Pros and Cons of an Asphalt Driveway

An asphalt driveway and a house's garage
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Whether you need to install a new driveway or replace an old one, asphalt is almost certainly one of the options you will consider. A properly installed asphalt driveway will perform much like concrete (step up in durability and price) but at a much lower cost. One of the tradeoffs with asphalt is that you should seal it every few years for proper maintenance, while concrete is essentially maintenance-free. On the flip side, because asphalt is a petroleum product, it is more flexible and less susceptible to cracking than concrete. But asphalt can also get very hot in the summer. Consider these and other factors to help decide whether or not asphalt is a good choice for your driveway.

What Is Asphalt?

The main components of the blacktop that is used on asphalt driveways are rock, sand and asphalt cement, a tar-like petroleum product. A new driveway starts with a 4- to 8-inch layer of compacted granular fill for a solid, well-draining base. This gets topped with 2 to 3 inches of fresh, hot asphalt, which quickly gets compacted by a heavy rolling machine (what you might call a "steamroller"). New asphalt driveways typically can be driven on immediately after installation. By contrast, poured concrete driveways must cure for seven days before they can be used.

How to Maintain an Asphalt Driveway

If you've owned or seen asphalt driveways and thought they should last longer, chances are the surface wasn't properly maintained. To get the most life and best appearance from an asphalt driveway, clean the driveway at least twice a year. Use a stiff broom and strong hose spray to remove all dirt and debris. Seal-coat the asphalt every two to five years to ensure an attractive, water-resistant surface. Cracks and holes should be repaired as soon as possible, using an appropriate asphalt repair material or sealant. Note: Let new asphalt driveways cure for about six months before seal-coating them.

How Long Should an Asphalt Driveway Last?

Asphalt driveways typically last 12 to 20 years, depending on the quality of the installation, the climate, the usage they get, and how well they have been maintained. Like most everything else, the better care you take of your asphalt driveway, the longer it will remain in service. By comparison, a poured concrete driveway typically lasts up to 30 years. In both cases, how long the material "lasts" really means how long you can live with it looking terrible after it has aged and cracked beyond reasonable repair. You can use an asphalt or concrete driveway forever, so how long it lasts is often a question of aesthetics. However, in snow country, shoveling or snow-blowing a beat-up driveway can be a real headache.

What Does an Asphalt Driveway Cost?

Asphalt driveways cost $2 to $5 per square foot to install. This is double the cost of gravel but only about half of the cost of a concrete driveway.

Choosing an Asphalt Contractor

Asphalt driveways are usually installed by contractors who specialize in the job because it involves very specialized equipment and techniques. Do your homework before hiring a contractor, as there many fly-by-nighters out there ready to take your money in exchange for a lousy job. One area where contractors commonly cut corners is the granular base. Ask prospective contractors about what they use for bases and how thick they make them. If you're replacing an old driveway, ask whether the contractor will remove or improve the old base before laying the asphalt. Your contractor should have at least a 1-ton roller to compact the asphalt during the rolling stage.