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 (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.
Only comes in one style
Has unfinished edges
Surface can soften, get tarry, and scorching hot when sunny
Only lasts 15 to 20 years (concrete lasts twice as long)
It needs resealing every 3 to 5 years
Tree roots can break up asphalt
Asphalt Driveway Cost
Installing a new asphalt driveway costs about $5 to $7 per square foot with minimal grading. Asphalt costs about $2 per square foot, and installation averages about $5 square foot. Bringing up the costs would be excavation, added curbs, or a sidewalk. The national average for an asphalt driveway runs about $4,000 for a 600-square-foot driveway; prices can vary due to geographical location, the size of the area, grading of the site, labor, and asphalt type. Flat land makes for an easier and less expensive process.
Asphalt is the most affordable option for paving your driveway. For comparison, concrete costs about $15 per square foot for a plain gray slab. If you were to get concrete with color, special finishes, or other decorative embellishments, that usually costs more than $20 per square foot.
Maintenance and Repair
An asphalt driveway requires regular maintenance, and sealing is recommended every three to five years. 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. Any cracks or fissures should be patched up and remedied immediately.
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 cracks, it often stops short of a long fault-line crack that extends from edge to edge, like concrete cracks commonly do.
For small cracks, use a rubberized asphalt-emulsion crack filler. You can apply it with a caulking gun or putty knife. For larger cracks up to 2-inches large, fill the gap up with small, crushed, angular gravel, then fill with a cold-patch asphalt repair compound, such as blacktop.
Sealant provides a layer of protection to avoid cracking and environmental damage. Asphalt sealing typically costs $3 to $7 per square foot. This topcoat sealant is a thin layer of coal tar emulsion brushed on top of an existing surface. Asphalt sealant costs about $500 and should be done at least six months after the topcoat. Homeowners can reseal an asphalt driveway as a DIY project over a weekend and save about $1 per square foot.
Asphalt driveways typically last up to 20 years, depending on the quality of the installation, the severity of 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.
Asphalt tends to fare well in harsh winter conditions and can withstand salt and ice melt. In summer, the black tar-like component of asphalt can soften and even become sticky in sweltering weather, while concrete is impervious to heat.
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. Shoveling or snow-blowing a beat-up driveway can be a real headache in snow country.
Asphalt is the most commonly used driveway material across the U.S. However, asphalt comes in one style: smooth, flat, and black. The edges of an asphalt driveway can have an unfinished look unless you install it with a border treatment, such as a concrete curb. Asphalt is sometimes used for pathways, too. By contrast, if you want more ornamentation or variation, you would need to get a concrete driveway. Concrete is generally considered a premium driveway material, a cut above asphalt. You tend to see more concrete used in urban and suburban areas.
Asphalt Driveway Installation
For professionals, it is easy to install new asphalt quickly. Depending on the size of the driveway, they might even be able to do it one day. The main components of the blacktop 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 compressed 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 being used.
For a do-it-yourselfer, it is a difficult, expert-level task to get right. You'd also need at least one other person, if not more, to assist. You can save significant money doing it on your own, but it requires renting a lot of equipment, including a skid steer loader, dump truck, plate compactor, roller, wheelbarrows, and asphalt hand tools. You might be able to complete the job over a weekend or two.
If you are redoing your driveway and hiring a professional, some paving companies can recycle your old asphalt on-site. They would grind it down and reuse it—potentially saving you the added cost of buying and hauling new materials to the site.
Asphalt vs. Concrete
Asphalt and concrete are the two most common surfaces used for residential driveways. Other options include loose gravel or shell, brick, grass, or pavers. Since asphalt and concrete are the two primarily used materials, here are some of the significant differences between them:
- Cracks: Asphalt crack repairs are not as unsightly as concrete. DIY repairs to concrete involve sealing cracks with caulk and filling holes with patching material, and those repairs are quite visible. Although concrete tends to be more durable, it is more sensitive to cold weather and cracks easier than asphalt.
- Longevity: Concrete outlasts asphalt—at least twice as long (in places with moderate climate). The average lifespan of an asphalt driveway is 15 to 20 years. Concrete can go about 30 to 40 years. Asphalt will need resealing every three to five years, while concrete will never require sealing.
- Heat generator: Because of its lighter color, concrete stays cooler in summer than asphalt, while the black tar in asphalt will heat up and even get gooey with intense sun. The dark surface absorbs the sun’s radiation, storing it there for hours and adding to the heat index.
- More variation: Asphalt has one look: blacktop. Meanwhile, concrete offers more variety. It 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 an added cost).
- Environmental factors: Concrete cracks easier than asphalt in cold weather, and it can get damaged by deicers like salt or ice melt substances. However, plants and tree roots seem to do more damage to asphalt than concrete.
Top Asphalt Paving Companies
Asphalt driveways are usually installed by contractors who specialize in the job because it involves very specialized equipment and techniques. Driveway paving companies provide solutions for any driveway needs from new paving, resurfacing, fixing cracks, or applying sealant. Most companies are regional:
- Fix Asphalt: Asphalt paving (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland)
- Kane Paving & Sealcoating: Residential paving (New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania)
- U.S. Pavement Services: Top-rated; in business since 1985 (nationwide)
Get quotes from a few contractors and compare them. Check references and liability insurance. Most companies will offer a warranty on their work. Find out what guarantee they provide if something cracks or malfunctions.
Is Asphalt Right for You?
To determine if asphalt is the way to go for your driveway, consider three main factors: how it looks with your home, your regional climate, and how much you want to spend.
Many find the options with a concrete driveway to be more aesthetically pleasing. It can enhance the curb appeal of your home and complement its style. Asphalt color options are limited to black or grey. If you want a specific design or color that can be etched, stamped, tinted, or stained, go with concrete.
Concrete reflects light and absorbs less heat than asphalt, and you can walk barefoot on it in the summertime. However, concrete doesn't handle cold temperatures well. It's prone to cracking from freezing and thawing. Concrete can't handle snowplows and road salt well, so concrete is better suited for hot climates, while asphalt is better for winter weather regions.
If budget is your most significant consideration, then asphalt is your best option. You can expect that it will be half the cost of a concrete driveway, although you will be limited by one color, and expect that you will likely need to resurface or replace it in 20 years.