What Is Civil Engineering?

What Is Civil Engineering?

The field of civil engineering is a broad one, encompassing everything from city planning and growth to transportation. It's also centuries-old — civil engineering as a concept has been around since the first shelter was built. Ultimately, civil engineering is an essential job that makes our civilization possible.

This guide explains everything you need to know about the discipline of civil engineering, what civil engineers do and the tools civil engineers use to get the job done.

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What Do Civil Engineers Do? 

These professionals design, construct and maintain the facilities that help society function. But what do civil engineers do exactly? Here are a few of the top roles civil engineers have:

1. Civil Engineers Are Project Managers 

When someone first envisions an idea for a new structure, a civil engineer is often one of the first people to consult. The civil engineer then designs, prepares and submits their engineering plan for approval. At every level of a construction or design job, a civil engineer is present with input and expertise.

Overall, civil engineers help the entire project run smoothly and ensure its safety once completed. With their training in subjects like physics and mathematics, civil engineers can effectively build structures that fulfill our everyday needs.

civil engineers are project managers

2. Civil Engineers Protect Society and the Environment

Society needs solutions to problems in human-made and natural environments. For example, manufacturing companies need ways to get products from warehouses to customers quickly — civil engineers solve this problem by designing and constructing safe and durable highways and canals.

Additionally, civil engineers are involved in environmental protection. It's essential to use natural resources like wood and water responsibly and minimize human impact on the environment. Ecological considerations like pollution control and public health are high on a civil engineer's priority list.

3. Civil Engineers Create Design Innovations 

These professionals are involved in the research and design of new structures, leading engineering innovation by problem-solving and creating ground-breaking solutions. A civil engineer must design solutions that follow contracts, building codes and environmental laws.

To forge new paths in construction and design, civil engineers have to understand topics subjects like:

  • Physics 
  • Geography 
  • Soils
  • Mechanics 
  • Mathematics 
  • Hydrology

Ultimately, civil engineers are leaders in many areas of thought. These engineers put their knowledge to use when creating and constructing systems to benefit society.

What Are Common Civil Engineering Projects?

Typically, civil engineers work for government agencies in the public sector or construction or consulting firms in the private sector. The major subdisciplines within the civil engineering field include:

1. Environmental Engineering 

This engineering is one of the most significant subdisciplines of civil engineering. It's so integral that many academic programs have been renamed “civil and environmental engineering.” This subdiscipline is concerned with sanitation, public health and environmental conservation. Those engaged in environmental engineering mostly work for the government.

On a broad scale, environmental engineering deals with chemical and biological waste treatment and management, pollutant transportation, remediation of contaminated sites and water and air purification. Additionally, environmental engineers compile data on the ecological impacts of structures and proposed projects to make informed construction decisions.  

Common projects for environmental engineering include: 

  • Water treatment systems
  • Recycling centers
  • Wastewater treatment
  • Waste disposal

2. Transportation Engineering 

The next time you need to travel, consider that it was made possible by a transportation engineer. Getting around our interconnected world requires complex infrastructures and hundreds of thousands of miles of roadways. As a result, civil engineers working in transportation create solutions that will effectively and safely move people and goods to the right destination.

This form of engineering involves planning and constructing every structure that helps us travel, whether by land, air or sea. These civil engineers are involved in every aspect of the process, from design to construction to performance evaluation. A transportation engineer must also design supporting structures like terminals for each system. A subcategory of transportation engineering is highway and traffic engineering, which deals with highway design and traffic operations.

Typical transportation engineering projects include:

  • Subway systems
  • Ports
  • Highways
  • Railroads
  • Airports
structural engineering

3. Structural Engineering 

The field of structural engineering might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of civil engineering. These engineers design, build and analyze physical structures. Those in structural engineering work to improve structural safety and efficiency. To accomplish their structural engineering project, civil engineers must understand the principles of load-bearing to develop a structure that can support and resist stressors like: 

  • The structure's self-weight
  • Moving loads like vehicles and crowds
  • Wind loads
  • Earthquake loads
  • Temperature changes

These structures must be safe and serviceable, meaning they can support the loads they might encounter. A structural engineer can work for either the public or private sector and could design any of the following projects:

  • Skyscrapers
  • Buildings 
  • Bridges 
  • Overpasses 
  • Tunnels 
  • Offshore oil and gas fields 

4. Geotechnical Engineering 

Understanding the rock and soil that supports structures is essential for constructing safe buildings and systems. Therefore, geotechnical engineering focuses on foundation engineering and soil mechanics. Those specializing in geotechnical engineering are concerned with the physical characteristics of soil, rock and composite materials. These engineers need to understand how to support structures built on or below the ground's surface. 

This engineering deals with materials science, hydraulics and mechanics. A geotechnical engineer is also concerned about protecting groundwater and maintaining landfills. Here are some of the projects in the geotechnical engineering category:

  • Foundations 
  • Retaining walls 
water resources engineering

5. Water Resources Engineering 

This area of engineering deals with water collection and management — water resource civil engineers analyze underground and aboveground water to predict the quantity and quality of water that will flow into, through or out of a facility. These civil engineers try to determine the most efficient ways for fluids to travel. A water resource civil engineer specializes in coastal engineering, which is primarily concerned with managing and preserving coastal areas. 

Examples of water resource engineering projects include: 

  • Flood and erosion prevention systems 
  • Pipelines 
  • Water supply networks 
  • Drainage systems 
  • Dams 
  • Channels 
  • Storm sewers 
  • Canals 

6. Urban Engineering 

Also known as municipal engineering, urban engineering deals with municipal infrastructure. A civil engineer solving urban engineering issues usually works for a city or a private consulting firm. This kind of engineering involves constructing and coordinating the structures, systems and services that enable people to travel, communicate and live in their communities. 

A few urban engineering projects include:

  • Sidewalks
  • Streets 
  • Water supply 
  • Sewers 
  • Municipal waste management 
  • Street lighting 
  • Public parks 
  • Communication networks
  • Mass transit 

What Kinds of Civil Engineering Equipment Are Available?

Whatever kind of project they're working on, civil engineers need hard-working equipment to get the job done. Overall, civil engineering equipment ranges from small hand-held tools to large pieces of construction equipment. These tools have to be efficient and sturdy, given the kind of work for which civil engineers use them.

Here are the most-used kinds of civil engineering equipment:

1. Surveying Equipment

A civil engineer needs several tools to help them plot and map out their projects. These are called surveying instruments. Most of the equipment listed below is small and portable, so engineers can use them on any job site.

Here are the most commonly used surveying tools:

  • Compasses and clinometers: A compass takes bearings on an object in the distance to determine one's position on a map. A clinometer measures the angle from a horizontal reference point.
  • Levels: A surveying level is a telescope on a tripod that measures the height of distant points compared to a benchmark.
  • Theodolites: These tools, also called transits, measure horizontal and vertical angles for triangulation in road building and other civil engineering projects. These are mounted on a tripod with adjustable legs.
  • Prisms and reflectors: These are used alongside electronic distance measurement (EDM) instruments to process distance.
  • Grade rods: Also called a graduated rod, grade rods are used in conjunction with a level to mark the exact spot to be measured.
  • Magnetic locators: A magnetic locator can locate the position of static objects below the ground, like septic tanks and drums.

2. Cranes 

Additionally, larger machinery is an essential piece of civil engineering equipment. For example, cranes and crane trucks are a staple on the construction site, especially in projects involving buildings, bridges and other structures. This type of equipment lifts and moves heavy materials so construction workers can assemble a building at height.

When choosing to rent a crane for a construction project, civil engineers must remember a few key points, including: 

  • Job site size
  • Worksite terrain
  • Size and weight of materials
  • Height of lifts

3. Dozers 

Bulldozers are a fixture on most construction and roadbuilding project sites. This type of equipment is ideal for a range of earthmoving jobs. Dozers have excellent maneuverability for moving and piling materials, loading, grading and sweeping. The various types of dozers civil engineers might use on the job are:

  • Crawlers: A crawler dozer uses tracks to move over the terrain, giving it better traction for versatile job sites. Adding a ripper attachment enables a crawler to break up harder materials. A large crawler can quickly move high volumes of material at construction sites.
  • Mulchers: Moving materials out of the way is vital for all kinds of construction projects. Mulcher dozers include a mulcher attachment on the front, making it easy to mulch trees and shrubs for roadbuilding and construction projects.
  • Wheel dozers: Wheel dozers use wheels instead of tracks to get around, limiting their usability to projects in wheel-friendly locations. These dozers are faster and easier to maneuver than crawlers.
  • Mini dozers: Mini dozers are the smallest version of the dozer, making them ideal for maneuvering in tight locations.

4. Excavators

Civil engineers use excavators to complete any construction project requiring digging. Rugged landscapes have met their match in this piece of equipment, built to tackle even the most demanding construction and roadbuilding jobs. Excavators are popular for their versatility. Civil engineers can use this equipment with attachments like buckets and augers for a broad range of projects.

There are four different sizes of excavators, each suited to various projects:

  • Mini excavators: The smallest size excavator is limited in its capabilities but is ideal for projects requiring maneuverability through tight spaces. Mini excavators are excellent in engineering projects in urban and residential areas.
  • Small excavators: Small excavators are also called compact excavators. These excavators have greater engine horsepower than mini excavators and can complete most of the same jobs.
  • Medium excavators: Standard excavators fall into the medium category. When civil engineers need to dig trenches, complete demolition and construct buildings, roads and bridges, they often choose a medium excavator.
  • Large excavators: A large excavator is the best solution for large-scale demolition, construction and foundation digging jobs. This piece of equipment delivers power and speed, though its massive size makes it unsuitable for tight spaces.

5. Compaction Equipment

Compaction equipment helps construction crews press the soil particles on the construction site. This piece of civil engineering equipment helps increase the soil's load-bearing capacity, enhancing stability and reducing water seepage. Civil engineers need to ensure they have the correct compaction equipment to get the most out of these benefits.

The variety of compaction machines include:

  • Ride-on rollers: These compactors are ideal for extensive soil compacting jobs.
  • Rammers: Rammers provide fast and powerful compacting in small areas.
  • Rollers: Rollers compact soil, waste and more.
  • Plate compactors: This type of equipment works efficiently in tight spaces.

When choosing the right compaction equipment for their job, civil engineers consider these factors: 

  • Soil type
  • Worksite specifications
  • Compactor types

6. Concrete Equipment 

Many construction jobs, including roadbuilding and building construction, require concrete. Concrete is used in foundations, bridges, highways and numerous other projects. Civil engineers need a variety of concrete handling equipment to complete their jobs.

Some of the most common heavy machinery for handling concrete include:

  • Cement mixers
  • Hoppers
  • Concrete buggies
  • Mortar mixers
  • Site dumpers

Civil engineers and construction crews might also use a variety of concrete attachments, such as:

  • Hammers: Hammer attachments provide efficient concrete demolition when a project calls for redoing sidewalks, floors and other concrete components.
  • Saws: As with hammers, saws effectively break through existing concrete. Varieties of saws include hand-held and walk-behind designs for cutting through hardened concrete.
  • Mixing buckets: Mixing buckets are essential for projects that require crews to pour new concrete. These attachments mix concrete evenly and allow operators to pour with precision.

7. Dump Trucks

Another essential piece of civil engineering equipment is the dump truck. These vehicles are standard at heavy construction, home construction, mining and infrastructure construction sites. Dump trucks haul loose materials to make loading and unloading on the site more efficient.

Civil engineers and their construction crews use two kinds of dump trucks for their projects — on-road and off-road. The main differences between the two varieties are their hauling capacity and ability to tackle different job sites. On-road trucks like the standard dump truck model and truck and pup trucks can easily maneuver on job sites and highways. Off-road dump trucks are designed for much rougher terrain and can handle larger loads.

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