Explaining Technology Variations In Locating Concrete Voids: A Comparison of Ground Penetrating Radar, UPV/Tomography, and X-Ray

Explaining Technology Variations In Locating Concrete Voids: A Comparison of Ground Penetrating Radar, UPV/Tomography, and X-Ray

Concrete is a fundamental material in construction, known for its durability and strength. However, over time, concrete can develop various issues such as voids, cracks, spalling, and honeycombing, which can compromise the structural integrity of a building. Detecting these problems early is crucial for maintenance and safety. Among the various techniques available for this purpose, ground penetrating radar (GPR), ultrasonic pulse velocity (UPV)/Tomography, and X-Ray imaging are prominent. This article explores these methods in detail, comparing their effectiveness in locating voids in concrete, and considering the various reinforcements present in different types of concrete slabs.

Understanding Concrete Deterioration & Defects

Before delving into the detection methods, it's essential to understand the most common types of concrete defects and deterioration, their causes, and their effect on concrete imaging and structural analysis:

Voids: These are air pockets or gaps within the concrete that occur during the pouring process. According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s office of Administration Research & Technology, they are defined as “an empty space, other than a crack, in the cement paste that contains nothing but air.” While in some instances, under specific calculations (i.e., hybrid concrete construction – HCC), they can be desirable, for the most part, voids can weaken the structural integrity and serve as initiation points for cracks.

Cracks: Cracks can develop due to thermal expansion, shrinkage, or external loads. They can range from hairline cracks to significant fissures that threaten the stability of the structure. Often, they are readily apparent on the surface, but that surface crack usually does not tell the whole story. Cracks allow water to enter the cured concrete, increasing deterioration, corrosion & rust (in reinforced slabs), and trapping mold.

Spalling: This refers to the flaking (delaminating) of concrete from its substrate, often caused by freeze-thaw cycles, corrosion of embedded reinforcements, or chemical reactions. Concrete cancer refers to the interior corrosion of concrete that is often not observable to the naked eye until the rust and deterioration are advanced and the structure at risk.  

Cold Joints: These occur when there is a delay between successive pours of concrete, where one layer has begun to cure before the next is added, leading to weak or nonexistent bonding between the layers. However, cold joints can also form merely from insufficient consolidation of concrete materials.

Honeycombing: Honeycombing is a condition where hardened concrete seems porous, with evident holes (voids or cavities) that resembling a honeycomb. This defect can be seen by the naked eye as pitting when occurring on the surface, or by ultrasonic pulse velocity (UPV) or tomographic imaging below it. Improper compaction or inadequate vibration during the pouring process cause this issue. Honeycombing not only affects the aesthetic appeal but also reduces the strength and durability of the concrete.

Reinforcement Issues: As previously mentioned, depending on the slab type, reinforcements such as post-tension cables, rebar, steel mesh, pan decking, or reinforced prefabricated slabs can all complicate void creation, internal concrete deterioration, and assessment, with internal corrosion/rust that can expedite the structural failure of a slab.

How Do You Find Voids in Concrete?

There are various methods of internal concrete slab assessment. Each has its own strengths and limitations, so it is important to choose the correct technology and tools for the job at hand. For instance, X-ray technology may provide clarity in an area where there is no concern about radiation or worker safety, but UPV, or the “heat map” qualities of tomography, might benefit a contractor, engineer, or architect concerned about structural stability.

While GPRS does not guarantee void location, we are often asked to assess concrete for potential voids and enjoy a high rate of success because of the exceptional training and experience of our Project Managers in the field.  

The most common tools to assess potential concrete voids are ground penetrating radar (GPR) scanning and imaging, ultrasonic pulse velocity testing, tomography, and X-ray imaging.

Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)

A tablet device displays hyperbolas that visualize the internal features of a concrete slab as a Project Manager uses a hand-held GPR scanner on the surface.
In the hands of a highly trained and experienced Project Manager, ground penetrating radar can help you “see” the interior of a concrete slab.

GPR is a non-destructive testing method that uses electromagnetic waves to image the subsurface.

A GPR device emits high-frequency radio waves into the concrete. These waves “bounce” back to the surface when they encounter a boundary between different materials (e.g., air and concrete). These “bounces” are captured on a mobile device screen as hyperbolas. Various types of materials create variations in thickness, frequency, and color of the hyperbolas which can only be interpreted correctly by a highly experienced subsurface concrete scanning professional. The variations can indicate the presence of potential voids, cracks, or other anomalies, as well as providing precise locations of concrete reinforcements and embedments like conduit, MPE features, rebar, and post tension cables.


Non-Invasive: GPR does not require drilling or cutting into the concrete to “see” its interior.

Safety: Unlike X-ray imaging, there is no health or material risk from radiation because it is a non-destructive assessment tool.

Versatility: Ground penetrating radar can be used to detect a wide range of issues and features, including potential voids, and can more accurately find a wide variety of concrete reinforcements and subsurface features.

Speed & Accuracy: GPR surveys can be conducted relatively quickly, providing immediate results via field markings. GPR is most often used to find appropriate clearances for cutting, sawing, or drilling concrete, and those markings can be captured via 3D photogrammetry or laser scanning to create 2D CAD drawings or 3D models of the interior of a concrete slab for planning, design, and construction engineering purposes.


Signal Interpretation: The accuracy of GPR depends on the operator's expertise in interpreting the signals. That’s why all 500 of GPRS’ seasoned Project Managers must complete SIM certification before working in the field. SIM stands for Subsurface Investigation Methodology, and is the most exacting standard in the industry, requiring 80 hours of classroom instruction and 320 hours of mentored field work for level 101 certification.

Depth Limitations: The depth of penetration is limited by the frequency of the radar waves, with higher frequencies providing better resolution but shallower penetration.

Ultrasonic Pulse Velocity (UPV) and Tomography

Detail of the Tomography structural analysis data for a concrete pillar
Tomography, a type of UPV testing, allows customers to receive full-color structural data so they can see the levels of structural damage or integrity inside a slab.

UPV involves sending ultrasonic waves through the concrete and measuring the travel time to determine the concrete's integrity. Tomography extends this concept by creating a detailed image of the internal structure.

To conduct a UPV assessment, ultrasonic transducers are placed on the concrete surface. One transducer emits pulses, and the other receives the transmitted waves. The travel time of the pulses is measured to create an image of the interior of the slab. Longer travel times indicate the presence of voids, cracks, honeycombing, or other defects that slow down the wave propagation. Reading and interpreting UPV technology outputs requires advanced training and experience that most concrete imaging companies simply do not have.


Detailed Imaging: Tomography provides a detailed, three-dimensional image of the concrete's internal structure. It is sometimes described as a “heat map” of the concrete’s interior, where color and intensity provide data on the stability of the slab.

Accuracy: UPV is effective in detecting voids, cracks, honeycombing, and other defects.

Safety: UPV and Tomography are both non-destructive assessment techniques and do not pose a risk to the technicians or workers in the area of its use.


Access: Both sides of the concrete element are typically required for accurate measurements, which may not always be feasible.

Training & Availability: As previously noted, applying and interpreting the results of these technologies requires advanced training and experience. Because of its specialized requirements, it may be difficult to locate a professional structural analysis tester who utilizes UPV.

X-Ray Imaging

A portable X-ray unit for industrial use called the Amadeo P-100
X-ray units like this portable Amadeo P-100 model are lighter-weight and easier to use than ever before, but does X-ray’s imaging capabilities justify its price and risks?

X-Ray imaging uses radiation to create detailed images of the concrete's internal structure. An X-ray source and detector are placed on opposite sides of the concrete. The X-rays pass through the concrete, and variations in density are captured on the detector. While this method does create a more nuanced image, much like we see in medicine, it is cumbersome to execute, brings with it nuclear radiation and the risks associated with it, and requires more time to receive your results.

The resulting images show variances in shades of gray, indicating areas of varying density. Voids, cracks, honeycombing, and reinforcements can be clearly visualized, as can reinforcements and embedments.


High Resolution: X-Ray imaging provides high-resolution images that can clearly show voids, cracks, honeycombing, and reinforcements.

Precision: It is highly accurate in detecting and characterizing internal defects.


Safety Concerns: While X-ray is technically non-destructive, it involves exposure to radiation, necessitating strict safety protocols for both workers and sensitive materials.

Cost, Time, and Equipment: The equipment is expensive and requires specialized operators, and developing the X-ray images takes more time than the almost instant outputs received from GPR or UPV.

The Role of Concrete Reinforcements

The presence of reinforcements in concrete slabs are designed to strengthen the material and give it longer life. However, the presence of moisture within the concrete, leeching in from cracks, cold joints, voids, or even from the openings surrounding the reinforcements themselves can significantly impact the speed of concrete deterioration. Let's consider three common types of reinforced slabs:

1. Post-Tensioned Slabs: These post tension (PT) slabs contain tensioned cables that provide additional strength The cables are generally deployed in plastic sleeves to reduce their corrosive impact. The high density of the cables make them easy for GPR and other imaging devices to see, which can make it challenging to detect voids near the cables. UPV and X-Ray imaging are less affected by the presence of cables but still require careful interpretation.

2. Pan Decking: This type of reinforced slab involves a metal deck that serves as a formwork for the poured concrete. The metal can shows up easily on GPR and X-ray imaging. UPV is less affected, but the presence of metal can still complicate a void assessment.

3. Prefabricated Slabs: These are manufactured off-site and contain reinforcements already embedded, like rebar. The uniformity of these slabs can make it easier for GPR and UPV to detect anomalies, but X-ray imaging remains the most effective due to its high resolution. However, its safety drawbacks, cost, and delayed results weigh against it.


Choosing the right method for locating potential voids in concrete depends on various factors, including the type of deterioration, the presence of reinforcements and their condition, and the specific requirements of the project. Ground penetrating radar is versatile and fast, making it suitable for a wide range of applications, though it requires expert interpretation. UPV and Tomography provide detailed images, but can be labor-intensive and require unimpeded access to both sides of the concrete. X-Ray imaging offers high precision, but involves significant safety and time considerations, and costs.

By understanding the strengths and limitations of each method, engineers and construction professionals can make informed decisions to ensure the longevity and safety of concrete structures.

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