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Concrete vs. Cement: What's the Difference?

May 23, 2020 by Matt Frankel, CFP
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The words cement and concrete are often used interchangeably, but they actually have very different meanings. In fact, many things you probably think are made of cement are actually made of concrete. And while you probably refer to those big trucks with rotating backs as cement trucks, you might be surprised to learn which of these two materials is actually inside.

With that in mind, here's a quick overview of how these two building materials differ and why it's important to know the difference.

What's the difference between cement and concrete?

In a nutshell, cement is one of the ingredients in concrete and is not a stand-alone building material itself. Cement is simply a paste, or bonding agent, while concrete is the strong material that is used to construct driveways, foundations, patios, walls, and more.

Concrete is a mixture of a few things -- specifically, adhesives and aggregates such as sand, gravel, or stone. The adhesive used in concrete is cement, which mixes with water to bind the other materials in the concrete together. According to the Portland Cement Association, the cement makes up about 10%–15% of the typical concrete mix, while water makes up another 10%–15% by volume, with aggregate material making up the rest. When water is added to cement, it forms a paste that hardens around whatever aggregate material is used.

Cement can be made in several different forms for various applications. For example, some types of cement are designed to harden quickly for use in applications that require it. Some are resistant to chemicals, while others are designed to be used on structures submerged in water.

Cement is made from materials such as calcium, limestone, and clay that undergo a special manufacturing process.

Concrete is (probably) what you're using to build

Although you've probably heard the word cement used when referring to construction, nothing substantial is built out of cement. For example, you might be told that your new house comes with a "cement patio" outside of the back door, or that your new basketball hoop is cemented into the ground. In reality, these objects (as well as anything else traditionally thought of as cement) are made of different types of concrete. The same is true about "cement-mixer" trucks -- the big rotating barrels on the back are actually mixing concrete.

While cement will certainly harden on its own, it isn't a great building material by itself. Cement is prone to cracking when dry and doesn't last nearly as long as concrete. Cement is best used as a bonding agent (like glue) rather than a material to construct supportive surfaces and structures. Cement is sometimes used for small jobs, such as grout and in concrete repair, but those are about the only stand-alone applications.

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