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Research News
Blistering in Resinous Systems on Concrete Surfaces:
Types, Causes, and Preventive Measures
By Ing. Ciro Scial Director, Building DivisionAPI spa, Mignanego (GE) Italy
Continued
listers in resinous systems
on concrete substrates can
compromise the perfor-
mance of the coating and its protection
of the substrate. It is important for
applicators and inspectors to under-
stand the types of blisters that form on
concrete, how they may affect coating
performance, and how they may be pre-
vented. This article will distinguish and
discuss different types of blisters. These
types of blisters can be differentiated by
the time they take to develop and their
causes. The first type of blister to be dis-
cussed develops over the short-term,
even during application. A short-term
blister is caused by blow-up. The second
type of blister to be discussed develops
over a medium term, such as a few days
after application, and is caused by
detachment. The third type of blister
develops over the long term, after some
weeks, months, or even one or two
years. Its cause is osmosis.
Blisters Caused by Blow-Up
The first cause of these blisters, which
are superficial imperfections in
resinous linings, is air trapped inside the
pores of concrete. In addition to the
time they take to develop, these blisters
may be distinguished by their typical
shape, that of a crater, with a hole in the
center (Fig. 1). The blisters form when
the resin is still fluid, but the character-
istic crater shape does not develop
immediately during application. The
blisters can be confused with the air
bubbles the product normally incorpo-
rates during mixing. The day after the
application or, just a few hours later, the
normal air bubbles disappear, while the
blisters burst, or blow up, creating the
crater shape that remains easily visible
in the surface. The diameter of the
craters varies between 1 mm and about
4 to 5 mm (Fig. 2).
Two conditions can create blisters by
blow up:
the presence of medium-large cavities
in the surface layer of the concrete slab
connected to the surface through pores,
capillaries, cracks, and other voids; and
the heating of the slab during the
application of the resin.
It is common practice to smooth the
surface of a concrete floor by a mechan-
ical troweloften a compactor with
rotary blades. Besides levelling and fin-
ishing the surface, the trowel compacts
the casting, due both to its weight and
the movement of the blades. This opera-
tion usually creates a compact and well-
closed surface layer. But when the
operation does not produce a compact
surface, blast cleaning the surface, as
needed before coating, makes the condi-
tion worse, highlighting the porosity of
the surface.
When the resin is later applied, it
slowly penetrates the capillaries, push-
ing out the air they contain. The air
comes up towards the surface, forms a
bubble, and is released when the bubble
bursts. When the air is released quickly,
the lining is still fluid and can close
again after the air bubble bursts. But if
the release is slow, the air reaches the
surface after the lining has plasticized
and cannot close once the bubble bursts.
Hence, a crater is formed where the
bubble burst. This process is what we
are calling blow-up.
It is difficult to foresee if the surface
will create blisters by blow-up, especial-
ly if it is compacted. But we can easily
assert that blisters are likely to develop
by blow-up on a surface smoothed by
hand, on old floorings, on repaired
cracks, or after cutting and re-installing
mortar on rebar in a concrete floor.
Heating the slab also causes blisters
by blow-up. When concrete surfaces,
either outside or inside, are exposed to
the sun, the solar irradiation produces
an increase in the temperature of the
slab. If the slab is being coated while
exposed to the sun, the heat causes an
increase in pressure within the slab.
The pressure pushes the air that the
slab contains up towards the surface,
and blisters from blow-up form during
or shortly after application.
Blisters caused by blow-up can be
avoided. When a surface is prone to
develop blisters by blow-up, a low sol-
vent, pore-plugging primer can be
B
Fig. 1: Crater and hole in blow-up blister
Figures courtesy of the author
Fig. 2: Blisters caused by blow-up
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Research News
Continued
applied, or the still fresh coating prod-
uct can be dusted to saturation with
fine particle size quartz (0.06 to 0.25
cm). Filling the pores will prevent the
resin from penetrating the cavities.
To avoid blisters by blow-up due to
heating of the surface, it is usually
enough to begin application during the
period of cooling, when the solar irradi-
ation is lower (in the afternoon); this
practice can avoid the increase in pres-
sure that would force out the air that
causes blisters.
There are cases in which avoiding
blisters by blow-up requires using both
remedies (application during the cooling
period, and priming and dusting to satu-
ration) or applying the primer twice.
Blisters Caused by Detachment
Surfaces that are not properly cleaned
and prepared are often the cause of blis-
tering by detachment. Due to its rise
through capillaries and its condensa-
tion, water may also cause blisters to
form by detachment. These blisters
form soon after application, sometimes
the day after, but generally after one or
two weeks. They have an oval shape,
with the longer dimension varying
between 5 to 6 cm and 10 to 20 cm or
more. The blisters are soft to touch and
look like the blisters in a carpet.
Water on a substrate being coated
behaves like dust on the surface (or an
otherwise poorly prepared surface).
That is, the water collects between the
coating, which is not yet perfectly hard,
and the surface of the concrete, pre-
venting good adhesion. Hence, water or
moisture can seep under an incomplete-
ly hardened coating.
Detachment will occur in a short or
long time, depending on how changes in
temperature affect the thermal move-
ment of the coating. Detachment plasti-
cally deforms the coating and is visible
as blisters.
By opening the blisters, we can verify
the condition of the substrate and check
the blisters inner surfaces for damp-
ness or polluting substances. We can
then confirm the cause of the blisters.
To avoid blistering by detachment, it is
necessary to prepare and properly
clean the surfaces. In cases of dampness
in the substrate, it is necessary to either
wait until the substrate is dry or use a
water-borne epoxy-concrete product
suitable for damp surfaces.
Osmotic Blisters
The development of osmotic blisters
(bubbles) in resinous systems on con-
crete floorings is a well known phenom-
enon for applicators and operators in
this field. Osmotic blistering is slow and
progressive. It appears some weeks,
months or even one to two years after
application.
There is general agreement that the
cause of these blisters is osmotic pres-
sure. It is necessary to consider the phe-
nomenon of osmosis to identify the ele-
ments that characterize this physico-
chemical process.
Osmosis often occurs in nature, in
both the plant and animal worlds. For
example, if we put some red blood cor-
puscles in water, we can see that they
inflate, grow, and then break. This
process occurs because the cell mem-
brane is permeable to water but not to
the solutes in the cell solution (hemoglo-
bin and other proteins). In trying to
reach a condition of balance between
the two liquids, some water goes into
the cell.
If the cell membrane is strong enough,
there will be equilibrium between the
energy of the concentrated solution
inside the cell, as a result of the hydro-
static pressure, and the energy outside
the cell. That is, the energy inside the
cell is high enough to balance the free
molar energy of the solvent (water) of
the diluted solution outside the cell.
To create osmotic pressure, the fol-
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lowing elements are necessary:
a defined space containing a pure solvent or a dilute solu-
tion;
a defined space containing a concentrated solution; and
a semi-permeable membrane separating the two spaces.
That is, the membrane must be one through which the sol-
vent can pass but the solute cannot.
The system described above is defined as an osmotic cell.
How and When an Osmotic Cell Develops in Concrete
To understand how and when an osmotic cell develops in the
surface layer of the concrete surface, we will look at features
of the cell and the development of osmotic blisters.
The Diluted Solution and the Concentrated Solution
Research carried out by different authors has verified that
the surface layer of a concrete slab shows physical-chemical
characteristics that differ from those of the inner layers.
During the first phase of concrete maturity, water transports
most of the soluble salts toward the surface. This transport
is helped by mechanically smoothing and compacting. This
surface part of the concrete slab is exposed to air and subject
to continuous evaporation, and therefore takes up a different
structural configuration from the inner parts of the same
slab. The area of the concrete nearest the surface has more
cement, more soluble salt concentration, more trapped air,
and more micro-cracks.
Inside the concrete slab, two areas with different chemical-
physical structures can be distinguished:
a first area, near the surface, with more soluble salts in the
pores and with more micro-cracks; and
a second area, more internal, with less soluble salt content.
Water is fundamental in determining the solutions, and the
presence of water may be due to different sources.
Water from the concrete mixture may not have complete-
ly evaporated;
Ground water may be present in the strata or subsoil.
Water may have leaked from pipes or other structures
under the concrete layer.
The water, rising through the concrete slab, will create the
two solutions by dissolving the soluble salts in the concrete
pores.
The Semi-Permeable Membrane
The semi-permeable membrane is formed solely from con-
crete. In the surface layer, besides more inorganic soluble
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Research News
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Continued
salts, there are also more micro-cracks. The saltsessentially
sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium
hydroxidesreact with carbon dioxide (CO
2
) in the air over
the surface of the slab. As a result of the reaction, along with
other products, calcium carbonate CaCO
3
, which is an insol-
uble salt, will be formed. The reactions with regard to the
sodium salts, may be written as follows.
CO
2
+ 2 NaOH = Na
2
CO
3
Na
2
CO
3
+ Ca(OH)
2
= CaCO
3
+ 2NaOH
The calcium carbonate (CaCO
3
) settles on the walls of the
pores and of the superficial micro-cracks reducing their
diameter. As this process continues, more calcium carbonate
will settle into the micro-cracks and pores, producing sedi-
ment that is insoluble in water. The sediment narrows the
bigger pores and, together with the sediment, build the semi-
permeable membrane. I do not think the primer applied
before the resinous coat could form the semi-permeable
membrane. In my opinion, the primer may help reduce the
diameter of the biggest pores, and so help form the mem-
brane, but the primer cannot be the membrane itself.
In addition, if formulated with organic solvents soluble in
water, the primer can increase the osmosis phenomenon or
even cause it. In this case, the solvents could help to develop
the concentrated solution under the coating. The primer
alone cannot be the semi-permeable membrane, as proven by
the blisters I found in a resinous coating in an application car-
ried out directly on concrete surfaces without any primer
application.
The Development
of the Osmotic Cell in Concrete
Inside a concrete slab, two different areas can be distin-
guished on the basis of their constitution and the presence of
higher or lower levels of soluble inorganic salts (Fig. 3).
Moreover, as established above, the walls of the various
pores, generally those very near to the surface, form semi-
permeable membranes because they are exposed directly to
the carbon dioxide action. The membranes allow passage of
the water but not of the salts contained in the pores.
Whatever its source may be, water reaches the coating
after it has hardened and set on the surface. If water came
into contact with the coating before the coating hardened and
Fig. 3: Two areas in the concrete slab distinguished by
their constitution and levels of inorganic soluble salts
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Continued
set, an osmotic cell would not develop, but the coating would
not adhere to the substrate. Hence, water must be under the
coating, but, after the coating has adhered well to the surface
and has hardened well.
Except in certain instances, the main cause of the two solu-
tions is moisture that moves up through the concrete slab.
The presence of water in a slab is never really clear. In fact, it
is not easy to know when a flooring is at risk of developing
osmosis. Every time osmotic blistering occurs, the slab looks
dry, and there are no signs of the presence of water (such as
efflorescence, damp patches, or a damp surface). If noting the
presence of water on the surface were enough to avoid
osmotic blistering, there would not be so many cases of it. It
is also not possible to establish a percentage of dampness at
or above which osmotic blistering will occur.
Values under 3% of relative humidity, measured with a
carbide hygrometer CM in samples taken in the inner areas
of the slab, indicate that osmotic blistering is unlikely but still
possible. Another method of evaluation to be used with the
above method, to find out the presence of water, is to spread
a quite thick plastic sheet of about 3 x 3 meters on the sur-
face, seal all its edges, and determine after 24 to 48 hours if
there is condensate under the plastic. If so, there is excess
moisture in the concrete.
While we do not know how much moisture is needed to
indicate without a doubt that osmotic blistering will occur, it
is clear that moisture is the decisive element in the develop-
ment of osmosis inside a concrete slab.
The Development of the Blisters
Blisters depend on moisture coming up through the concrete
slab, meeting the barrier of the resinous coating, and begin-
ning to condense under the coating and into the pores.
Because of moisture condensation under the lining, we can
find critical points near the surface of the concrete, such as
cavities, small discontinuities, and micro-cracks with concen-
trated solutions of soluble inorganic salts. In contrast, in the
inner layers, condensation will create the diluted solution.
The critical points, where the concentrated solution is
found, are very small, and their walls are the semi-permeable
membranes that the water from diluted solutions slowly pen-
etrates. To cause the development of the blisters, it is neces-
sary for the critical points (where the concentrated solution
is) to be bounded on one side by the resinous coating, which
will act as a plug. That is, the coating must have good adhe-
sion to the surface, be at least 1 mm thick to be waterproof,
and must be able to oppose, by becoming deformed, the push
of the osmotic pressure.
In contrast to what has been asserted by other authors, I
am arguing that the development of osmotic blisters is not
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Research News
possible if there is no adhesion of the
coating to the surface.
The dimension of the bubbles, which
varies between 3 to 4 mm and a maxi-
mum of 2.5 to 3 cm, proves that there is
adhesion between the coating and the
surface. If there is no or low adhesion,
the osmotic process should produce
more and larger swollen areas because
the opposing forces are low or negligi-
ble. The moisture condensation would
occur in very large areas without the
creation of an osmotic cell, and the
detachment would take place because of
thermal movements of the coating.
Examples from the Field
Various applications of coatings with
osmotic blistering have been analyzed.
One of the biggest applications analyzed
occupied 1500 m
2
of surface, which
was completely covered with blisters of
various dimensions.
Osmotic blisters are easily recog-
nized. The blisters become visible on
thick, deformable, and impermeable
resinous coatings (Fig. 4). If not on the
whole surface, the blisters often are
localized in areas that I would call criti-
cal: near openings, adjoining outer walls,
along particular lines. The blisters are
very hard to touch, and if they are per-
forated, a pressurized liquid comes out.
Analysis of the liquid proves it to be a
watery inorganic solution of sodium,
potassium, and calcium salts.
The coatings in which the blisters
form can create a perfectly imperme-
able plug to hold in liquids (and gases),
which is necessary for the development
of the osmotic cell. The coatings also are
thick enough to lose their shape, but
without bursting, under the pushing
thrust of the osmotic pressure.
One particularly instructive case that
I analyzed involved osmotic blistering
in a floor coating applied in a shop near
Cagliari in Sardinia. The osmotic blis-
ters developed after the application of a
self-levelling coating over an existing
thin film coating (approximately 0.300
mm thick) that had not caused any
problems. The blistering astonished the
application technician and angered the
customer, who ascribed the cause of the
defects to the poor quality of the prod-
uct of the second application.
My examination showed blisters
throughout the entire thickness of the
original and the new coatings, which
Fig. 4: Osmotic Blisters
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Continued
adhered perfectly to one another. The
test of the fluid extracted from the blis-
ters determined that it was a watery
solution of inorganic sodium and potas-
sium salts, indicating that osmotic pres-
sures caused the blisters. A further
indication of osmotic blistering was that
the original thin film coating was blister
free for yearsuntil one month after
the self-levelling layer was applied.
In this case, which is typical for
osmotic blistering, no one expected that
blisters would develop on that flooring.
So why did they form? There was no
condensation under the original resin
because it could not create a barrier to
the moisture rising through the floor.
The application of the new coating with
a greater thickness created the barrier
to the moisture that helped the conden-
sation build up under the coating. The
buildup of condensation started the
osmotic process, which led to the devel-
opment of the blisters after one month.
Another important point emerging
from the analysis is that new concrete
surfaces provoke osmosis more easily
than old surfacesthose that are more
than three years from the casting. In my
opinion, old surfaces are less prone to
osmosis because soluble salts, which
were in the surface cracks, have been
almost completely removed or trans-
formed into insoluble salts from normal
wear and cleaning of the flooring and
from carbonation. Hence, if there is con-
densation but no soluble salt content,
osmotic cells do not develop. This find-
ing also confirms that the superficial
critical points are small and are the
areas where the concentrated solution
of soluble salts develops.
Preventing the Development of
Osmotic Blisters
In the case of floorings on the ground,
the elements that cause the develop-
ment of an osmotic cell are listed below:
an area with a highly concentrated
solution due to the inorganic salts and
water in concrete,
an area with a diluted solution due to
the inorganic salts and water in con-
crete,
a semi-permeable membrane,
the capability of the resinous coating
to form a thick and moisture imperme-
able plug, and
the adhesion of the coating to the sur-
Fig. 5: Forces causing the development
of osmotic blisters
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face before the condensation of water.
Figure 5 shows how osmotic blisters
develop.
To control or avoid the development
of osmotic blisters, it is necessary to
intervene with one of the above ele-
ments. I think, and I had the opportuni-
ty to verify it, that even a particular and
careful preparation of the surface by
double peening, followed by water
washing, is not enough to eliminate the
soluble salts or the osmosis.
The best results for controlling or
avoiding osmotic blistering are obtained
by preventing water infiltration. There
are measures for preventing infiltration
that can be taken before or after the
application of the concrete flooring.
Before the concrete casting, a proper
water barrier can be applied on the bal-
last to prevent the moisture coming up
through the slab.
After the concrete casting, two differ-
ent kinds of products can be used to
prevent water infiltration: a water-
borne epoxy-based concrete primer and
a breathable resinous coating.
In my opinion, based on my experi-
ence, there are two possible reasons
that a primer layer based on a water-
borne epoxy-concrete product may
help eliminate the osmotic process.
First, during application, the primer
can dissolve part of the soluble salts on
the surface and trap them in the epoxy
matrix as it hardens. In approximately
80% of the cases in which we applied
only this product, no osmotic blistering
occurred, while in the remaining 20%,
the problem decreased drastically, with
just a few blisters appearing on large
surfaces.
Second, unlike solvent-borne prod-
ucts, waterborne products do not help
semi-permeable membranes form.
Breathable resinous products can
also be applied after concrete casting,
and, in fact, this approach to preventing
water infiltration produced the best
results, even where the problem had
developed seriously. The use of breath-
able products avoids moisture conden-
sation and thus prevents the develop-
ment of the diluted and concentrated
solutions of inorganic salts. I have found
that application of breathable resinous
systems with moisture permeability Sd
= 22.5 m (where Sd is the equivalent
thickness of air) gave excellent results
in every application carried out, even in
critical situations with high water con-
tent in the surface and in case of the
repair of an already developed osmotic
problem.
The waterborne epoxy-concrete
product can be combined with the
breathable resinous product, or the
breathable product can be used alone,
with the restrictions described above in
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case it is necessary to use thick, imper-
meable coatings.
Conclusions
The results of the experiences, assess-
ments, and analyses carried out on dif-
ferent applications, suggest the follow-
ing conclusions.
Blisters caused by blow-up result
from the nature of concrete, particular-
ly, the air it contains. Air comes out
because of the increasing pressure
caused by temperature changes or by
liquid resin replacing the air. The blis-
ters can be avoided by using a high-
solids product, by dusting the coating to
saturation with 0.060.25 cm powder,
and/or by applying the product when
the surface is cooling down.
Blisters caused by detachment are
ascribed to an improperly cleaned sur-
face and to water. Cleaning the surface
more carefully and using products suit-
able for damp substrates may help
avoiding this these blisters.
Osmotic blisters are caused by osmot-
ic pressure that develops after an
osmotic cell forms in the surface area of
the concrete flooring. The main ele-
ments in osmotic blistering are moisture
condensation in areas separated by sol-
uble inorganic salts and micro-structure
differences. These elements must be
controlled to contain or eliminate the
development of osmotic pressures.
Osmotic pressure can be controlled or
eliminated before the concrete casting,
by applying a proper moisture barrier,
or after the concrete casting, by using
breathable and/or waterborne epoxy-
concrete products. Breathable products
avoid or at least restrict condensation.
Waterborne epoxy-concrete products,
together with a very careful surface
preparation, avoid or reduce the forma-
tion of the concentrated solution and
incorporate the soluble salts into the
epoxy matrix.
References
1. Rogest W. Dively III, Materials
Performance, May 1994.
2. Frederick A. Pfaff and Frederick S.
Gelfant, Osmotic Blistering of Epoxy
Coatings on Concrete, Journal of
Protective Coatings & Linings,
December 1997, pp. 5264.
3. David White, Paints and Varnishes,
1997.
4. Robert R. Cain, Solving Problems
Caused by Moisture Vapor
Transmission on Coated Concrete
Floors, Journal of Protective Coatings
& Linings, February 2001, pp.
96105.
5. Daryl Fleming, Shedding Light on
Osmosis in Resin Flooring, Journal of
Protective Coatings & Linings,
February 2004, pp. 5357.