On The Surface

It is likely that many of us learned to play basketball and tennis on asphalt, with that sensation of feet baking in our shoes. With the inception of the first asphalt-paved road in 1868, and the first Converse shoe (circa 1915), the asphalt athletic surface has been a part of Americana for nearly 100 years. With this surface still prevalent in most park and recreation settings, and budget cutbacks still in effect, some basic maintenance practices, if followed, can extend its life and performance.

The Materials

Numerous sports are played on asphalt; I have even heard of tackle football leagues playing on the surface. While it’s not my choice for Saturday morning exercise, it does show the versatility of its application. What makes it such a widely used product for outdoor basketball and tennis courts is not only price, but durability. Depending on the region of the country, asphalt’s basic components are rock, sand, tar and bitumen (some producers are now adding recycled products to the mix, like rubber and glass).

“The basic components of asphalt have not changed in the last 40 years. They do change according to the source of the crude oil from which they are refined, and with global shipments of oil these days, it is hard to say what source is going to which region. That’s why asphalt is specified according to its physical properties, not its chemical properties,” says David Newcomb of the National Asphalt Pavement Association.

Rock and sand give asphalt its strength, while the liquid elements of the tar and bitumen make it flexible. Over time, quality and durability diminish when the elements draw out moisture. However, with a good maintenance plan and regular resurfacing, an asphalt athletic court may last 20 years or more.

Problems Under Foot

The three main culprits of any asphalt problem are:

· Poor design

· Improper construction

· Natural aging.

It is worth noting that not all maintenance issues are due to age. More times than not, any major work on courts within the first three years is due to poor design or faulty construction. Bad materials also may be to blame. For example, if rust spots appear, it is often due to pyrites and iron deposits getting into the surface material during installation. Good record-keeping helps identify these problems.

Contributing Factors

With any outdoor material–whether wood chips on a playground or paint for a building–the elements play a direct role in its lifespan. Just about any climatic occurrence–from a hard freeze to the sun’s UV rays–affects how asphalt ages. For example, the sun quickly bleaches out the oils in unprotected asphalt, making the surface brittle and susceptible to cracking. Any water should be drained away from the court, as standing moisture breaks down acrylic surfaces over time. Additionally, seasonal movements from freezing and thawing cycles will move rocks in the base, causing surface breaks, bird baths and holes.

Devising A Plan

While today’s asphalt is better formulated, it still requires the same maintenance it did 40 years ago. Simply making sure that leaves and pine needles do not accumulate makes a major difference in cracks forming. Leaves and other plant material can hold moisture on the surface and over time will not only stain but break down the acrylic topcoat. (Excessive organic debris on asphalt athletic courts also causes slipping hazards.)

Another way to prolong the life of asphalt is to leave snow alone, and let it melt away in the spring. Snow shovels scratch away the topcoat and create divots in the asphalt, leading to larger problems the following year.

Signage and gate locks are further proactive measures to keep courts in playable condition. It is amazing how much damage can be caused from skateboards and other activities not meant for the surface. Vandalism, ranging from skateboards to spray paint to arson, also can be avoided through these measures.

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