Asphalt Potholes: How They Form and How to Fix Them

April, 19, 2023 By CASSIDY PAVING 9 min read

Asphalt is a durable material commonly used for many applications, including commercial parking lots and driveways, industrial roadways, and more. However, asphalt isn’t totally immune to damage. With the natural elements plus heavy traffic, asphalt can show signs of damage and disrepair. Today we’re discussing potholes—how they form and how to fix them. So if you’re wondering, “What causes holes in an asphalt driveway?” or, “How can I quickly and efficiently repair potholes?” you’re in the right place. Keep reading to learn more about potholes and what you can do about them.

Understanding the Basics of Asphalt Potholes

Potholes don’t start out as “holes.” In fact, they often begin with small dents or cracks in pavement that eventually lead to wider, deeper holes. Most of us have experienced the phenomenon of driving over a pothole—navigating across a smooth surface before hitting a “thud” in the road.

Most of the time, this is simply an uncomfortable experience, but in some cases, it can cause damage to the vehicle. This type of damage could mean popped tires, bent wheel rims, alignment issues, and damage to shocks. Drivers and their vehicles aren’t the only ones concerned about potholes, however. For those managing facilities or roadways, potholes can also spell trouble in terms of structural damage to the pavement that could result in more costly repairs down the line if not tended to.

Causes of Asphalt Potholes and How to Identify Potential Causes

Before you embark on an asphalt pothole repair project, you’ll want to understand the initial causes of potholes in the first place. As we said, potholes don’t start out as holes. Most of the time, they begin as small cracks or divots in the pavement. Two layers are affected in the formation of potholes: the topmost layer of asphalt and the underlying layer known as the base or sub-base.

Typically, asphalt potholes form when moisture from rainwater or snowmelt seeps into the surface of the asphalt through those cracks or dents. If the moisture is trapped—that is, it can’t be adequately drained into the soil—it is subject to the freeze-thaw cycle. This occurs when temperatures drop below freezing, resulting in frozen water that expands and widens the existing crack in the pavement. When the temperatures warm again, the moisture melts into liquid form, and the crack in the pavement may even gather more water. With repetition of the freeze-thaw cycle over a period of one winter or many winters, you could eventually see the crack turning into more of a “hole” that grows deeper and wider.

Additionally, traffic has a big impact on potholes. The more traffic your roadway sees, the more impact the pavement is subject to. And if that traffic includes trucks or other heavy machinery, this is all the more risky for damaged pavement. Once asphalt has weakened through a crack and the subsequent accumulation of water, it becomes more at risk of collapsing, eventually forming a pothole. If the pothole is anywhere close to a water or electrical line, this could mean eventual damage to these systems. And if it’s located near a traffic signal, it could actually expose the embedded loop sensor wires that result in faulty responsiveness or a non-functioning traffic light—a big risk for any driver using the road.

Filling Potholes With Cold Mix Asphalt and Hot Mix Asphalt

When it comes to repairing these pesky problems, there are two materials most typically used: hot mix asphalt and cold mix asphalt. Each one has benefits and drawbacks, so you’ll need to consider your specific climate and scheduling needs to determine which is best for you (or hire an expert asphalt repair company to make this determination for you!).

Hot mix asphalt, when used as an asphalt pothole filler, is a very effective means of fixing the issue. First, moisture and any other debris are removed from the pothole to provide a clean, smooth, and relatively dry surface for pothole repair. An asphalt repair team will then ensure that all sides of the pothole are vertical, creating the ideal conditions for the pothole to be filled in adequately. After that, tack oil is laid and hot asphalt is poured into the pothole to fill it. This is the most effective and long-lasting way to repair potholes, but it does take some finesse, as well as specialized equipment. Plus, both the ground temperature and outdoor air temperatures have to be in a specific range for the asphalt to stay at the proper temperature itself. So this method is not typically utilized in cooler weather.

Cold mix asphalt is another option. This method is much quicker, so if, for instance, you spot a problematic pothole during the winter or one that is prominent in a heavily used area of pavement, it might be your best bet. In this case, no hot asphalt mix is poured—the pothole is simply filled using patching material, and sometimes compacted for a smoother, harder surface of pavement. Keep in mind, however, that if moisture or other debris has permeated the asphalt by way of the pothole, cold mix asphalt won’t solve any of the issues this could create—meaning that you could see structural damage later on. Sometimes, a cold mix asphalt repair job is a temporary fix to get through chillier months until hot mix asphalt can be properly applied.

Other Repair Techniques for Asphalt Pothole Repair

Knowing how to fix asphalt potholes, regardless of the climate or environmental conditions you’re in, is key. Besides hot mix asphalt and cold mix asphalt, there are other options, including a spray injection device that blows asphalt and aggregate into the pothole. Sometimes, the patch itself is then also covered with more aggregate. This can be another “quick fix” in lieu of, or prior to, a more thorough hot mix asphalt job.

Crack sealing is sometimes used for asphalt repair as well. With this service, the crack or hole in the pavement is “sealed” to prevent further moisture penetration or debris build-up, which can serve you in the short term. An overlay service can also be performed. If parking lots or roadways are cracking and potholing, overlaying can fix those problems without in-depth pavement replacement. Overlay asphalt uses the existing layers as a base for the new asphalt pavement, without having to completely grind up the pavement. A new layer of asphalt is simply applied over top of the damaged layer to reinforce the pavement without more extensive asphalt work.

Pros and Cons of Hiring a Professional vs. Doing It Yourself (DIY)

While it may be tempting to try to fill in a pothole yourself, there are disadvantages to taking on such a project independently. Particularly in the case that moisture has seeped into the sub-base layer of the pavement, you’ll want to ensure that the asphalt’s integrity—as well as water, sewage, and electric lines—are intact and unharmed. This is typically something that can’t be determined with the naked eye, so you’ll want to hire an expert for this service.

Additionally, pouring hot mix asphalt is no easy feat, and if done incorrectly, could pose a risk to both the pavement and the operator. Therefore, it’s best to trust a team of experts to perform this service. That said, hiring an asphalt repair company will take financial resources and require some scheduling (and possibly downtime), so these are things to keep in mind. Schedule your projects in advance to cause the least disruption to your operations.

Tips to Prolong the Life of Your Driveway or Sidewalk

If your pavement is constructed from asphalt, it’s durable, but it’s not totally impenetrable. The best thing you can do is keep an eye on your asphalt, conducting regular (monthly or seasonal) inspections to take note of any issues. If you do see an issue—even the smallest of cracks—take care to get it repaired as quickly as possible before it turns into a larger issue.

As much as possible, keep your pavement free of moisture. If you’re in an area with high levels of precipitation, hire a snow and ice removal service to keep your roadways, driveways, and sidewalks clear so that you reduce the chances of the freeze-thaw cycle wreaking havoc on your pavement.

Cassidy Paving Has Your Pothole Repairs Covered

Cassidy Paving, headquartered in Haverhill, MA, serves clients in Massachusetts and throughout New England. We are well-versed in the challenges of cold, snowy, and icy climates, so we know just what to look for in terms of risks to your pavement and repair services to execute at different times of year. Our family-owned and operated asphalt paving company is composed of a full-time crew with over 100 years of combined experience. Our team is bonded with full liability and full workers’ compensation insurance.

Our specialty is assessing damage and making the right call on the appropriate service to perform, so if you’re unsure how to handle your asphalt potholes, you can trust us to guide you—whether it be a simple cut and patch job, an overlay, or a reconstruction. We’re so confident in our ability to deliver high-quality results that we offer a satisfaction guarantee on all new paving services. Contact us today if you see a crack, dent, or pothole in need of repair!

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Filed Under: Asphalt

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