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Vibration Monitoring

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Vibration monitoring is the most commonly used method for identifying potential vibration damage problems pre-construction and addressing them post-construction. Most Federally-funded  construction projects require pre-construction vibration assessment. Individual states and municipalities may require no monitoring or monitoring only in connection with blasting done during the project.

Properly done, vibration monitoring can be extremely helpful in understanding the nature of your damage and whether construction could have caused it. Improperly done, it can be worse than worthless. Since construction companies will sometimes present to those with damage claims copies of vibration monitoring data or reports, this page will offer an overview of vibration monitoring and what can be learned from it.

Vibration Monitoring Instrumentation

A number of manufacturers make ground vibration monitoring seismographs, primarily for use in monitoring mine blasting, although they are also routinely used in construction vibration monitoring. Like earthquake seismographs, these detect and measure ground vibration by the movement of a magnet surrounded by a coil of wire. According to the Lenz Law of physics, a current is induced in the surrounding coil in proportion to speed of movement of the magnet with respect to the coil (i.e. the speed of ground movement). Electronics in the monitor then measure this current, convert it to ground motion velocities and store the raw data in memory. Each of the three directions at right angles to each other (longitudinal or radial, transverse, and vertical) has its own separate measuring coil in the transducer head, since vibrations often differ in important ways along different measurement directions. For accurate measurements to be obtained, the seismograph measuring head ("transducer") must move as the ground moves, i.e. it must have full "ground coupling".

At right is a photo of a Blastmate III blasting seismograph1, manufactured by Instantel, in use. The silver gray transducer head at the lower right of the photo, which does the measuring, is sitting on top of the loose landscape rock and connected by the visible wire to the blue recording box. The blue box actually stores the data in its memory, much like a small computer. This instrument can also keep a paper tape backup record of the data as it is created, using its integrated printer on the left side of the blue control box. Although not seen in this example, blasting seismographs usually also have a microphone attachment which can be used to measure sound from the operations. This photo should not be taken as showing a proper installation of the seismograph, as there are numerous problems in this installation which contradict Operator's Manual instructions and other guidelines set by industry and government groups.

Other kinds of instrumentation can also be used to detect and measure ground vibration and its effects on structures. These include accelerometers and displacement gauges. They provide different, but complementary, information to that provided by seismographs. While these other equipment types are used in scientific studies, they are rarely seen in construction or blasting site vibration monitoring nor are their measured properties considered the best indicators of damage potential. For that reason, there is limited discussion of them in the CVDG for Homeowners.

Software for Analysis of Vibration Data

Once recorded, the vibration technician downloads the data stored in the seismograph memory to a personal computer for printing and analysis with appropriate software. In the case of the Blastmate III, the software for Windows is called Blastware, and can be obtained free from Instantel. Other manufacturers of seismographs make similar software available for their products. Once the data are in the computer, the software can display those data in various "reports" that show them in different, complementary ways.

Reading Vibration Monitoring Results

Since construction companies and the vibration monitoring subcontractors they hire have a vested monetary interest in finding that vibrations are non-damaging to structures, you may be the only person involved in a damage claim who will take the time to read and analyze vibration monitoring results carefully. You should make time to do so, or, better yet, ask a qualified scientist to read and analyze them for you. Some of the problems you should look for are detailed on the CVDG Pro Vibration Data Issues page.

Although the reports generated by software from the manufacturers of different seismographs will differ in both name and content, they will mostly show the same data in much the same way. Extensive additional information on vibration monitoring, report reading and analysis, interpretation and standards can be found in the Construction Vibration Damage Guide, Professional Edition.

Analysis and Interpretation of Vibration Monitoring Data

Proper and careful analysis of vibration data is laborious and time-consuming, but essential. At right are shown just four of the over 50 pages of tables which I prepared, relating to the detailed analysis of a partial set of vibration data for one road reconstruction project. Each table looks at the same data in different ways and provides a view and analysis of different elements of the data. Virtually all of these views proved important in understanding what the data really said, versus what was claimed by the construction contractor and its vibration monitoring sub-contractor.

For meaningful conclusions to be drawn from vibration data, they have to be properly obtained (i.e. following seismograph manufacturer and industry group instructions), analyzed and interpreted. All the data must be used, not just carefully selected parts, and they must form a consistent picture. Otherwise, the conclusions can have little or no scientific validity.

This is such an important and large area that many pages in the CVDG Professional Edition are devoted to various aspects of vibration data acquisition, handling and interpretation. For help in reading and understanding vibration monitoring data, read the CVDG Pro page, Vibration Data Reports. For more on possible problems to look for in analyzing the data, see its page, Vibration Data Issues. The CVDG Pro page, Vibration Data Analysis, has a much longer and more detailed listing of specific vibration monitoring issues. For detailed tips in analyzing the large amounts of vibration data generated in monitoring, see our CVDG Professional page, Vibration Data Handling.

Standards and Their Proper Use

Even if vibration monitoring data can be read and understood, they won't be of much value in the absence of some independent, accepted means of linking them to the potential for causing damage. Because the mining industry has faced vibration damage claims for many years related to blasting activities, most of the data on structural effects of vibration, and standards for interpreting vibration data in that light, are based on studies done by or for the mining industry. Unfortunately, these blasting related studies and standards, while often used by construction companies and state agencies to justify their positions, provide little help in evaluating the potential for damage from construction vibration caused by heavy equipment.

Fundamentally, the reason for this is that blasting events differ dramatically from construction vibration. Blasting at a typical mine or quarry occurs perhaps once every day to every few days; it produces vibrations which last a few seconds at most (more typically, less than one second for the direct blast vibration). On the other hand, construction vibrations can go on for minutes, hours, days or even months. The diagram at right shows one of many examples where construction vibration repeatedly occurred and persisted at levels above the FTA standards for minutes at a time. This difference brings into play resonance effects and amplification phenomena which are far less prominent or completely absent in most blasting environments.

This fundamental distinction between blasting events ("shots") and construction vibration is explicitly acknowledged in USBM RI 8507, the basis for the frequently used OSM blasting standard:

"The damage probabilities realistically refer to numbers of homes being affected by a given shot rather than the number of shots required to damage a single home."3
 
"Safe vibration levels for blasting are given in Table 13, being defined as levels unlikely to produce interior cracking or other damage in residences. Implicit in these values are assumptions that the structures are sited on a firm foundation, do not exceed 2 stories, and have the dimensions of typical residences, and that the vibration wavetrains are not longer than a few seconds."4 (emphasis added)

Thus, use of blasting standards for non-blasting, long-lived construction vibrations is ill-advised and scientifically questionable. Of course, even well-motivated contractors may simply not think about or understand these disparities. This is a long and important topic which is investigated further on the CVDG page, Vibration Standards.

Distance Makes the Vibration Become Lesser, But....

Vibrations die off with distance, although perhaps not as fast as most people would think. The lessening intensity with distance is the rationale behind what are called "scaled distance" calculations accepted and used by the mining industry to estimate vibration effects at distances other than those measured. The Federal Transit Administration's Noise and Vibration Manual (formally titled TRANSIT NOISE AND VIBRATION IMPACT ASSESSMENT) also provides a version of a "scaled distance" equation and necessary parameters for that equation to calculate expected vibration intensities at various distances from different types of standard construction operations5. This equation may be useful when no vibration data exist, but damage is done. Users of the equation should note that the benchmark vibration velocities for construction equipment given in that reference are indicated to be representative, not characteristic, of all such pieces of equipment or all methods of use of the equipment. You will need distances from your home to the vibration sources for use in this equation. You can either measure them or use Google Earth's Ruler feature6 to get them from satellite photos of your home and its surrounding area.

Simple distance-based calculations do not tell the whole story of damage potential. As vibrations propagate through the ground, their frequency distribution changes from the typical broad spread of high and low frequencies to what are referred to as "low frequency wave trains" (see USBM RI 85072):

"Thick soil overburden as well as long absolute (as opposed to scaled) distances create long-duration, low-frequency wave trains. This increases the response and damage potential of nearby structures."

The frequency of the vibration wave trains is close to the resonance frequency of the house. At the resonance frequency, vibrations in the house grow with additional vibrations, rather than dying out. Thus, distant vibrations with resonant components can be more damaging than vibrations which originate nearby, especially when they last for longer than a few seconds, as is typical in construction vibration. Vibrations which may not be damaging close to the site of their inception, may become damaging at larger distances (typically, a few hundred yards for blasting vibrations), even though they are less intense at the greater distance.

For that reason, having your house at some distance from the work may not guarantee vibration damage safety nor can distance always be used as a legitimate scientific argument against damage causation. In our own case, the largest single crack that we observed developed when the construction work was a block away, although the cracks and other damage became more numerous and widespread as work approached the house. As a rough guide, if you can hear the construction operations in the distance, there might be reason to worry, depending on what operations are being carried out and how they are being done. The effect of distance in vibration damage is discussed further on the CVDG Pro page, Applying Vibration Standards.

Locating and Using Blasting Seismographs

Vibrations spread out in all directions from the source, but usually not equally so, for reasons discussed on the CVDG page, Vibration 101. Because the frequency distribution, intensity and interaction of vibrations with structures depend so strongly on distance, a good vibration monitoring program will include more than a single seismograph, each well-located, calibrated and installed. Thus, a good vibration monitoring program will use two or more seismographs in tandem, one placed near the source of the vibration and one placed, perhaps, a hundred yards away. The second seismograph should be placed to avoid interference from vibrations from any additional operations going on at the same time as those producing the source vibrations. Of course, the intensity (velocity) of vibrations at the distant seismograph will be lower, in the absence of vibrations from other operations, but the point of the second seismograph is to detect and quantify the low frequency wavetrains, as discussed above. Their frequency distribution and duration are at least as important as their measured velocities (PPV's).

Should I Allow Vibration Monitoring?

You may well get a request to allow monitoring on your property, or the technician may simply come onto your property without permission, as was done routinely in the case with which we are most familiar. You should think through whether or not you wish to allow vibration monitoring on your property. Your best aid in making such a decision is to find out as much as you can about any previous monitoring done on the project, prior to the request to you. It is probably wise to delay granting permission until you have seen and analyzed any previously generated reports and data, with an eye to the possible mistakes that can be made in vibration monitoring (CVDG Pro). A considerably more lengthy description of specific problem areas in vibration monitoring can also be found on our CVDG Professional page, Vibration Data Analysis. Since the vibration technician probably works for the contractor, you can expect that any errors made in seismograph setup, use procedure and data interpretation will not favor you. Whether problems exist or not, delaying a decision on allowing monitoring is about the only leverage you will have in getting the monitoring data, short of filing a lawsuit.

If you don't allow monitoring, you may not be able to stop monitoring in the public right-of-way portion of your yard (i.e. that part of your yard bordering the street reserved by ordinance for street or sidewalk expansions). If monitoring proceeds anywhere in your yard or immediately adjacent to it, you are highly advised to videotape or photograph each and every installation of the seismograph, noting the time of installation and removal, to the extent you are aware of them. Your record may well be the only reliable documentation of the way the work was done.


1. Blastmate III Operator's Manual, p. 1-1
2. USBM RI 8507, pp. 5-6
3. USBM RI 8507, p. 59
4. USBM RI 8507, p. 58
5. Federal Transit Administration's Noise and Vibration Manual
, p. 12-11 - 12-12
6. Google Earth is an invaluable computer program, available for free download from
http://www.google.com/earth. It provides satellite photos of almost the entire planet, at a resolution of a foot or so for most areas. You simply type in an address to find the most recent photo of that address. Historical imagery is also accessible from the program. Such photos are an excellent way to determine distances over the ground, using Earth's Ruler feature.

This page is a chapter from the Construction Vibration Damage Guide for Homeowners (CVDG), a 100+ page free document with over 200 color photos and other illustrations, available at http://vibrationdamage.com as a series of web pages or in full, web navigation and ad-free, as a downloadable PDF document. The free version of the CVDG is licensed to homeowners and others for personal, home use only. A Professional Edition (CVDG Pro), licensed for business use and expanded with more technical content to over 220 pages, can be ordered from our Order the CVDG Pro page. You can comment about this page or ask questions by using our Visitor Comment form.

 

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Last modified: 08/09/14