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Cement, at first glance, may seem like an unassuming material. It’s a construction standby that’s used for a variety of projects and building structures. For some outside of the industry, cement is a single material — sometimes incorrectly referred to as concrete. In practice, there’s a surprising amount of variation in types of cement available.
If you work in construction, you need to know the different types of cement you can choose from. Particular variations of the material have their own strengths and weaknesses. Being aware of these characteristics can help you pick the right kind for the job.
1. Portland Cement
If you’ve worked in construction, you’ve probably used Portland cement at one point or another.
When mixed with water and other aggregates — usually sand or gravel — Portland cement forms concrete. You can also use it as mortar or to plaster walls. Other types of cement have unique characteristics that make them worth using, but none will be as affordable or widely available as Portland.
2. Low-Heat Cement
When mixed with water to form concrete, this type of cement doesn’t generate as much heat. When a large amount of concrete is being poured, the chemical reaction between the cement and the water can cause enough heat to lead to thermal cracking. These cracks can lead to greater damage over time.
3. Sulfate-Resistant Cement
Ordinary cement is vulnerable to a process known as sulfate attacks. Sulfate from the environment can penetrate it over time, reacting in such a way that it causes the slab to expand. This lifts and distorts the concrete or mortar, often causing cracks that potentially threaten nearby structures, like walls.
Sulfate-resistant cement is more resistant to sulfates. You’ll typically see it used whenever a construction company has reason to fear potential sulfate attacks. In underground projects where sulfate is present in the soil or water, it can be especially valuable.
There are some other advantages to sulfate-resistant cement that make it appealing to construction companies. It has a very high compression strength and low heat of hydration. However, it’s still vulnerable to chloride attacks and takes a long time to cure.
4. White Blended and Colored Cements
Manufacturers create white blended cement with clinker — an intermediary material made of various calcium silicates, typically in pebble-sized lumps — plus supplementary materials that provide color. Some standards also allow manufacturers to add pigment. These are good for decorative purposes, but not much different from ordinary cement.
5. Polymer Cement
Most cement is primarily composed of lime. Polymer cement swaps out this lime for synthetic polymers, which give some valuable properties to concrete and mortar.
First, some polymer types of cement are much better at adhering to substrates not typically used to create cement — like wood in place of gravel. Others provide serious water resistance.
If you’ve worked with polymer cement, you know that characteristics vary significantly based on the type of polymer used. A quick look at a particular product’s datasheet will provide you with some basic information on how it can be used.
6. Non-Hydraulic Cement
Most cement is hydraulic, meaning that they’ll set even if underwater. However, this isn’t always true. Some are specifically designed to harden only when it comes in contact with the carbon dioxide in air.
Non-hydraulic cement is rapidly becoming obsolete because it takes longer to set than hydraulic cement and can’t be used underwater. If ever recommended non-hydraulic cement for a project, there’s probably a more suitable alternative available.
Using the Right Types of Cement for Your Project
If you need concrete, mortar, or plaster for your next project, the cement you choose can make a significant difference. Awareness of the different types available — like sulfur-resistant, low-heat and polymer — will help you avoid damage and ensure long-lasting construction.