- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The closer the calendar gets to winter, the more ominous those cracks and crevices in the driveway start to appear. Kenny Foley, owner of the Upper Marlboro-based Foley Asphalt Sealing, adds that the lower the temperature, the more calls to his office for seal-coat work.

“Most people are concerned with preventing winter freeze-thaw damage,” Mr. Foley says. “We’re certainly busy [year-round], but our workload is a lot more in the later season.”

Asphalt driveways give homeowners that classic blacktop look, though some opt for the strength and stability of concrete. Concrete driveways are far more expensive to install and require reinforced steel support to prevent cracking, experts say.

Other driveway options remain, though they are the exception. Interlocking brickwork can make for a stunning surface, and oil-and-bluestone coating creates a quaint, almost rural appearance for the right homeowner.

Mr. Foley suggests that homeowners apply a fresh seal coat to their asphalt driveways every other year or once a year if the surface is made of a larger-stone aggregate — the blend of stone, sand and oil that makes up the material.

Seal coating, when combined with aggressive crack repair, can keep a driveway structurally sound. Mr. Foley’s crew will put sand in smaller cracks and top it off with a pourable crack-filling solution before the seal coat is applied.

Seal coating costs the consumer about 10 to 15 cents per square foot, he says, adding that some contractors may ratchet up those fees as winter draws closer.

Homeowners can visit their local hardware store and purchase material to apply seal coating themselves. Mr. Foley says the over-the-counter products lack the additives — to promote wearability and a strong black color — to which professional contractors have access.

If the homeowner goes the do-it-yourself route, Mr. Foley advises that he or she buy a water-based solution.

No two asphalt driveways are exactly alike, says Kent Hansen, director of engineering with the Lanham-based National Asphalt Pavement Association. Mr. Hansen says homeowners should ask for a fine asphalt mix in newly installed driveways if they seek the blacktop effect.

That blend offers better texture, a darker color and a more durable surface, says Mr. Hansen, whose group serves as an industry support system for “hot mix” companies nationwide.

The average thickness of an asphalt driveway is about 2 inches over 4 to 6 inches of aggregate base. That thickness can depend on the soil because a sandier, more gravelly earth offers better draining and therefore would require less driveway surface.

Customers are driven to distraction by cracks and potholes, but their main concerns remain durability and uniformity of surface, he says.

Mr. Hansen suggests a more modest seal-coating regimen: every three to five years with an asphalt-based product.

“You don’t want to do it too often. It’s just throwing money away,” he says.

Sealing projects should be tackled in warmer weather, preferably in temperatures higher than 50 degrees, Mr. Hansen says. That lets the mixture of asphalt, binder and water cure.

Generally, a fresh sealing coat can wipe away tiny cracks that inevitably creep into one’s driveway. For larger fissures, he recommends contacting a professional.

“If it’s an old driveway, we should pull it out and put in a new one,” Mr. Hansen says.

Cracks may be an eyesore, but they’re a real threat to driveways, too. They can let water penetrate the driveway’s gravel base and begin softening the soil underneath. Cars driving over these softened patches put more strain on the driveway surface, leading to more cracks and buckling.

Asphalt, by its nature, has a degree of flexibility, but it requires a firm soil base underneath to keep it rigid.

Not every homeowner opts for an asphalt driveway. Concrete driveways provide a more durable surface that can be tweaked to create a wealth of aesthetic flourishes.

Jim Peterson, president of Concretenetwork.com, a Web site based in Yucaipa, Calif., that publishes information on concrete materials and contractors for the consumer, says concrete gives the homeowner the chance to extend a home’s design to the curb.

Today’s modern cement equipment allows contractors to engrave designs into the concrete or use acid stains to bring a bit of color to the home front.

Some contractors can carve and stain cement to make it look like a brick pattern or other eye-pleasing designs.

That slate-gray concrete drive is becoming less common, Mr. Peterson says.

It might sound extravagant, but Mr. Peterson says more homeowners are investing in all parts of the house and lawn.

“People are cocooning more. Their home is their castle. People are taking out home-equity lines [to pay for it],” he says. “When you do something on a driveway, you play into the curb appeal.”

Concrete may cost more, some say two or three times more, but Mr. Peterson says a concrete drive can last 50 years with proper care. That means power-washing and resealing every other year.

California homeowners don’t need to worry about their concrete driveways in chilly weather. D.C.-area residents don’t have that luxury. Mr. Peterson says concrete-driveway clients should make sure contractors use a low water-to-cement ratio to preserve the material in colder months.

“You want to have it be as [nonpermeable] as possible so that water doesn’t infiltrate and go through the freeze-thaw cycle,” which could “pop” the concrete, he says.

Jerry Holbrook, owner of H&H; Paving in Manassas, says his clients for years have asked for their driveways to be patched and resealed, only to complain a short time later about the results. Sealing it black makes the problems more noticeable.

Mr. Holbrook’s company avoids such assignments, he says, preferring to install new driveways when the old models wear down.

His customers routinely call on his group to cope with tree-root damage. Many also want to add a turnaround space to their driveways or just widen them by a few feet for more car space.

Mr. Holbrook warns homeowners against a popular scam in his industry, the “just happen to be working in your neighborhood” house call from a driveway contractor.

“They end up getting ripped off,” he says of the customers. “They don’t even have time to get [other] estimates. Beware.”

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