A wealth of information for the geotechnical industry is available on the Internet, but type in 'piling' on the AltaVista search engine and you are confronted with more than 33,500 sites, some of limited technical value.
Impartial technical information is available for industry practitioners and students alike, the main problem is finding it. One location well worth visiting is Pile-Info, a Swedish-based web site set up to provide information on the wide variety of piling systems used across Europe.
Created last year, Pile-Info is the result of more than five years' research by the international pile foundation methods committee of the Swedish Commission on Pile Research. The committee was established in 1993 to evaluate the potential of using foreign pile systems in Swedish geotechnical conditions and to compile a database of the wide variety of piling systems used today, together with their practical applications.
This move was driven to a certain extent by changing regulations in Sweden and also market forces, which saw an increasing need to build in urban areas. Because Sweden's geology largely consists of deposits of soft clay or loose sand on hard till or rock, the most commonly used piles are prefabricated, which are also a good option in the country's cold climate. Other piling systems have been used in the past with only limited commercial success but these changes are now forcing foundation specialists to look at other techniques.
But finding out about other techniques is notoriously difficult. Pile- Info's creator, Andreas Massarsch, says one of the main barriers is engineers' and companies' relunctance to share information on piling systems that have commercial worth. This means that the construction industry as a whole does not always hear about new developments in piling technology.
Another problem is that the main piling techniques used vary from country to country, largely dictated by the prevalent geology and the methods traditionally used.
Textbooks, while valuable, are difficult to update, especially if the changes in technology are rapid as they have been in recent years. Massarsch also argues that textbooks are often biased by the practical experience of the authors.
So the committee, which is made up of representatives from Swedish academia and industry, set out to provide a non-commercial database of piling systems that was both comprehensive and easily updated regularly. A number of European piling companies were approached and asked to supply technical documents and commercial brochures on their systems. Information was collected from the libraries at the Swedish Geotechnical Institute and the Royal Institute of Technology. The Internet was also used to gather further data.
It soon became apparent that the large volume of data (around 60Mb is contained in the present database, the equivalent of 25 conventional 3.5' disks) could only be handled by using an electronic database. It was decided that the database should contain modern and well-known traditional piling techniques but not design concepts, codes and regulations, testing methods, control and measuring systems. In all, the database contains some 60 different pile systems.
The next problem was how to distribute this information, allowing easy access without the need for users to buy new software and hardware. The ideal way to do this was to set up a web site on the Internet, that acted as a front end to the database.
The Pile-Info database was developed using the database management program Microsoft Access 97. After looking at the various classification of piling systems throughout the world, a modified version of that used in Canada (found in the Canadian Geotechnical Society's Canadian Foundation Engineering Manual) was chosen. Piling systems are classified within the database using six categories: method of installation, degree of displacement, pile material, production location of the pile (ie prefabricated, in situ or combined), support during pile installation and whether or not the pile has an enlarged base.
Pile systems can be searched for using any one of these six categories or alternatively by using the search engine provided that works using key words (such as 'concrete') or phrases ('precast concrete'). There is also an alphabetical listing of all the systems included in the database. For the uninitiated, the installation processes for driven prefabricated, driven cast in situ and bored cast in situ piles are also explained.
Each of the 60 systems are described in detail, with the method of installation, potential applications and typical working loads, together with advantages and limitations of each. Many are also accompanied by photographs of the methods in action and diagrams showing installation.
Visitors to the site can pass comments and suggestions on to the authors and add information to the database such as new techniques, tools or systems. Links to other web sites are also listed. An A-Z directory of industry is under construction, and Massarsch says it should be ready by the end of the summer.
It looks like this is something the industry wanted and needed. 'The response to the Pile-Info web site has been surprisingly positive, especially from the foundation industry,' says Massarsch. 'I have had several inquiries to expand the site to other areas and I am presently expanding it to make it a more general web site specialising in foundation engineering.'
The Pile-Info web site can be found at http://www.byggforum. com/pileinfo/