Taking on potholes with new prevention and repair strategies

Potholes are one of the biggest and most costly ongoing maintenance challenges faced by highway agencies. Despite considerable progress in pavement materials and mechanics, pothole repair has remained an area in which little progress has been made.

To make headway in this area, Minnesota transportation researchers studied critical factors in pothole formation and repair in order to identify solutions that would reduce the occurrence of potholes and increase the durability of repairs. They also investigated the potential of newer materials, such as taconite and graphite nanoplatelets (GNP), in repair mixes. Researchers looked at how to make winter patches more durable and also different shapes of patches.

“Our goal was to provide a scientific assessment of pothole repair materials and practices,” said University of Minnesota professor Mihai Marasteanu, the lead researcher. Project sponsors were the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board.

What Did We Do?

Researchers began by reviewing national and international literature about pothole causes and repair activities. They also surveyed MnDOT maintenance superintendents and local engineers on current repair practices.

Next, the research team conducted simulations of square, diamond, and round pothole repair shapes to determine if some shapes were more conducive to reducing stress in repair materials. This stress analysis included the use of different common pothole filling mixes and their interface with existing pavement materials.

In the next stage of research, the team evaluated six asphalt mixes for relevant mechanical properties: four winter mixes, a polymer-modified hot-mastic asphalt mix suitable for winter and summer use, and a summer mix in two forms modified with GNP. Mixes were evaluated for compaction and bonding, tensile strength, and water penetration.

Laboratory test of pothole repair sample
Pothole repair samples performed poorly in water penetration tests, which suggested that most mixes will perform poorly under seasonal freeze-thaw stresses.

Finally, researchers studied national and international pavement preservation and pothole prevention practices and the cost-effectiveness of pothole repair.

What Did We Learn?

Through this work, researchers learned that pothole prevention requires repairing pavement cracks as they develop—and sometimes, even timely repairs only slow pothole development.

Laboratory analysis showed that cold mixes compact and bond poorly. To be more effective, these materials require significant curing not possible in the field unless heating is provided. The polymer-modified mastic patching material that was heated was stronger than the winter mixes even at very cold temperatures. Most mastics are used in warm weather, but this material may be effective for winter uses.

Durable winter repairs require expensive patching materials and on-site heating technologies such as truck-mounted microwaves. “To make winter repairs last longer, you need to provide an external source of heat to cure winter patching materials,” Marasteanu says.

Taconite-based materials activated chemically or by heating potholes before and after filling offer promise for more durable repairs. GNP modifiers improved compaction, tensile strength, fracture energy, and fracture resistance in the summer mix.

Pothole repair samples performed poorly in water penetration tests, which suggests that most mixes will perform poorly under seasonal freeze-thaw stresses.

Also of note, the study’s exploration of pothole repair shapes found that circular repairs offer the best filling and compacting performance; repair materials cannot fill corners, even with significant compaction.

 

“We had been squaring off potholes, making sure patches were all at right angles. But in this study, we found that square patches increase stresses at the boundaries. The ideal is a circular patch,” said Todd Howard, Assistant County Engineer, Dakota County.

What’s Next?

The most common pothole repair in Minnesota is throw-and-roll with HMA (using a truck’s tires to compact shoveled-in asphalt). Newer, more durable repairs include taconite-based materials activated chemically or by heating potholes with a truck-
mounted microwave unit before and after filling. While promising and, in the case of the microwave method, potentially effective in extreme cold, these approaches require further research before becoming widely used in winter and spring repairs.

GNP-modified mixes also warrant further study, especially in winter mixes. If MnDOT can encourage cost tracking, analysis of the cost-effectiveness of various pothole repair methods, including the mastic tested in this research, may become possible.

This research is part of a larger effort by MnDOT to improve pothole repair approaches and develop pothole repair guidance for crews throughout the state, including a recently released asphalt patching best practices guide with decision trees.

This post pertains to the Report 2018-14, “Pothole Prevention and Innovative Repair,” published April 2018. Part of this story was adapted from a June 2018 article by the Center for Transportation Studies. Further information is available on the project page and technical summary.

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