The high tech escape from costly pothole pitfalls

Taking a fix rather than maintain approach to caring for roads and car parks is an unacceptable liability that increases risks of personal injury and huge unplanned costs. However, RENOO explains how innovative Infrared Pothole and Tarmac Repair technology is making affordable preventative action possible.

Taking a proactive approach to the maintenance of assets lies at the heart of effective facilities management. Indeed, a strategic approach to inspections and to planning and carrying out maintenance or Planned Preventative Maintenance (PPM) over the lifecycle of a building pretty much defines best practice and is key to extending the lifespan and preserving the value of a property. And yet, for some reason this discipline is rarely extended to roads and carparks onsite. Stepping beyond the doors of even the best-kept property after a spell of cold weather will present apparent evidence of this neglect in the form of potholes.

Neglect might seem like a loaded term in this context, as potholes may appear to be as much a seasonal inevitability as autumn leaves or icy pavements. Potholes form as water that penetrates the road surface freezes, expands and then thaws to leave a cavity that then collapses. Water can enter via even tiny cracks in the surface. And even when repaired, the issue can seem frustratingly persistent as the same areas repeatedly develop further potholes. Indeed, this unwinnable game of whack a mole is one of the factors that can lead to car parks repairs being viewed as a lower priority.

However potholes are the visible scars of long-term damage and once roads get to this state you are starting to lose the battle in terms of preserving the life expectancy of your surface. Patching potholes is possible, but the weaknesses remain, as the edges of the repair then become the points of weakness that can allow water penetration – hence the tendency for further potholes to emerge in the same area in future. Ultimately, when a surface is damaged to this degree the only real way to address the problem is to resurface the area completely. Bills for such repairs can amount to tens of thousands of pounds once additional costs, such as white lining are taken into account. For larger carparks, these costs can even run to six figures. This level of unplanned expenditure will significantly exceed the budgets set aside by landlords or tenants for maintenance work.

A personal injury minefield

In many cases, there is simply no choice but to undertake repairs: Potholes are of course, much more than a visual blight, but also a pose a real risk to both vehicles and pedestrians. In the latter case, the risks of legal action should be of most concern as organisations have a Duty of Care to keep staff, visitors and passers by safe while on their premises. Recent years have seen an increase in litigation, with trips and falls the source of some of the largest compensation claims. Sectors such as retail, railways or hospitals with high levels of pedestrian traffic are particularly exposed in this respect and have to be able to demonstrate that every care has been taken to mitigate risks. It is worth noting that the penalties for being in breach of Health & Safety legislation are becoming tougher, with severe penalties being imposed not just for injuries arising from neglected potholes, but also from potential injuries.

Yet despite this clear obligation, the punitive costs of repairs means that it is still common to see car parks and private roads being left in a downward spiral of potholes, patching, and more potholes – a crumbling state that reflects badly on owners and tenants alike and ultimately impacts significantly on the overall value of the property.

So why do property owners and facilities managers take such financial and reputational risks by letting pothole damage go too far when their duty of care is so clear-cut and neglect runs counter to well-established risk assessment practices? In many respects, the key factor is the degree of disruption that even a small repair can cause, particularly in a high traffic area. For example, to carry out repairs to a single pothole in a car park will still require a large amount of working space to cut out and repair the damaged area – including space for the equipment and vans and sufficient room to keep other vehicles and the public safe from dust and debris. Repairs also require several hours before the surface is ready for use. A further factor is the relatively high cost of carrying out smaller incremental repairs, particularly as tarmac is generally sold in tonne batches. For this very reason, small pothole repairs are often fitted in by contractors after a larger job to use up remaining materials, but this use of less fresh tarmac results in lower quality repairs that are more likely to fail. It therefore seems to make some economic sense to hold off works until there’s a greater volume to do – but only if you ignore the potential liabilities from personal injury claims.

Infrared technology makes Planned Preventative Maintenance affordable

Given how potholes form from even the smallest cracks, it would make more sense to treat these proactively rather than attempting to manage the problem after the fact. After all, we accept that repairing a tiny crack in a car windshield early is the best way to avoid replacing the whole screen at a later date. Yet, the practical and economic factors described above have proven a major barrier to adopting a best practice preventative approach to repairs. However, the game has now changed thanks to the development of Infrared pothole and tarmac repair technology.

Infrared repairs are a proven innovation that is popular in the US and in other European countries but is still relatively unfamiliar in the UK as only a few service providers covering limited local areas, have made the capital investment in the technology. The solution uses an infrared heater, which emits IR waves that heats the existing tarmac so it can be seamlessly bonded with new material. The technique doesn’t require the old material to be cut out or removed at all so is considerably less disruptive in terms of dust, noise and space and far cheaper with regards to materials and waste disposal. During the process, rejuvenating oils are applied which also returns the re-used materials in the repair and the surrounding areas to a freshly made condition, which helps extend the life of the treated area. As well as producing virtually zero waste, reusing and making good the old material means that this approach is an environmentally friendly. It’s also fast: When compacted and sealed, the surface can look as good as new and be ready for use again in around half an hour.

The price, speed and convenience of Infrared repairs decisively shifts the economics of maintaining a car park and road surface and makes smaller repairs not only more affordable but also preferable from practical and aesthetic reasons. But beyond this, the seamless nature of repairs means that there’s no weak joints that will increase the possibility of further potholes. Definitely no more whack a mole.

Time for a gear change in how you care for your roads

The low awareness of the alternative and more cost effective approach enabled by Infrared means that today’s property owners and facilities managers are very much locked into a “fix rather than maintain” mindset. To adapt, evaluate the potential full costs and impact of unplanned expenditure and also assess the potential liabilities that your organisation is exposed to through personal injury risks. Quantifying these is key to making a business case for allocating a small ongoing budget for repairs. Alongside this, it is important to recalibrate policies and processes for inspections and when to take preventative action (see our Early Warning Signs advice).

Finally, it’s time to stop seeing potholes as a seasonal inevitability but rather an unacceptable risk to people, budgets, and brand reputation. Roads and carparks can be one of the most expensive assets to replace, but thanks to the improved economics of newly available technology and a viable PPM approach, there’s really no need for your business to fall down on potholes.

Preventative Early Warning Signs of Potholes

When carrying out regular pro-active checks you, or your FM provider, can quickly develop an eye for the warning signs of potholes to catch them early. This will help you save on costly reactive action later and vastly extend the life of your tarmac areas. Make sure to look for:

  • Loose material sitting on top of the surface
  • Deep line cracks opening up
  • Breakdown or wearing away of joints and/or sealing material
  • Crocodile skin appearance to surface
  • Depressions
  • Water pooling
  • Small holes due to missing material