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Trench stability in cohesive soil

K. Gorska1
Wroclaw University of Technology, Poland

Trench is connected to very narrow and deep excavation filled with bentonite suspension. This paper presents estimation of its
stability in cohesive soil. The stability is assessed by two calculation methods. The first involves the equilibrium of forces acting
on the rigid wedge. The second one includes numerical calculations conducted in Plaxis 3D Foundations. A few examples
having different dimensions (length and depth) are analyzed in uniform soil conditions. Graphs defining the dependence of
length, depth and factor of safety are presented. It is found that for long trenches (L6m) the soil kinematics at failure coincides
with the literature data. Short trenches are under a large influence of the arching effect and cohesive forces. The limit
equilibrium method can be used under the condition of employing a factor, which reduces the value of the earth pressure.

Keywords: retaining wall, trench, safety, stability, numerical analysis, arching, failure.

settlement behind the walls [8]. Different

1 INTRODUCTION variations in construction phases result in a huge
range of implementation possibilities, e.g. slurry
Trench excavation is widely used in geotechnical walls in which a suspension is mixed with
works. It is performed as the first stage cement that hardens [2].
of construction for diaphragm walls, barrettes or The first stage of construction is critical for
slurry walls [3, 12]. A deep vertical cut in the the construction process. In the following phases,
ground is excavated under a slurry suspension. the stability of the surrounding soil is easier to
The first application of diaphragm walls was in maintain. During the concreting process pressure
the early sixties [10] and now they are inside the trench increases (slurry is being
continually used successfully supporting the continuously replaced by concrete) as does the
construction of deep excavations or deep exerted force on the faces and the toe of the
foundations. Walls made from concrete and steel trench.
work well against high values of internal forces There is a widespread belief among
and permit the transfer of loads from leaning geoengineers that if the slurry level exceeds the
slabs. Another advantage is water resistance that water level by more than 1 m and the slurry unit
is only provided by a proper execution of panel weight is greater than 10.5 kN/m3 trench stability
joints. Van Tol presents four cases of leakage is guaranteed; although in this case the safety
through the diaphragm walls at stop end joints in margin is unknown. The primary question is in
deep excavations, which led to very serious what situations special care or preparations

Wroclaw University of Technology, ul. Wybrzeze Wyspianskiego 27, 51-692 Wroclaw.
during the trenching process should be taken. the Coulomb method for two-dimensional
Usually, major problems are not related to the stability of a slope with an infinite length [1].
trenching process, but are connected to human The shape of the wedge is a prism with triangular
error. sides (see Figure 1a). Acting forces on the wedge
There are several theories for calculating are (see Figure 1b): the bulk weight of the wedge
trench stability that have been implemented in W, the resultant force on the slip surface R,
practice. The first group of theories concerns 2D cohesion force on the slip surface CR, the earth
cases with long trenches. The wedge is triangular pressure Ph and the hydrostatic slurry pressure
and the slip surface is inclined by the angle Ps. To simulate spatial working conditions, shear
cr = /4 + /2, as in the Coulomb criterion, forces Ss and cohesion forces C on the wedge
where is friction angle. Initially only sides are applied. This method provides a very
homogeneous, perfectly cohesive soil conditions quick and accurate estimation for engineering
without groundwater were analyzed by Nash and purposes.
Johns [5]. Later, other forces such as
groundwater pressure and a varying slurry level
were taken into consideration (Morgerstern and
AmirTahmasseb [4]). These solutions can be
assumed for shallower rather than longer
trenches (trenches with dimensions of L<2H).
If 3D working conditions are considered, the
forces acting on the sides - shear forces and
cohesion forces - must be analyzed. This
represents the simplest transition from 2D to 3D
analysis and was proposed by Prater [7]. Another Figure 1 a) 3D-view of the sliding block; b) Polygon of
modification is the inclination of the sides into acting forces in the plane of symmetry.
the interior of the wedge. The inclination angle
= /4+/2 proposed by Washbourne [11] seems In the limit-equilibrium method for this
to have a too small value according to numerical specific case the stability of cohesive soil Ph and
calculations conducted by the author. This Ps must have equal values. This statement leads
angular wedge shape is easily described, but it to the determination of the failure surface
differs from the shape observed in the numerical inclination. For the 2D case it is cr = /4 + /2.
calculations. Ph is determined from the projection of all acting
The first solution with a curved failure surface forces in the horizontal and vertical directions.
was presented by Piaskowski & Kowalewski in The equilibrium equations are as follows:
1965 [6]. This solution uses a vertical elliptic Fz = 0 Ph + 2 S sz + 2 C z + C Rz = R z
cylinder cut by a critical plane. The latest 3D (1)
solutions by Tsai and Chang employ a more Fy = 0 W = R y + C Ry + 2 S sy + 2C y
realistic smooth and convex shear surface [9].
This method uses vertical columns as a
generalization for standard 2D slices. where:
This paper presents two further methods of
analysis for trench stability. W = 0.5 H 2 ctg L
Rz = Ry tg ( )


S s = Sn tg
The first method involves the equilibrium of S sx = S s cos
forces acting on the rigid wedge and comes from
S sz = S s sin
C = 0.5 ctg H 2 c values of 3 8 cm. The exact displacement value
Cx = C cos depends on which point is observed. Points near
the toe have larger displacements. FS values for
Cz = C sin displacements greater than 8 cm are constant. In
CR = L H c / sin addition, in examining the FS/step curve a point
of deflection is observed at the same step and the
same displacement.

The second method includes numerical 4 EXAMPLES

calculations conducted in Plaxis 3D Foundations.
This program uses a finiteelement method. A few examples having different dimensions
During numerical calculations, displacements (length and depth) are analyzed in uniform soil
and stress in the surrounding soil are determined. conditions. Graphs defining the dependence of
This enables estimating the shape and range of length, depth and factor of safety are presented.
the wedge and to establish if the arching effect
occurs. 4.1 Soil conditions
The trench excavation process in a block of In the examples, uniform ground conditions with
soil is taken into consideration and the advantage the Coulomb criterion are analyzed. The material
of two axes of symmetry is used. On vertical parameters are presented in Table 1. No water
surfaces of the resulting solid boundary level is considered. The unit slurry weight is 10.5
conditions allowing only vertical movement. On kN/m3. No filtration or improvement of the soil
the basis of body movement is blocked in all conditions in the surrounding layer is considered.
directions. Surface area remains free. At first the
sensitivity of the size of the modeled area in Table 1. Parameters of the homogeneous soil.
relation to the mesh size was tested. Within three
Ka c E
blocks different in size eventually a block sizes kN/m3 kPa MPa
14 16 20m was adopted, as to eliminate the Clay 20 0,66 12 15 28 0.35
effect of the impact of sides, and at the same
time not unduly magnifying the size of the task. 4.2 Trench dimensions
Adopted regions of different mesh size reduce
computation time without significantly affecting An analysis of typical trench dimensions was
the accuracy of the results. conducted for the following dimensions: length L
The excavation process is modeled as the 3 to 10 m, width B 1.0 m and depth H 8 to
removal of 2 m thick layers of soil and the 15 m.
application of slurry pressure. For simplification,
the hydrostatic slurry pressure is assumed as 4.3 Results
external stabilizing load. It increases linearly
During the excavation process, soil and slurry
with depth and is applied to all faces of the
pressures acting on the trench sides are in
trench, including the toe. The slurry level is kept
equilibrium. No change in the stresses around the
unchanged at the ground surface.
trench is observed. At the toe of the trench, the
To determine the shape of the wedge, the
force exerted by the slurry causes a reduction of
standard procedure of tan/c reduction is used. the stress in the soil. This is also influenced by
Since no limit state i.e. no failure is observed, the smaller unit weight of the suspension
the interpretation of the FS/displacement curve is compared to the soil. Figure 2 presents the total
made. The FS/displacement curve indicates a displacements after excavation with the largest
rapid change in the inclination. The factor of values of 5.5 mm occurring at the center of the
safety increases until soil displacements reach toe. This is typical for the rebound connected
with the removal of the overburden load. In this
case, the exerted pressure decreases.

- inclination of failure surface


65 10
60 15

3 5 7 9
L - length of trench

Figure 3. Plots of cr vs. section length L for different depths

H of the trench simplified calculations.

FS - limit equilibrium method

Figure 2. 3D total displacements for a 6 m long trench after 4

excavation finite element method.
Figure 3 confirms the spatial working
3 10
conditions. For every trench depth the inclination 12
of the failure surface decreases with the increase 2,5
in its length. This is caused by the different share 2
of forces acting on the trench sides and the
wedge weight in the Ph value. The following rule 1,5
applies: a longer trench leads to a smaller share 3 4 5 6
of acting forces. For very long trenches the L - length of trench
inclination angle is the same as the 2D Coulomb
solution and is equal to cr = /4 + /2 (dotted Figure 4. Plots of FS vs. section length L for different depths
line). Due to cohesion forces, the inclination of the trench limit equilibrium method.
angle is greater than for cohessionless soil [1].
For comparing the results of the simplified 4,5
calculation method and the numerical
FS - finite element method

calculations, the factor of safety is defined as
follows: 3,5
tan c (2)
FS = = 12
tan red cred 2,5
where: tan red and cred are reduced values
reached in calculation step assumed as a failure. 3 4 5 6
The limit equilibrium Ph = Ps must be reached
L - length of trench
for red. This definition does not reveal any local
areas of instability and it only has a global
Figure 5. Plots of FS vs. section length L for different depths
character. of the trench finite element method.
The general rule that factors of safety decrease
with an increase in length for the same depth of
trench is fulfilled (Figures 3, 4 and 5). For the
limit equilibrium method a surprising
phenomenon occurs, i.e. the tendency of higher
FS values for very short trenches of the same
depth (Figure 4 and Table 2). This is not
observed for the finite element method (Figure 5
and Table 3) and is caused by the formulation of
method solutions. Very short trenches shear and
cohesion forces have a determinant influence on
the earth pressure value. This is also a result of
the arching effect. If the trench length increases,
acting forces decrease and the arching effect

Table 2. FS values limit equilibrium method.

Figure 7. 3D total displacements for a 3 m long trench at
H depth of L length of the trench failure finite element method.
the trench 10 6 5 4 3
8 2.13 2.58 2.84 3.16 3.75 Results of this phenomenon are observed on
10 2.00 2.51 2.76 3.13 3.81 displacement maps. In figure 6, the shape of the
12 1.96 2.50 2.77 3.19 3.95
15 1.93 2.53 2.85 3.32 4.25 wedge is easily recognized. It can be assumed
that the prism approximation used in the limit
Table 3. FS values finite element method. equilibrium method is acceptable. The shape and
the inclination of the failure surface ( = 65) is
H depth of L length of the trench
the trench close to the simplified calculations. Washbourne
6 5 4 3
8 2.32 2.52 2.71 3.00
assumption [11] for sides inclination angle is
10 2.18 2.36 2.56 2.83 highly underestimated. If the length of the trench
12 2.09 2.29 2.47 2.73 decreases, the displacements at the higher part
15 2.04 2.21 2.41 2.65 increase very slowly during excavation progress
after it reaches 6m (see Figure 7). For a 3 m long
trench, no wedge is observed.

FS - limit equilibrium method



2 2,5 3 3,5 4 4,5
FS - finite element method

Figure 6. 3D total displacements for a 6 m long trench at

failure finite element method. Figure 8. A set of points FS finite element vs. FS limit
equilibrium method for the same geoengineering data.
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The failure surface inclination decreases with
the length of the trench. The Coulomb criterion
is the lower bound estimation.
FS values are between 2.5 and 4.5 and are
much higher than expected to fulfill the stability
The limit equilibrium method can be used
under the condition of employing a factor which
reduces the value of the earth pressure. This kind
of factor is used by Piaskowski and Kowalewski
[6] and it is a function of the length, the depth
and the friction angle.