“Whether you’re using coal tar or asphalt emulsion sealer, sealcoating is weather dependent,” says Tony Heffernan, Neyra Industries.
And that’s true especially on the fringe parts of the season – the early spring and late fall. Because you can’t manage the weather it’s important to manage expectations – yours and your customers. Manage your expectations by recognizing sealcoating too long into the season can cause serious problems; manage your customers’ expectations so they realize what their risks are should they demand you sealcoat when you shouldn’t.
“You have to be aware of the weather because eventually you’re going to run into a frost and that’s really the end.” Heffernan says. “You don’t want to have fresh sealer down or be putting it down in frost conditions. The cooler temperatures can negatively affect the performance of the sealer, unless you are using a cool weather formula sealer.”
But there’s more to the end-of-season sealcoating than getting the work and trying to keep the customer happy.
“Contractors need to make sure that they will get paid for doing the job,” says Heffernan, who with Neyra’s Jeff Cayton will present “Basic Sealcoating Principles” at the 2016 National Pavement Expo, Jan. 27-30 in Charlotte, NC. “Don’t let someone talk you into doing a job just so you can get the money. Sealer is temperamental, and if it’s not applied in the right weather conditions, then it’s going to fail and you’re not going to get paid.”
Brent Loutzenhiser, president of Seal-Rite, manufacturer of sealcoating equipment, recommends working with the customer to get the job and then do what can safely be done in the fall.
“I’d caution them to be careful with sealcoating down to the wire,” Loutzenhiser says. “If you have a job that you want, go ahead and bid it to get it, but once you’ve got it do crackfilling in the fall, postpone the sealcoating until the spring and don’t bill the client until the job is done. That way you get the job so no one else can get it and you give yourself a start in the spring. But don’t bill the client until the work is done.”
Asking for a waiver is another approach.
“If a customer insists you do the work, and you know that weather could be an issue and affect the quality or longevity of the job, have the client sign a waiver that you’re going to get paid whether the product performs as promised or not,” Heffernan says. “If I asked for a waiver and didn’t get it I wouldn’t do the job. You’ve got to make sure you’re going to get paid and if you’re doing a job that’s inferior you’re not going to get paid.”
Matt Purdy, SealMaster marketing services, says fall weather doesn't permit the efficiencies of the sealcoating business that summer affords, so profits are generally lower at this time of year.
“It's much more difficult to apply two coats in one day due to fewer hours of daylight and longer curing time due to cooler conditions. In the height of fall, in much of the United States it's almost impossible to apply two coats of sealer on the same day, so the second coat will require another day of work,” Purdy says, adding that one coat alone is not recommended because of decreased longevity and aesthetics.
“The cost of doing business rises due to the decreased square footage that can be applied daily and the additional move-ins that are required when work has to be stretched out over several days,” Hufford says. She says that in addition to often having a second move-in day for a second coat, striping often has to be done on another day which also increases costs.
Manage Your Sealcoating Process
Purdy says contractors really need to pay attention to the weather and atmospheric conditions and only apply during ideal conditions. “The minimum temperature must be at least 50 degrees and rising within 24 hours of application for optimal curing,” Purdy says. “The presence of dew within 24 hours of application also can hinder the curing process, which brings with it the threat of tracking.”
Heffernan recommends contractors establish a “drop dead” date after which they won’t apply sealer. The “drop dead” date depends on where you are. For example, in some areas of New England contractors target Nov. 1 as the last day they’ll put down sealer – and they manage crews, marketing and sealer purchasing accordingly. Other places try sealcoating until Thanksgiving or even December 1.
“You need to know the weather in your area and at some point make the call just so you avoid problems,” Heffernan says. “You know that if you put sealer down in adverse conditions jobs are going to fail, whether that means discoloration or tracking.”
“If temperatures fall below 40° F at night you also should stop sealcoating because the pavement won’t warm to the point where sealer will dry and cure. You aren’t going to be able to get it to set up,” Heffernan says.
Purdy says falling leaves can impede the application process, adding that, “older asphalt with increased voids will cure slower due to the additional sealer that gets deposited into the voids.”
Given that contractors like to squeeze in as much late-season work as possible, there are a number of ways to improve your chances of success on a late-season sealcoating job.
First, consider shortening your work day – or at least change the hours you sealcoat. For example, start sealcoating at 9:00 a.m. and stop at 2:00 p.m. “Outside those main hours the sun is not producing the amount of heat you need for the sealer to cure and dry,” Heffernan says. “As you move toward winter you lose the angle of the sun, so you lose the heat to the pavement, which prevents it from drying properly.”
Heffernan, who was a contractor for over 25 years before joining Neyra, says contractors also should consider altering the way they apply sealer to the pavement. “Contractors who think one heavy coat of sealer is the way to go may be able to get away with that in the summer, but in cooler weather you need to put down two even coats.” He says that by spraying two light coats you’ll get a good sense from the reaction of the first coat how the sealer is going to dry and if and when a second coat should be applied.
He says squeegee and brush applications tend to dry faster because “you’re actually touching the sealer, pushing the material around. Touching and moving the sealer helps it dry.” In fact, Heffernan recommends doing more sealcoating by hand as the weather cools. “It does require more labor and there are other issues you need to be aware of, but you can help it along as far as drying goes if you apply it by hand,” Heffernan says.
He says he knows many contractors don’t know how to use a squeegee or are uncomfortable doing a large job by hand, but he says all contractors should learn how to squeegee by hand because it can come in handy. “And this is one of the situations where that’s true,” Heffernan says.
Some sealer manufacturers recommend additional sand and an additive designed to speed the drying process for "less than ideal" weather conditions when drying takes longer. Heffernan, though, says those additives are not designed for cooler fall weather and aren’t very effective under late-season conditions. He says those additives should be used when the temperature is in the 60-75° F range, but they should not be used when the temperature is higher or much lower. “When used at higher temperatures these additives can create problems by forcing the sealer to dry too fast, and when the temperature is lower additives won’t speed the drying enough to make an impact on the final sealcoat,” Heffernan says.
Use of spray tips also should be examined as the end of the season nears. Heffernan says most contractors use a 30 or 40 tip on driveways and a 50 or 70 tip on parking lots (the number refers to the degree of spray fan: a 30 tip has a 30-degree fan spray, for example). But he says whatever size tips you use it’s important never to use a worn-out tip – and that’s especially true as the season nears its end.
“If you’re using a worn-out tip you’re putting down too much spray and you’re making it harder for the sealer to dry,” he says. “You may be able to get away with that in the summer because of the sun, but you can’t get away with it in the fall.” He cited a recent example of a contractor in Delaware who called and said he was having trouble getting sealer to dry and was using a 30 tip. But when Heffernan went to visit one of the contractor’s jobs he could see right away the material was not being put down like a 30 tip. “It was a 30 alright but it was so worn it was putting material down like a 70, so he ended up putting way to much material down, and it wouldn’t dry.”
Heffernan says tracking and discoloration are the primary problems that will arise right away if sealer doesn’t dry properly, and he says sealer applied incorrectly will peel in the spring. He says tracking generally doesn’t occur across the entire pavement but instead is from isolated areas where the sealer didn’t dry, often because they were shaded for some or all of the day. Identifying those areas enables you to prevent tracking by spreading sand or an absorbent on the damp sealer, then vacuuming it up or sweeping it off. Then you have to go back the next spring and fix it up for nothing.
“If you encounter tracking make sure to put rugs at the entryways to the building to minimize the issues and get it absorbed before people take it into the building,” he says.
As for discoloration, “You’ll see it the next day. The surface will be either whitish or a milky brown,” Heffernan says. “Unfortunately, if you experience this, you have to redo the areas affected.”
He says that if the sealer doesn’t perform as promised it becomes a question of “fix it now or wait until spring?” And Heffernan recommends waiting until spring. “If it didn’t set up the first time then don’t think the next day or two is going to be any better because typically it’s not.”
Manage Your Sealer
In addition to managing your sealcoating process, it’s important that you also manage the sealer itself. That starts with buying only the amount of sealer you know you’re going to use.
“Carefully evaluate how much sealer they need and purchase only what's necessary so they don't have to worry about managing a surplus over the winter,” says Bob Wallace, SealMaster field representative.
Heffernan agrees. “Buy only the sealer you need. Don’t buy 500 gals. in your applicator just because you can hold it or because it’s cheaper if you only have work for 350 gals.,” he says.
If you have extra sealer, find someone who has an indoor tank to suck the material out of your tank and store it indoors for the winter. Neyra, for example, has an indoor tank at many of its distribution locations and will take back extra sealer to assist contractor customers.
“If a contractor has a surplus of sealer when weather no longer permits proper application and curing, it should be stored in a tank in a heated building and agitated daily,” Wallace says.
Heffernan says that as long as the sealer doesn’t freeze it can last through the winter and be used next spring and requires only warmth and a little agitation once a week. “Sealer is easy to handle as long as you do the right thing and handle and store it properly. As long as it doesn’t freeze, you really don’t have to worry about it,” Heffernan says.
Loutzenhiser says that just like cold weather can affect sealer, it can affect sealcoating equipment, too. “On any system that relies on compressed air, such as any air-operated dual diaphragm pumps, the air moves through narrow orifices. And if it’s cold that air can freeze up the muffler,” he says. “What happens is you can get frost on the outside of the muffler and if that happens the unit is not able to exhaust the air, which could damage the pump.”
He says that should that happen contractors should remove the muffler from the unit. “The muffler is there for hearing protection, not performance, so you won’t cause a problem with the equipment.”
He says it’s difficult to say at what temperature the problem occurs but contractors should just be aware when temperatures are cooler. He adds that it’s not only the air temperature that’s important, if there’s a breeze that’s cold that can add to the problem as well
Loutzenhiser says that when the temperature drops, especially if it drops unexpectedly, sealer can freeze in the plumbing. “That’s a $3,000 repair with a lot of elbow grease,” he says. “We see five or more instances of that every year and it’s usually because contractors are pushing the edge a little too much.”
He says that even a strong wind blowing on that machine can freeze it. “But, really, once it’s that cold you really need to throw in the towel and stop sealcoating for the season,” Loutzenhiser says. “If I was worried about the cold I’d finish whatever job I was on and then find a place to donate the remaining sealer to and just sealcoat their pavement for them for free – a church parking lot for example. Then I’d be done with the season.”
Loutzenhiser says that when it’s so cold contractors can’t sealcoat, many contractors decide to work on their equipment while waiting for a warmer day. But Loutzenhiser recommends avoiding that temptation.
“Even if you want to work on your machine on a cold day – say when you’re still in season and think you’ll be able to work in few days – it’s not necessarily a good idea because this equipment is designed to operate in the peak of summer when temperatures can reach 100° F,” Loutzenhiser says. “The machine’s oils aren’t intended to work in 20° F weather and if you try to run it in those types of conditions that’s not necessarily a good idea, partly because of the heavy oils in the hydraulics. That’s true of most of the equipment contractors use – it’s not designed to be run in cold weather and it’s best not to work on it in cold weather.”
Loutzenhiser says another reason not to be stuck with sealer is it often is left in the tank over the winter. “If you leave sealer in tank over the winter it will dry out and freeze. The sealer becomes a solid and you end up having to get inside the tanks and shovel it out in buckets,” he says. “That’s a real problem because most contractors don’t want to put someone into the tank anymore because of liability issues and because nobody likes the work. So make sure you don’t leave sealer in your machine during the offseason because to fix that is very costly.”
Loutzenhiser says contractors have become much better about cleaning their tanks in preparation for winter – and that includes removing the plumbing off the truck and bringing it indoors and cleaning it up so it’s ready for spring. “It’s not realistic to get every last gallon of sealer out of your equipment so you just need to manage your sealer properly so you don’t have a problem.”
Managing Risk vs Reward
Loutzenhiser says that dealing with leftover sealer is another reason to “cash in your chips and get out before the weather changes. Who needs that problem of having to tell a client he has to keep his lot closed for 48 hours because you can’t get the sealer to dry? I just would do what I could to avoid those problems,” Loutzenhiser says.
Loutzenhiser says sealcoating too late in the season is very risky. “It’s a double-edged sword because on the one hand you want the work and you want the profit but on the other hand the work is risky because of temperature and dampness. By doing the work you might only be giving yourself a problem of one kind or another—which could easily cost you more than the job is worth.”
He says that while he understands the desire for contractors to get the work – and to satisfy the customer once they have the job – but it’s just not worth it over the long run. “Way too many customers wait until the very last minute – or the first frost – to get their sealcoating done, but those are jobs that often aren’t worth taking.”