Tag Archives: potholes

Pothole Patching Study Yields Best Practices Guidance

Researchers identified four pothole repair methods suitable for Minnesota: cold mix, hot recycled asphalt, mastic material and mill-and-fill with hot-mix asphalt. They tracked the performance of each method at five sites in northern Minnesota for two years. Using the results from this monitoring period, researchers developed decision trees for selecting an appropriate repair method and best practices for using each method. The decision trees were developed in two formats: as a flowchart that can be used in a maintenance guide and as flash cards that can be laminated and used by maintenance crews for quick reference in the field.

“We wanted to develop a decision tree for choosing the right pothole repair method that could be laminated for use in the field,” said Susan Lodahl, Assistant State Maintenance Engineer, MnDOT Office of Maintenance.

“This project offers help deciding what kind of pothole patch is appropriate for the conditions, including the pothole dimensions, location in the roadway and the season,” said Manik Barman, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota Duluth Department of Civil Engineering.

What Was the Need?

Repairing potholes is one of the most public of road crews’ duties. Drivers notice cracks and holes, and feel the effects of short-term repairs that kick up gravel as wheels roll over patched holes.

Selecting the appropriate patching method and materials varies depending on several factors, including the size of the pothole and its location on the roadway. Patching methods and materials face seasonal challenges too. In northern Minnesota, asphalt plants shut down for the winter and don’t reopen before March, if then. Potholes that are repaired in cold weather aim for short-term fixes with patches that can be replaced when warm weather returns or when the pavement can be milled and overlaid with hot-mix asphalt (HMA). Road crews have tried applying HMA in winter using various heating systems and in-place recycling methods, but even warm weather patches only offer semipermanent repair.

Whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter, choosing the best, most cost-effective or durable pothole repair method has remained a complicated puzzle, one that MnDOT would like to help road crews solve.

What Was Our Goal?

MnDOT funded this research to help road crews choose patching methods that match specific repair conditions. Researchers explored patching tools, materials and methods to identify those most appropriate to specific pothole conditions, road locations and time of year. They also evaluated the effectiveness of different methods based on durability, road safety, ride quality, driver satisfaction and other factors.

A researcher conducts a test on a pothole
A researcher conducts an on-site permeability test to determine how well a pothole repair seals and resists water penetration.

What Did We Do?

Research began with a comprehensive literature search of pothole repair methods in Minnesota and other states. From this search, investigators identified four repair methods that best suit Minnesota: cold mix, hot recycled asphalt, mastic material and mill-and-fill with HMA.

With help from the study’s Technical Advisory Panel, researchers identified five sites in MnDOT District 1 near Duluth, Minnesota, where they oversaw 20 pothole repairs. Investigators monitored these repairs for about two years before assessing the methods and their best applications. Researchers then developed decision trees to help road crews choose the most suitable method for each repair and compiled best practices to provide further guidance.

What Did We Learn?

The best practices describe the best uses of each of the four pothole repair methods along with guidelines for preparing the pothole for repair and placing the patching materials.

Cold-mix patches should be placed only in shallow potholes with depths of 2 inches or less. Deeper potholes should be repaired in two lifts, each compacted with a handheld compactor to prevent dishing or denting when the cold mix settles.

Hot mixes using recycled materials should be avoided. The aged binder slows the heating process, and its fines inhibit the bonding of the new binder and aggregate. The new binder also doesn’t seem to rejuvenate the old, and the patches age more rapidly. When hot mix is used for pothole repair, a handheld compactor is required. Recycling mixers such as the Stepp SRM 10-120 should be used to create virgin hot patch material using asphalt oil and sand or small aggregate.

Mastic material provides a smooth driving surface but appears to dish in potholes along longitudinal cracks because the material lacks the strength to support loads. Mastic should only be used on centerline joints and longitudinal joints along shoulders, where it stays in place. It should not be used in wheel paths.

Mill-and-fill with virgin HMA, when constructed with care, can be effective in eliminating dishing and raveling at the patch-pavement interface. Sufficient tack material must be used, and trucks should not be allowed to drive on the tack. The pothole should be filled with the proper amount of HMA, and the patch must be compacted sufficiently. Failure to carefully apply mill-and-fill can lead to significant deterioration at the patch-pavement interface after about 100 days, which can contribute to additional damage in the distressed area.

Using the findings from this study, researchers developed guidelines for patching method selection, placement, compaction practices and moisture control. They also developed decision trees for selecting the appropriate repair method for conditions. The decision trees are available in two formats: as a flowchart for use in maintenance guides and as flash cards for quick reference by maintenance crews in the field. The final report includes best practices and a step-by-step pictorial guide to patching.

Simple Decision Tree for Comprehensive Field Evaluation of Asphalt Patching Techniques

What’s Next?

The decision trees and best practices developed in this study can be easily combined into a patching guide that, with laminated flash cards, can be distributed to MnDOT road crews around the state. This research could be amplified by repeating the process with more pothole repairs in other areas of Minnesota to increase data for performance evaluation and analysis of best practices.


This post pertains to Report 2017-25, “Comprehensive Field Evaluation of Asphalt Patching Methods and Development of Simple Decision Trees and a Best Practices Manual,” published June 2017. 

New videos show how frost heave ravages roads

Regardless of whether you’re familiar with the term “frost heave,” if you live in Minnesota and drive on the roads, you’re already familiar with its destructive capacity. Many of the dips, bumps, potholes and cracks that appear on our roads every spring are a direct result of frost heave, which occurs when water accumulates in the soil beneath the pavement and begins freezing and then thawing along with the changing seasons. The resulting expansion and contraction weakens the road base and leaves it susceptible to damage from traffic loading.

These new videos produced by the Local Road Research Board explain how frost heave works, and describe some of the strategies public works departments use to combat it. The top video is is the shortened, executive-summary version, while the bottom video is the full, 13-minute version meant for transportation professionals.

‘Three Ways to Cook a Pothole’

In April, we posted about an innovative pothole-filling technology being developed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the University of Minnesota, Duluth. The technique involves zapping pothole patches and the surrounding pavement with a special truck-mounted, 50,000-watt microwave. Researchers have found that heating the base and the patch material at the same time creates a stronger, longer-lasting bond that provides for a more permanent pothole fix.

Last week, the MnDOT/UMD microwave technology found its way into a new MnDOT video (above) that also explores two other experimental pothole-patching methods. One involves using a large “electric oven”-type heating element instead of a microwave. The other utilizes a new exothermic (i.e. heat-generating) asphalt mixture containing taconite from northern Minnesota mines. The video compares the potential benefits of all three of the new technologies, which the department hopes will someday lead to “more pothole-patching power for the taxpayer dollar.”

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In the news: innovative U of M and MnDOT pothole repair technology

Last night, KARE-11 News featured innovative pavement repair research sponsored by MnDOT. In a public-private partnership, Larry Zanko of the Natural Resources Research Institute at University of Minnesota Duluth connected with Krik Kjellberg’s company to microwave a mix of asphalt and magnetite in road holes, creating a long-lasting pothole fix.

The people (and machines) who fix Minnesota’s potholes

In Minnesota, with our often wildly unpredictable weather and constant freeze-thaw cycles, potholes are a fact of life. Anyone who’s climbed into a motor vehicle in the last month or so has doubtlessly encountered countless reminders of this dismal reality. Fortunately, we have a small army of public works professionals devoted to eradicating this perennial nuisance. The Minnesota Local Road Research Board recently produced this video, which nicely explains the various methods used to combat potholes in Minnesota.

Potholes form when water invades cracks in the pavement and infiltrates the soil beneath it. When that water freezes, it stretches the road surface, causing the fractures to expand. After a few cycles of freezing and thawing, the pavement begins to buckle and eventually collapses under the weight of passing traffic, creating disruptions in the road’s surface.

Road crews use a variety of methods to fill potholes. The simplest method is the “throw-and-go” procedure, in which workers simply shovel an asphalt mixture into the pothole and pack it down until the road’s surface is smooth. A related method is “throw-and-roll,” where the patch is compacted using an asphalt roller.

Other methods include:

  • “semi-permanent” patching, in which workers clear the pothole of moisture and debris and then square the edges with a pavement saw before applying the patch;
  • “spray injection,” which involves using specialized equipment to blast water and debris out of the pothole before spray-filling it with asphalt mix and finally applying a dust coat of dry aggregate on top; and
  • “slurry” or “microsurfacing” crack filling, in which a slurry of aggregate, asphalt emulsion and mineral filler is placed over a crack in the pavement and leveled off using a squeegee.

This Asphalt Pavement Maintenance Field Guide (PDF), co-funded by MnDOT and produced by CTS, provides a handy how-to guide to pothole patching and other types of pavement repairs commonly applied by public works professionals in Minnesota.

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