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Estimating Shear Strength Properties of Soils Using SPT Blow Counts: An Energy
Balance Approach

Conference Paper · March 2008


DOI: 10.1061/40972(311)46

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ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication No. 179, ISBN 978-0-7844-0972-5

Estimating Shear Strength Properties of Soils Using SPT Blow Counts: An


Energy Balance Approach

Timothy Brown1 and Hiroshan Hettiarachchi2


1
Geotechnical Engineer, Commonwealth Assoc. Inc., 2700 West Argyle Street, Jackson, MI 49202;
tsbrown@cai-engr.com
2
Assistant Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Lawrence Technological University, 21000
West Ten Mile Road, Southfield MI 48075; hiroshan@ltu.edu

ABSTRACT: The subsurface exploration of a site is often the aspect of a project that
gets overlooked during the design process. Many clients will get standard soil
borings, but do not want to pay for a full laboratory analysis. Lack of data forces the
designer to estimate important engineering properties of the soil. Very often the
Standard Penetration Test (SPT) blow counts are used to estimate the shear strength
properties of soil in foundation designs. Few correlations are widely used. However,
no clear explanation is found to justify the selection most of these mathematical
equations. This manuscript describes a new approach to estimate the shear strength
parameters based on the SPT blow counts. In this method, the standard penetration
test is treated analogous to driving a miniature pipe pile. The energy input to the soil
is used to correlate the SPT blow count to the shear strength parameters of the soil at
the depth of testing. Soil boring records from few different sites were analyzed and a
statistical analysis revealed that the proposed method can provide a better estimation
than the widely used existing correlations.

INTRODUCTION

A combination of soil borings and laboratory testing is the most reliable method
available to obtain accurate shear strength properties for subsurface soils. Many
projects, due to limited budgets, tight schedules, or lack of concern, do not usually
have the luxury of getting laboratory recommendations. In many cases, the only
subsurface exploration performed consists of soil borings with a log recording the soil
type and classification, depth of water table and SPT blow counts. Lack of lab data
forces the designer to estimate the properties of the soil.
When laboratory data is not available, it is a common practice to estimate the
shear parameters from the of the SPT results. There are many charts and tables
available to make direct correlations between the SPT blow count (N) and the angle
of internal friction () and undrained cohesion (cu). These estimations should be
made by individuals who have a thorough understanding of soil behaviors. It has

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ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication No. 179, ISBN 978-0-7844-0972-5

been the authors’ experience that this is often times not the case. Engineers with little
or no experience in evaluating soil borings and estimating  and cu are sometimes
expected to design foundations. It is very common for an inexperienced designer to
use a design chart which is not fully understood. It is this practice that shows a strong
need for a reliable tool to assist in design when a complete laboratory analysis is
unavailable.

EXISTING N60 -  AND N60 - cu CORRELATIONS

A brief review of widely accepted correlations of N value to  and cu are


presented herein. The two most common types of SPT hammers used in the US are
safety and donut hammers. Energy studies have revealed that the efficiency of safety
and donut hammers are about 60% and 45% respectively. When SPT results are
presented it is customary to modify the blow counts to the 60% efficiency levels
(N60). Almost all the correlations are hence based on N60. It is important to note that
the factors such as borehole diameter, sampling method, and rod length are also
incorporated into this standardization process.
Early work on estimating  from the N60 value attempted to make direct
correlations. Meyerhof (1956) and Peck et al. (1974) tabulated recommended values
for estimating. Peck et al. (1974) published a graphical representation which was
later approximated by the following equation by Wolff (1989).

   27 .1  0.3 N 60  0.00054 N 602 (1)

Results from a laboratory research by Gibbs and Holtz (1957) showed that
overburden pressure could significantly affect the SPT blow count. Schmertmann
(1975) considered overburden pressure to develop a relationship between N60 and .
This correlation can be mathematically approximated as follows (Kulhawy and
Mayne, 1990) where   is the effective overburden pressure and pa is the
atmospheric pressure.
0.34
   
   tan 1
 N 60 /
12 .2  20 .3 p 
 (2)
  a 

Despite the research shown above, there have been few other attempts to correlate
 directly to N60 without considering overburden pressure (Peck et al., 1953, and
Japan Road Assoc., 1990). Hatanaka and Uchida (1996) tested high quality,
undisturbed frozen samples from few sites in a standard triaxial apparatus and the
friction angles were compared against the corresponding N60. They proposed the
following equation to estimate  where CN is a factor to correct N60 to a standard
overburden pressure (100 kPa).

   20CN N60  20 (3)

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ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication No. 179, ISBN 978-0-7844-0972-5

Correlating cu to N60 has been attempted many times. Efforts have been made to
find a general relationship for all clay types. The following equation presented by
Terzaghi and Peck (1967) is one of the more commonly used methods of estimating
cu for all clay types.

cu  0.06 pa N 60 (4)

Some believe it is unlikely a generally accepted relationship between cu and N60


will be found and a realistic correlation between cu and N60 may be possible for clays
within the same geology. The following equation by Hara et al. (1974) is an example
for one such effort.

cu  0.29 pa N60 
0.72
(5)

PROPOSED METHOD BASED ON ENERGY BALANCE

Modified version of Mohr-Coulomb failure criterion is typically used to estimate


the shear resistance between soil and pile material such as steel, concrete, etc.
Therefore, the shear resistance (f) between soil and the SPT sampler is modeled by
the following equation where ca and  are adhesion and angle of friction between soil
and the sampler. K is defined as the coefficient of lateral earth pressure.

 f  ca  K  tan  (6)

Driving the sampler is analogous to driving a pipe pile. Assuming no plug


formation, the resisting force is the f multiplied by the surface area of the sampler
both inner and outer. The work done by the sampler to overcome the f of the soil
(E1) can be estimated by resisting force times the distance traveled (d).

E1  Aouter ca  K outer  tan  ) d


 tan    Ainner ca  K inner (7)

It is assumed that the lateral pressure on the inside of the sampler is zero. Inside
surface area of a standard sampler is approximately 70% of the outside. Therefore,
equation 7 can be simplified to:

E1  Aouter ca  K outer


 tan    0.7 Aouter ca d  Aouter d 1.7ca  K  tan   (8)

The energy transferred by the hammer to the soil (E2) is the total work done by
the hammer times the hammer efficiency (). However, it is convenient to use
standardized N60 instead of the field N which results in the following equation where
W is the hammer weight and h is the drop height.

E2   NWh   0.6N 60Wh  (9)

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ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication No. 179, ISBN 978-0-7844-0972-5

Assuming that there is no other energy lost to the system, equation 8 and 9 can be
set equal to each other to find N60 as a function of shear strength parameters. D is the
outer diameter of the sampler. Shear strength parameters are made non-dimensional
by dividing them by pa.

Aouter d Dd 2 pa c 
N 60  (1.7ca  K  tan  )  (1.7 a  K tan  ) (10)
0.6Wh 0.6Wh pa pa

The parameters pa, D, d, W, and h are constants and hence can be replaced by a
constant (B) to form a general equation.

ca 
N 60  B(1.7 K tan  ) (11)
pa pa
 2000 lb 
 2in 12 in 2  2 
Dd pa2
 144 in   5.0
B  (12)
0.6Wh 0.6140 lb 30 in 

PROPOSED N60 - CORRELATION FOR COHESIONLESS SOILS

For granular soils, adhesion (ca) is zero. Angle of friction between soil and pile
material (steel in this case) is typically assumed to be proportional to soil friction i.e.,
= where  is the constant of proportionality. Reese et al. (2006) proposed to use
K=0.8 for open ended pipe piles which are driven unplugged. Therefore, when the
soil is granular the general equation can be deduced to the following.

    
N 60  B  K tan   5  0.8 tan   4 tan  (13)
 pa  pa pa
1  p 
   tan 1  0.25 N 60 a  (14)
   

Results from 36 standard penetration tests conducted at 24 different boreholes in


Oconto and Marinette County, WI, in 2005 were used to estimate  parameter in Eq.
14. Details of these tests and the laboratory evaluated friction angles of soils obtained
at the same locations are reported in Brown (2007). These data produced an average
value of 1/=0.3818 with a 0.018 standard deviation. Low standard deviation
indicates a reliable value for.

PROPOSED N60  cu CORRELATION FOR COHESIVE SOILS

For cohesive soils  is zero. Adhesion between soil and pile material (steel in this
case) is typically assumed to be proportional to undrained cohesion i.e., ca=cu where
 is the constant of proportionality.

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ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication No. 179, ISBN 978-0-7844-0972-5

ca c c
N 60  B(1.7 )  5 1.7 u  8.5 u (15)
pa pa pa
1  pa 
cu   N 60  (16)
  8.5 

Results from 14 standard penetration tests conducted at 9 different boreholes in


St. Clair, MI, in 1973 were used for  estimation (Eq. 16). Details of these tests and
the laboratory evaluated undrained cohesion values obtained at the same locations
can be found in Brown (2007). These data resulted an average value of 1/=0.3535
with a 0.162 standard deviation. High standard deviation suggests that this  value
may not support a strong prediction from equation 16.

VERIFICATION AND DISCUSSION

The estimated  and  values were used to analyze 2 sets of data to verify the
usefulness of the proposed 2 equations. Data used for this verification are presented
in Tables 1 and 2.
The laboratory values of  were compared to those predicted by Equation 14 in
Figure 1. Predictions by equations 1, 2, and 3 were also included in Figure 1 for
comparison. Overburden pressure correction proposed by Liao and Whitman (1986)
was used with Hatanaka and Uchida (1996) method. Performance of all equations
was compared by the distribution of error which was defined as the percent deviation
of the calculated friction angle from the measured. This comparison is presented in
Table 3. With the lowest average and standard deviation in error, statistically, the
proposed equation does a better estimation than other equations. It is also noticed that
for the given set of data, the proposed equation generates more conservative results
(slightly underestimate), while other methods overestimate. However, it has to be
tested with more sets of data to see if it is a general trend.
Figure 2 compares the laboratory measured cu to those predicted by Equation 16.
Predictions by Terzaghi and Peck (1967) equation are also included in Figure 2. Hara
et al. (1974) equation was not considered in the analysis as the geological history of
the soil was not known to make a fair comparison. Statistical distribution of percent
errors by both proposed and Terzaghi and Peck (1967) equations are also presented in
Table 3. High standard deviation in percent error indicates a less reliable correlation.
However, the proposed equation (Eq. 16) still does a better estimation than Terzaghi
and Peck (1967) method. In addition, the prediction by the proposed equation is
conservative (slightly underestimates).
When  in equation 16 is replaced by the estimated value, it produces
cu=0.04paN60 which is different from Terzaghi and Peck (1967) only by the
proportionality constant (0.04 instead of 0.06). In a way the proposed method
supports what Terzaghi and Peck (1967) suggested, i.e. N60 is directly proportional to
cu. However, the high standard deviation indicates that both methods perhaps lack
details specific to cohesive soils such as overconsoldated ratio and in-situ moisture
content.

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ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication No. 179, ISBN 978-0-7844-0972-5

Table 1. Data Used for Verification of Eq. 14


Borehole Depth ′ ′ ′ Borehole Depth ′ ′ ′
N60 N60
No. (ft) (psf) Lab Eq.14 No. (ft) (psf) Lab Eq.14
SB-8 5 5 525 30 29.84 23 27 28 2900 30 29.74
SB-8 11 13 1525 31 28.45 32 11 6 660 30 31.76
SB-8 25 20 1998 35 30.90 32 11 14 1100 30 30.05
SB-22 8 8 880 30 29.63 32 26 23 1640 32 31.62
SB-22 9 13 1455 30 27.53 44 24 8 960 35 32.62
12 16 5 550 30 32.87 44 31 45 3240 30 29.86
12 13 8 715 32 31.97 44 45 50 3565 35 30.93
12 23 13 1015 30 32.44 49 11 13 1080 32 30.13
12 69 50 3420 35 32.21 49 23 17 1340 30 31.83
Note: Data from Commonwealth Associates Inc., Jackson, MI. Logs SB8 and SB22; Drilling by Braun
Intertec Corporation, in 2006, Circle Pines, MN, 75% efficiency assumed for automatic hammer. Logs
12, 23, 32, 44, 49; Drilling by American Engineering Testing Inc. in 2005, Farmington, MN, hammer
efficiency 60-65%.

Table 2. Data Used for Verification of Eq. 16


Borehole Depth cu -lab cu -Eq.16 Borehole Depth cu -lab cu -Eq.16
N60 N60
No. (ft) (psf) (psf) No. (ft) (psf) (psf)
1 11 9 750 915 49 7 3 750 582
1 6 13 500 499 49 12 43 2000 998
2 7 2 500 582 49 10 48 1000 832
2 6 4.5 500 499 49 16 53 1500 1331
12 7 2.5 750 582 4066 10 4.5 750 832
12 12 26 1125 998 4066 17 7 1250 1414
32 9 4 1125 749 4066 31 10 2000 2579
44 16 4 1000 1331 4066 35 35 3000 2911
Note: Data from Commonwealth Associates Inc., Jackson, MI. Drilling by American Engineering
Testing Inc., logs 1 and 2 in 2001, Empire, MN, other logs in 2005, Farmington, MN, hammer
efficiency 60-65%.

Table 3. Statistical Comparison of Methods


Method Average error (%) Standard deviation of error (%)
Proposed (Eq. 14) 1.94 6.50
Wolff (1989) -5.30 9.83
Kulhawy and Mayne (1990) -37.62 13.43
Hatanaka and Uchida (1996) -31.02 12.85
Proposed (Eq. 16) 2.90 23.12
Terzaghi and Peck (1967) -40.08 33.35

It should be emphasized that the validity of a correlation depends highly on the


quality of data used. A close inspection of Figures 1 and 2 reveals that the laboratory
values tend to follow rounded off number pattern. Most of the friction angles are
either 300, 320, or 350 and the undrained cohesion values are either 500, 1000, or
2000 psf. It is unclear if it was a coincidence or a biased interpretation. Personal

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ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication No. 179, ISBN 978-0-7844-0972-5

communications with the drilling companies revealed that they have conducted some
direct shear tests and unconfined compressive strength tests. However, details of the
laboratory testing were not available with the borehole records.

50

45
Friction Angle_calculated

40

35 Proposed

Wolff (1989)
30 Kulhawy and Mayne (1990)

Hatanaka & Uchida (1996)


25
25 30 35 40 45 50

Friction Angle_measured

FIG. 1. Comparison of calculated friction angle with the measured.

4500

4000

3500
Cu_calculated (psf)

3000

2500

2000

1500
Proposed
1000

500 Terzaghi & Peck (1967)

0
0 500 1000 1500 2000 2500 3000 3500 4000 4500
Cu_measured (psf)

FIG. 2. Comparison of calculated undrained cohesion with the measured.

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ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication No. 179, ISBN 978-0-7844-0972-5

CONCLUSIONS

The equations proposed to estimate shear strength properties in this manuscript


use a principle based on energy balance. SPT was treated analogous to driving a
miniature pipe pile. The energy input to the soil was used to correlate the SPT blow
count to the skin resistance which is a function of shear strength properties of the soil
at the depth of testing. Logical reasoning behind the proposed method makes it a
stronger prediction technique. A statistical analysis revealed that the proposed
method does a better estimation than the existing equations in predicting from SPT
data. Undrained cohesion prediction for the set of data analyzed was not as strong as
the  prediction. However, the proposed prediction method suggests that the N60
should be directly proportional to undrained cohesion supporting Terzaghi and Peck
(1967).

REFERENCES

Brown, T.S. (2007). “Estimating shear strength properties of soils using SPT results,”
Graduate Project Report, Department of Civil Engineering, Lawrence
Technological University, Southfield MI.
Gibbs, H.J. and Holtz, W.G. (1957). "Research on determining the density of sand by
spoon penetration test," Proc. 4th ICSMFE, Vol. 1, pp. 35-39.
Hara, A., Ohta, T., Niwa, M., Tanaka, S., and Banno, T., (1974). “Shear Modulus and
Shear Strength of Cohesive Soils,” Soils and Foundations, Vol.14, No.3, pp.1-12.
Hatanka, M. and Uchida, A. (1996). “Empirical correlation between penetration
resistance and internal friction angle of sandy soils,” Soils and Foundations, Vol.
36, No. 4, pp. 1-9.
Japan Road Association (1990). Specifications for highway bridges, Part IV.
Kulhawy, F.H. and Mayne, P.W. (1990). Manual on estimating soil properties for
foundation design, Electric Power Research Institute, Palo Alto, CA.
Liao, S.S.C. and Whitman, R.V. (1986). “Overburden correction factors for SPT in
sand,” J. of Geotechnical Engineering, ASCE, Vol. 112, No. 3, pp. 373-377.
Meyerhof, G.G. (1956). “Penetration tests and bearing capacity of cohesionless
soils,” J. of Soil Mech. and Foundations Div., ASCE, Vol.82, No.SM1, pp.1-19.
Peck, R.B., Hanson, W.E., and Thornburn, T.H. (1953). Foundation Engineering,
John Wiley and Sons, pp. 222.
Peck, R.B., Hanson, W.E., and Thornburn, T.H.,(1974). Foundation Engineering, 2nd
ed., John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.
Reese, L.C., Isenhower, W.M., and Wand, S.T. (2006). Analysis and Designing of
Shallow and Deep Foundations, John Wiley and Sons, pp.574.
Schmertmann, J.H. (1975). “Measurement of In-Situ Shear Strength", Proc., ASCE
Specialty Conference on In-Situ Measurement of Soil Properties, Vol. 2, Raleigh,
SC, pp. 57-138.
Terzaghi, K. and Peck, R.B. (1976). Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice, 2nd ed.,
John Wiley and Sons, New York, pp. 729.
Wolff, T.F. (1989). “Pile capacity prediction using parameter functions,” ASCE
Geotechnical Special Publication No. 23, pp. 96-107.

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