At room temperature, structural materials develop the full strain they will exhibit as soon as a load is applied. This is not necessarily the case at high temperatures (for example, stainless steel above 1000F or zircaloy above 500F). At elevated temperatures and constant stress or load, many materials continue to deform at a slow rate. This behavior is called creep. At a constant stress and temperature, the rate of creep is approximately constant for a long period of time. After this period of time and after a certain amount of deformation, the rate of creep increases, and fracture soon follows. This is illustrated in Figure 2.
Initially, primary or transient creep occurs in Stage I. The creep rate, (the slope of the curve) is high at first, but it soon decreases. This is followed by secondary (or steady-state) creep in Stage II, when the creep rate is small and the strain increases very slowly with time. Eventually, in Stage III (tertiary or accelerating creep), the creep rate increases more rapidly and the strain may become so large that it results in failure.
The rate of creep is highly dependent on both stress and temperature. With most of the engineering alloys used in construction at room temperature or lower, creep strain is so small at working loads that it can safely be ignored. It does not become significant until the stress intensity is approaching the fracture failure strength. However, as temperature rises creep becomes progressively more important and eventually supersedes fatigue as the likely criterion for failure. The temperature at which creep becomes important will vary with the material.
For safe operation, the total deformation due to creep must be well below the strain at which failure occurs. This can be done by staying well below the creep limit, which is defined as the stress to which a material can be subjected without the creep exceeding a specified amount after a given time at the operating temperature (for example, a creep rate of 0.01 in 100,000 hours at operating temperature).