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 (which is a step up in durability) 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. Asphalt can also get hot in the summer. Consider these and other factors to help decide whether or not asphalt is a good choice for your driveway.
Asphalt Driveway Construction
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.
Asphalt Driveway Pros and Cons
Because asphalt and concrete are similar monolithic materials (as opposed to modular materials, like pavers), it's helpful to consider asphalt pros and cons relative to concrete.
- Flexibility: While both asphalt and concrete are almost guaranteed to crack in places, asphalt is more flexible, making it less vulnerable to significant cracking than a concrete slab. When asphalt does crack, it often stops short of a long fault-line crack that extends from edge to edge, like concrete cracks commonly do.
- Cost: Installing a new asphalt driveway costs about $3 to $4 per square foot. New concrete costs about $5 to $7 per square foot, for a plain gray slab. Concrete with color, special finishes, or other decorative embellishments costs $8 to $18 per square foot.
- Winter-hardiness: Asphalt tends to fare better in harsh winter conditions and is less likely to be damaged by salt and ice melt than concrete.
- Quick installation: New asphalt is ready for use almost immediately, compared to a week for new concrete.
- DIY repair: Worn or damaged asphalt can be resurfaced and resealed to renew its look and extend its life, and the work can be done by homeowners. DIY repairs to concrete typically are limited to sealing cracks with caulk and filling holes with patching material, and repairs are usually quite visible.
- Limited design options: Asphalt comes in one style: smooth, flat, and black. By contrast, concrete can be stamped to look like stone or brick, tinted or stained with a range of colors, and even embellished with decorative inlays (all at a cost, of course).
- Unfinished edges: The edges of an asphalt driveway can have an unfinished look, unless you install it with a border treatment, such as a concrete curb.
- Overheating: The black tar-like component of asphalt can soften and even become sticky in very hot weather, while concrete is impervious to heat. By virtue of its lighter color, concrete also stays cooler in summer than asphalt.
- Longevity: Asphalt is estimated to last about 15 to 20 years, compared to 30 to 40 years for concrete.
- Maintenance: Asphalt should be resealed periodically to extend its life and help prevent cracks. Concrete never needs sealing.
- Plant damage: Plants and tree roots can work through or damage asphalt more easily than concrete.
- Resale value: Concrete is generally considered a premium driveway material, a cut above asphalt. This attitude may be more common in urban and suburban areas, where neatness and order are paramount.
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.
How Long Should an Asphalt Driveway Last?
Asphalt driveways typically last up to 20 years, depending on the quality of the installation, the climate, the usage they get, and how well they are maintained. Like most everything else, the better care you take of your asphalt driveway, the longer it will remain in service.
But 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. In snow country, shoveling or snow-blowing a beat-up driveway can be a real headache.
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.