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What is the function of shear keys in the design of retaining walls?

In determining the external stability of retaining walls, failure modes like bearing failure, sliding and overturning are normally considered in design. In considering the criterion of sliding, the sliding resistance of retaining walls is derived from the base friction between the wall base and the foundation soils. To increase the sliding resistance of retaining walls, other than providing a large self-weight or a large retained soil mass, shear keys are to be installed at the wall base. The principle of shear keys is as follows:


The main purpose of installation of shear keys is to increase the extra passive resistance developed by the height of shear keys. However, active pressure developed by shear keys also increases simultaneously. The success of shear keys lies in the fact that the increase of passive pressure exceeds the increase in active pressure, resulting in a net improvement of sliding resistance.

On the other hand, friction between the wall base and the foundation soils is normally about a fraction of the angle of internal resistance (i.e. about 0.8p ) where p is the angle of internal friction of foundation soil. When a shear key is installed at the base of the retaining wall, the failure surface is changed from the wall base/soil horizontal plane to a plane within foundation soil. Therefore, the friction angle mobilized in this case is p instead of 0.8p in the previous case and the sliding resistance can be enhanced.


This question is taken from book named – A Self Learning Manual – Mastering Different Fields of Civil Engineering Works (VC-Q-A-Method) by Vincent T. H. CHU.

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Kanwarjot Singh

Kanwarjot Singh is the founder of Civil Engineering Portal, a leading civil engineering website which has been awarded as the best online publication by CIDC. He did his BE civil from Thapar University, Patiala and has been working on this website with his team of Civil Engineers.

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2 comments on "What is the function of shear keys in the design of retaining walls?"

C.K.Pradhan says:

Where and how to provide shear key at what distance from the footing level. Can we avoid shear key requirement?

C.K.Pradhan says:

We need to construct breast wall in a marshy area. The designer has provided shear key below the footing and slab provision at certain height from the bottom. In order to ease construction due to continuous seepage of water and obvious mud slide from hill side want to avoid provision of shear key provided at the bottom of the footing and slab at certain height of wall. What is the solution for this wall of 8m high breast wall.

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