through the use of admixtures, including coloring, extended set time, greater concrete strength, reduced bleed-water, increased flow for the same water-to-cement ratio, easier pumping, water-proofing, improved fire resistance, cracking control, lower density, and greater workability. The primary benefit of a particular admixture is generally self-evident from the type of admixture, such as a retardant or a water reducer admixture. Certain admixtures, however, have multiple benefits that may not be immediately apparent from the name. Study of available admixtures is the best way to learn all the particular benefits possible.

Disclaimer: The information on the system, product or material presented herein is provided for informational purposes only. The technical descriptions, details, requirements, and limitations expressed do not constitute an endorsement, approval, or acceptance of the subject matter by the NAHB Research Center. There are no warranties, either expressed or implied, regarding the accuracy or completeness of this information. Full reproduction, without modification, is permissible.