ground freezing FAQ

As a construction technique, what can ground freezing accomplish?
Frozen ground may be used to provide ground support, groundwater control, or structural underpinning during construction.
What conditions must be present for ground freezing to be a feasible construction technique?
Ground freezing may be used in any soil or rock formation, regardless of structure, grain size, or permeability. The mechanical properties of frozen ground are more dependent on time and temperature than on geology.

It is essential for groundwater to be present, supplied either by a high water table or artificially. The frozen water (ice) becomes the bonding agent, fusing together particles of soil or blocks of rock to increase their combined strength and make them impervious to water seepage.

For what applications is ground freezing typically used?
Typical applications include vertical shafts, deep excavations, tunnels, groundwater control, structural underpinning, and containment of hazardous waste.
What information needs to be provided to review the feasibility of ground freezing for a project?
A preliminary review of the suitability of ground freezing for a particular project requires information about the geometry of the excavation or frozen barrier, soil and groundwater conditions at the site, and proximity of adjacent utilities and structures.
How does a ground freezing system work?
A typical ground freezing system for a shaft or tunnel consists of a series of freeze pipes installed along the perimeter of the proposed excavation, extending into the subsurface strata. To freeze an area, freeze pipes are installed in a grid pattern and extend into the subsurface strata.

Typically, calcium chloride (brine) is used as the cooling medium and is chilled by one or more electrically-powered mobile refrigeration units. The cold brine (at -30 to -25°C) is pumped from the refrigeration unit though a distribution manifold to each freeze pipe. The manifold has supply and return lines. Larger ground freeze systems often require a reverse return manifold line. Chilled brine flows down a pipe inserted within each freeze pipe and then flows back to the surface in the annulus created by the downpipe and the freeze pipe. As the warmer brine returns from the freeze pipes, it flows into the return manifold which permits flow back to the refrigeration plant. As the refrigerated brine is circulated through individual freeze pipes, frozen cylinders begin to form. After approximately six to eight weeks, the cylinders merge together, forming a massive frozen earth wall.

What parameters must be considered during the design of a ground freezing system?
  1. Soil Conditions
    Borings that extend well below the planned excavation depth must be thoroughly reviewed. These borings must provide samples for classifying the soil as well as undisturbed soil samples for both frozen and unfrozen strength laboratory tests. Soil type, density, and water contents are needed to estimate soil properties.
    The soil properties are used as input variables into a thermal analysis model, which is a time dependent heat transfer finite element computer program. The model evaluates the required freezing time as related to freeze pipe spacing, coolant temperature and coolant flow rates. Model results also assist in determining the required heat load which is incorporated in the design of the refrigeration and coolant distribution systems.
  2. Groundwater Flow
    Lateral groundwater flow through a proposed site adds heat, which may cause problems relative to the formation of a continuous frozen wall. If the water velocity is too large — greater than 1 to 2 meters/day — the freeze columns will not merge, leaving openings in the frozen wall. If the groundwater flow is greater than 1.5 but less than 3 meters/day, either reduced freeze pipe spacing or a second row of freeze pipes is a feasible solution. If the groundwater flow exceeds 3 meters/day, either the permeability of the formation or the groundwater gradient must be reduced. This can be accomplished by grouting prior to or during the freeze pipe installation.
  3. Groundwater Quality
    The presence of contaminated water in ground to be frozen can lead to several problems, including lower freezing temperatures, reduced ice content, and lower strength.
  4. Shape of the Frozen Earth Structure and Freeze Pipe Spacing
    In a plan view, the shape of the ground freezing system is determined in terms of the required excavation limits and the available space on-site. Due to the relatively high compressive and low tensile strengths of frozen soil, curved arch walls, particularly circular walls, provide the strongest frozen structure. An ellipse may be effectively employed for rectangular structures if the ratio of length to width does not exceed approximately 2. Complex structures may involve combinations of curved or straight walls, in addition to some form of bracing.
    In a cross-section view, the shape of the frozen soil zone is dependent primarily on the frozen thermal conductivity of the soil layers. Silts and clays have lower thermal conductivity values and will, therefore, have relatively thinner frozen zones that form around the freeze pipes. Conversely, more granular layers with higher thermal conductivity values will have thinker frozen zones.
What basic steps are required to install a ground freezing system?
  1. Site Preparation
    The site must be graded to ensure that surface water is collected and drained away from the planned frozen structure.
  2. Protection of Utilities
    In urban areas, the potential impact of the frozen soil on nearby utilities must be considered. Most utilities are located close to the ground surface. Protection of the utility may include exposing the line/pipe and insulating it with sprayed polyurethane foam or installing heat cables adjacent to the utilities.
  3. Freeze Pipe Installation
    Ordinary ¼-inch thick steel is commonly used for freeze pipes, with an inside diameter of 3 inches. All subsurface connections on a freeze pipe should be welded; threaded couplings are not recommended. After installation, each pipe is filled with water and pressure tested from the surface. To test the strength of the welds, each pipe must maintain a given pressure for a certain period of time.
  4. Pipe Survey
    Following installation, a verticality survey is conducted on each freeze pipe to verify its actual placement. A variety of downhole inclinometer instruments may be used. If significant pipe deviation has occurred, additional freeze pipes will be installed. More than any other controllable variable, the relative freeze pipe spacing controls the time needed to complete satisfactory freezing.
  5. Distribution Manifold
    The distribution manifold, for a circulating coolant system, is typically made out of 6 or 8-inch diameter HDPE or steel pipe. The manifold pipes are connected to supply the refrigerated coolant from the refrigeration units to each individual freeze pipe. Valves are installed within the manifold to regulate the brine flow from the full capacity during the initial freezing to a restricted flow during the maintenance and construction phase. The manifold will be designed to deliver approximately 25 gallons per minute through each freeze pipe. Typically the pipes are grouped in series with three or four pipes per group. The freeze pipe headers include two separate valves to permit the hydraulic balancing necessary to ensure uniform heat transfer.
What kind of equipment is needed to install the freeze pipes?
Drill rigs with rotary or resonant sonic tooling are preferred for freeze pipe installation. In situations with numerous subsurface utilities and limited site access, freeze pipes must often be installed at compound angles. Rigs with the ability to drill compound angles are often required to ensure accurate placement of the freeze pipes.
How deep should the freeze pipes typically be installed?
Ideally, a frozen soil barrier should be tied into an impervious layer (i.e. bedrock) to develop a closed bottom condition. This eliminates the need for any significant pumping to control groundwater.
What type of refrigeration equipment is required for a ground freezing system?
Portable refrigeration units, using ammonia as the primary refrigerant, are typically used for temporary, field use. These units operate with either diesel fuel or electricity and have high thermal efficiencies. Electric units are the most common and contain a 350 hp electric compressor, requiring a 480V, three-phase electrical service. The units also require a water supply for the cooling towers.
The refrigeration units are equipped with a full-range of electronic instrumentation that can be coupled to off-site communication services. This feature allows personnel to monitor plant operation at any time.

Two types of refrigerant systems are available: circulating coolant and expendable liquid refrigerant.

Circulating Coolant
This type of refrigeration requires a distribution manifold to circulate a cooling medium to the freeze pipes that are extracting heat from the soil. Most ground freezing projects employ the circulating coolant refrigeration system. A calcium chloride solution (approximately 28%) is used as the circulating coolant. The refrigeration units, rated to provide 150 tons of refrigeration at -25°C, chill the coolant to temperatures ranging from -25 to -30°C.

Expendable Liquid Refrigerant
Liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide are two types of expendable refrigerants used in this type of refrigeration system. This type of refrigeration system is used when rapid formation of the wall is important and only small earth volumes are to be frozen.
Liquid nitrogen does not require refrigeration plant(s), so only space for a liquid tanker truck to access the manifold is needed. Liquid nitrogen is pumped from a tanker truck to the manifold which distributes the coolant to each freeze pipe. The liquid nitrogen will flow down the inner feed pipe and be vented to the atmosphere through the freeze pipe's annulus. No return is required on the manifold system. Each freeze pipe will be equipped with a cryogenic valve to balance the coolant flow to ensure equal distribution through all pipes. As the liquid nitrogen circulates, cylindrical columns of soil freeze around each pipe. The size of the columns increases with time, forming a virtually watertight, impermeable barrier, as the columns merge together.
How much room do the refrigeration plants require?
Ideally, the refrigeration equipment requires an area approximately 75 feet x 50 feet and is located within 100 feet of the work site.
What type of monitoring of the ground freezing system is required?
Careful observation of the following parameters is required to ensure proper operation of the system:

  1. Ground Temperatures
    Ground temperatures are measured in temperature pipes located throughout the ground freezing area. The temperature pipes are identical to the freeze pipes, except that they are not connected to the manifold system. Instead, they are filled with calcium chloride brine and left open to the atmosphere. This reduces the potential for the formation of ice within the monitoring pipe.
    Hand-held temperature probes or RTD temperature sensors can be used to collect the data. The RTDs can be connected to an on-site computer which can transmit temperature data to any off-site location.
  2. Coolant Temperatures
    Coolant return temperatures are measured at each freeze pipe at the connection to the return manifold. This measurement ensures that each pipe has complete circulation
  3. Groundwater Levels
    Groundwater levels are measured in nearby piezometers or monitoring wells. Hand-held water level indicators or electronic transducers, providing continuous measurement, can be used to collect the data. Any significant drop in these levels could indicate potential inflows into the excavated zone.
  4. Coolant Flow and Pressure
    Coolant flow and pressure are constantly monitored within the refrigeration unit and are connected to an alarm system. Any decrease in flow or pressure could indicate a broken line or leak, requiring immediate repair operations.
  5. Refrigeration Data
    Refrigeration units are equipped with a computer that records all operating information. This data is available to on-site personnel to review system performance and ensure that the plant is operating within expected parameters.
How do you know when the ground is frozen?
After the refrigeration units have been turned on and the coolant is circulating through the freeze pipes, temperature data is collected from the temperature pipes and recorded, usually daily. When all pipes show consistent temperatures below 0°C, the ground has frozen and the excavation can begin.
How must the construction procedures be revised to accommodate frozen ground?
The exposed frozen wall surface is susceptible to deterioration and possible unstable conditions due to several factors, including 1) thermal load from sun, rain, and moving ambient air, 2) sloughing of partially saturated frozen granular soils due to sublimation of ice, and 3) improper construction methods involving water and soil removal from the excavation. The frozen ground can be protected if the following construction techniques are thoroughly considered and possibly implemented:

Protection of Exposed Frozen Earth
An exposed frozen wall, if left uninsulated, will slough a small amount daily until it deteriorates to an unstable condition. A single layer of reinforced reflective plastic or foam insulation is frequently sufficient to prevent sloughing. It is typically recommended to line shafts with concrete in 10-foot-intervals as the excavation progresses.
Frozen earth can be excavated by jetting water, blasting with explosives, cutting with rotating hardened metal bits, or breaking with pneumatic or hydraulic impact tools. Of these alternatives, blasting and water jetting represent the greatest danger to the frozen earth.

Concrete Placement Against Frozen Earth
Concrete can be placed directly against frozen earth when necessary Ð despite the fact that low temperatures reduce the curing rate. Experience has shown that for concrete placed at 15-18°C, the adjacent frozen soil will thaw to a depth approximately equal to 50-100% of the concrete thickness. With time, the soil will re-freeze.
Normally, neither freezing nor the reduced curing rate presents a problem for ordinary concrete placed in sections thicker than about 250 mm. For thinner sections, the heat of hydration and/or rate of set must be increased by using the following (in order of desirability and cost): 1) a lower water-cement ratio, 2) a richer mix design, 3) high early or regulated cement, 4) accelerating additives, 5) aluminous cement, or 6) high concentrations (9-15%) of calcium chloride.
Why isn’t ground freezing used more often in the construction industry?
The popularity of ground freezing is continuing to grow. For engineers, artificially frozen ground is very solid and waterproof. It is highly reliable and characterized by high safety standards. Structural analysis models to model frozen earth are becoming increasingly common. For the environment, no residues remain below ground and it protects the groundwater. Ground freezing is a versatile and flexible technology that can be applied in various applications.

Ground freezing will become more prevalent as more construction work is performed within geologically unfavorable ground, in urban areas, within already existing structures, and in tight working conditions.

How long does it take to freeze the ground?
A typical ground freezing system using a circulating coolant can take 6 to 8 weeks for a smaller diameter shaft and 10 to 12 weeks for larger areas. This is only the time for the formation of the frozen earth structure. Time to mobilize and install the freeze pipes occurs before the freeze formation and is not included in the above time estimates.

A system using an expendable refrigerant, such as liquid nitrogen, can often form a frozen structure in a few days.

How much does it cost to install and maintain a ground freezing system?
Ground freezing is not an inexpensive construction technique.
What concerns are associated with heave and settlement of frozen ground?
It is rare to experience any measurable heave or settlement from ground freezing operations. Theoretical computations are available, but they have not been shown to accurately and consistently predict heave or settlement in any soil type.
What unique safety issues must be addressed in ground freezing operations?
The chemicals used for ground freezing (calcium chloride, anhydrous ammonia, and liquid nitrogen) require extreme care. On-site personnel must be properly trained to work with these materials and have appropriate safety equipment. In enclosed spaces, the refrigerant ammonia may be substituted with other, less toxic alternatives.