What Causes Asphalt to Crack and Pothole in Winter and How to Fix It

When spring rolls around and the ice melts, what will the roads and parking lots you’ve worked on look like, and what does that mean for your business?

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Winter has long been the arch nemesis of asphalt roads and parking lots. The freeze/thaw cycle, salt, and snow plows -- especially when combined with traffic -- wreak absolute havoc on the condition of the asphalt. When the ice melts and spring rolls around, what will the roads and parking lots you’ve worked on look like? And what does that mean for your business?

First off, know that the pavement will be in worse condition than you saw it last fall. Hairline cracks will have expanded, areas with minor alligator cracking might now exhibit extensive alligatoring, and areas of slight depression or minor damage might easily be full-fledged potholes -- or potholes that were created and treated with temporary material during the winter.

Cracks that form in the pavement surface and are not properly sealed allow harmful substances to infiltrate the pavement -- water, impurities (chlorides, deicing chemicals, fuels), debris and sunlight -- that will accelerate failure of the pavement surface. 

Cracking Up

Cracks are a natural development in asphalt pavement due to oxidation, traffic loads and pavement deterioration. Cracks are inevitable, and neglect leads to accelerated cracking and potholing, further reducing pavement serviceability according to FHWA. So the first step of any crack repair operation is to evaluate the pavement to assess the extent and type of cracking present; only then can you determine the appropriate treatment(s). 

A post-winter evaluation might include the following (for roads and parking lots):

  • Is there more cracking than there was in the fall? If the answer is “Yes,” then there’s work to be done and you need to determine if the cracks can be treated by crack sealing or crack filling, they are different. Crack sealing is placement of specialized treatment materials (sealant) above or into cracks to prevent the intrusion of water and incompressibles into the crack. Crack filling is placement of ordinary materials (asphalt cement, sand, and emulsions) to fill the void and reduce infiltration of water into the crack.
  • Are cracks that existed last fall larger? If so, make an effort to determine why that might be. If they were too small to repair, then there was nothing you could do and those cracks are now prime candidates for repair this spring. However…
  • If the cracks were repaired in the fall, what happened? Examine the sealant in the cracks to see why it is not performing as intended. Perhaps it wasn’t applied properly, or perhaps cracks weren’t properly prepared. Or it’s possible the pavement needs a higher-quality crack sealant to withstand winter abuse. There are numerous types of crack sealants available and it is important to match the qualities needed to the demands of the job such as climate, traffic, strength, flexibility and more. Contact your educated and experience local representative to find the best options for your situation.

Regardless of the reasons for asphalt cracking, those cracks now must be properly repaired. The ideal time to treat cracks is as soon as they appear in order to prevent as much damage as possible from occurring. Spring is a perfect time to assess damage and address it. Not repairing problems in pavement -- especially cracking -- can lead to premature deterioration, like potholes, which shortens pavement life.

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