Building a Solid Base

Having a solid base is essential to paving a driveway. For Bel Rock Asphalt Paving Inc., Belvidere, IL, it's essential for both its business and the driveways it paves. To build a solid base for the company, Bel Rock has focused on perfecting it's niche in the residential paving market, an expansion of the company's original sealcoating focus.

In 1999, Kelly Farina, vice president of Bel Rock, started his own sealcoating business - Sealcoating Specialist. For patching jobs, Farina enlisted the help of his friend Perry Michaud. In 2004, the two - both in their twenties - joined together and started Bel Rock as a paving division of Sealcoating Specialist.

Michaud, president of Bel Rock, says the company is small with 11 full-time employees and has recently unionized. The company services about a 15-mile radius from the Belvidere/Rockford, IL, area and focuses on the residential side, with a small but growing number of jobs coming from commercial clients.

From the beginning Bel Rock focused on residential driveways, Michaud says. "As we were getting into this business we wanted to be the asphalt company strictly for residential driveways. From new home owners to new construction, whatever it deals with from a residential standpoint is what we want to do," Michaud says. "There are other asphalt contractors out there that do residential driveways but don't strictly focus on that market. Residential driveways are our bread and butter."

Even though the company originally started in sealcoating, the majority of Bel Rock's business - an estimated 75% - now comes from the paving side, Michaud says. The other 25% is spread among sealcoating, crack filling, striping, and patching.

Starting out
When Farina and Michaud started Bel Rock, the two young men were taking a leap into the unknown. "At the time we didn't know a single thing about laying asphalt with a paver. We didn't know the dynamics or the concepts about using the equipment. We just did it." The best way to gain experience was hands on, Michaud says.

Their equipment fleet started out with a dump truck, skid steer, roller, and a Gehl 1448 gravity fed paver. "It was a great starter paver to learn the concepts and the basics," Michaud says. "It was trial and error for our first driveway."

That first driveway was a practice paving job to allow them to get a feel for the equipment. Michaud says the seller of their Gehl paver came down and walked them through the unit and how to use it before they practiced with it.

Michaud wasted no time after that, paving his second driveway for a paying customer. Although they had little experience, Michaud says the job went great and the customer was pleased with the end result.

Perfect paving
Since then Bel Rock has perfected its driveway paving process with prep work being the key step, Michaud says. "The easy part is laying the asphalt. The hard part is prepping the driveway. I would say 90% of the job is in the prep work," he says. But before starting any work, Michaud says the crew sets up a "game plan" to make sure the end result is the best it can be.

"We get the guys together so everybody knows his job and what he is doing. Each driveway is different. How the paver operator is going to pull the driveway will affect how things are going to start and finish to get the best result in the end," Michaud says. The "game plan" makes sure everyone is on the same page and knows what their role is for that particular job.

Before paving, Bel Rock uses a skid steer to remove any existing pavement from the driveway for a fresh start. Then comes the most important step: determining where the driveway is draining to. Michaud says it's important to keep water from sitting on the pavement, so making sure the driveway drains properly is a must.

Once the crew has figured out the drainage they then start on the sub-base, which is graded and compacted to ensure a flat, solid, properly draining driveway. The next step is to lay the aggregate base. The amount of aggregate used in the base varies in every situation, Michaud says. But when it comes to residential driveways he says there should be at least 8 in. of aggregate base underneath a 2-in. asphalt mat. After placing the base, Bel Rock will roll and compact it.

If the crew is working on a driveway that has been previously paved, they make sure to check the existing base carefully. "Sometimes the base under an existing asphalt driveway is saturated from cracks that have absorbed moisture over time. That driveway base may have to sit for a few weeks to dry out," Michaud says. "If you start laying asphalt on a soft and saturated base then the tracks of the paver sink in the driveway, you'll end up over using mix, and you won't get the proper finishing you would if it was hardened."

Bel Rock's next step in its paving process is to string out and paint lines on the edge of the driveway. This allows the paver operators to see where the edge is and where to line up the paver and screed.

After prep work is complete, Bel Rock then places the asphalt pavement. To keep the work flowing smoothly, each crew member is responsible for a specific job, Michaud says. Two crew members work the paver - one on each side - adjusting the screed height and mat depth. Another crew member follows the paver with a rake and hand tamp making sure the edges of the driveway get compacted.

A third crew member compacts the pavement with a ride-on roller while another worker uses a plate compactor to make sure the edges are properly compacted.

Michaud says making sure the drainage stays correct throughout the paving process is essential, so every few feet Michaud tests the pavement by placing a level on it. This helps assure the pavement will drain properly and helps locate low or high spots.

And if problems like bird baths or low spots occur on a driveway the crew makes sure to fix it before the driveway is complete. If a low spot is beyond Bel Rock's repair abilities, the company brings in an outside infrared contractor to fix the problem. "You can't satisfy every customer, but we try our very best to make them happy. That's one of our goals. Keep the customer happy," Michaud says.

Michaud works on every job with the rest of the crew - a practice he believes helps keep customers satisfied. "There's always an owner on site. It's reassuring for a homeowner to know that the person out there making sure things are happening the way they should is the owner of the company," he says.

At the end of each job, Michaud does a walk-through of the jobsite with all the crew members. They look at any improvement they can make in the finished driveway so they can fine tune it to make the driveway flawless.

The walk-through also allows the crew members to critique themselves, identifying areas where they need to improve themselves and their work. "It's these little things that can make a big difference," Michaud adds.

Estimating the mix
Over and underestimating the hot mix can present a challenge for paving contractors. Contractors who over estimate can end up with too much leftover asphalt mix that, if you don't have the proper equipment, cannot be reused. Contractors who underestimate the mix they need risk running out of mix on the job and having to wait for another truck load of material to be delivered. Now the customer has to wait longer, employees are waiting around instead of being productive, and the job itself might be pushed off its schedule. However, over and underestimating is something that's going to happen, Michaud says.

When estimating how much mix he will need for a 2-in. asphalt mat, Michaud divides the square footage of the driveway by 80 (a general rule of thumb the guys learned from a local asphalt producer). Then he adds 5% to ensure he has enough material for the job.

But even with his 5% overestimating, Michaud says sometimes the original estimate of mix is still not enough. "There are times when you think you may have ordered enough mix for a particular job but you may use more than what you had originally thought."

On the job, to keep the asphalt mix hot and the paving running efficiently, Michaud says Bel Rock uses as many trucks as necessary for that particular job. While one is on the job with a load of mix the others are sent out to the asphalt plant to pick up more material.

Bel Rock's future
Bel Rock has grown since its first year of business, and Michaud's goal is to have the company grow its workload and profit by 15% to 20%. Another long-term goal is to start in roadwork. "I think it's a goal for a lot of asphalt contractors to be big enough to do roadwork, and that just all comes with time. You have to start somewhere," Michaud says.

In the short term, Michaud would like to see Bel Rock pick up more commercial parking lot paving jobs. But he says the company is still working on getting people familiar with Bel Rock Asphalt Paving Inc.

Until then, Bel Rock is focusing on what it does best, residential driveways. "As a union company in the paving industry, our primary focus is providing the best product to our customers with flawless craftsmanship and service," Michaud says. "We also make sure that we go out to improve and find ways to better ourselves with each and every job that we go on. It can only make us better."