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County adds new weapon to pothole-repair arsenal
Asphalt composite using old tires now part of the mix

Monday, March 26, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Jon Hilkevitch

Despite this month's record-setting warm weather, pothole crews in the Chicago area are still mostly limited to using marginally effective cold-patch mixtures to repair roads until the hot-asphalt plants open for the construction season.

But there is one exception. The Cook County Highway Department is experimenting with a new technology that brings a small hot-asphalt factory directly to potholes onboard a specialized truck. Mini-batches of steaming hot pavement filler are mixed on the spot and poured into the holes.

County crews were out last week on a badly potholed stretch of Kedzie Avenue in south suburban Robbins putting the technology, which is called PelletPATCH and uses recycled tires, to the test.

"In the long run, we are hoping to save on labor costs because you won't have to go back repeatedly to fill the same potholes," Dave Sekula, acting supervisor in the Highway Department's District 5, said while overseeing a crew of four road repairmen, one laborer and one heavy equipment operator.

Officials are hopeful that PelletPATCH produces better density and bonding than the cold patches traditionally used in winter and that it will improve the chances the fixes won't pop out when vehicles pass over them.

The results of the county's approximately $47,000 pilot project won't be known until it's seen how well the repairs hold up over the summer and next winter, Cook County Highway Superintendent John Yonan said.

"This product has been demonstrated so far in areas of the country which don't have the same climate as Chicago," Yonan said. "But we are very happy to give it a shot. We're pleased with the results so far."

PelletPATCH is more expensive than regular hot or cold asphalt, and it wouldn't be cost-effective to use on a countywide basis, Yonan said. But if it eliminates the need for crews to return to the same potholes repeatedly over a short period, the technology could become part of the arsenal against road craters, he said.

PelletPATCH's environmentally friendly characteristics are attractive, too, officials said. About 10 percent of the mixture contains rubber pellets made from recycled tires. The rubberized patch is flexible and less susceptible to cracking, according to the manufacturer, Las Vegas-based Phoenix Industries and its local business partner, CALCommTechnology Solutions of Buffalo Grove.

The old tires are processed into crumb rubber, which is blended with an asphalt composite to produce asphalt rubber, and hydrated lime is added, Phoenix Industries said.

"There are 300 million waste tires available each year in the United States," said Allan Olbur, of CALComm. "We are helping to get rid of some of the tires in terms of a long-lasting process that puts the tires back into the roads. Our pilot project with Cook County is aimed at trying to see whether this can become a useful product on a regular basis."

The city of Chicago last year tested a different pothole-repair technology, machines called "pothole killers," but city officials have no immediate plans to bring them back. The truck-mounted pothole killers are outfitted with a telescopic arm that clears debris and moisture from potholes and fills them with an asphalt patch.

The process is supposed to take a minute or less per pothole, and the machines are operated by one or two workers, instead of a larger crew.

But a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Tribune revealed that the devices, which are officially called the PK 2000 machines, are prone to breaking down and they are expensive to operate.

The test of the PK 2000 showed it was more expensive to operate on a per-ton basis than the traditional method of filling potholes with hot material, yet lower than the use of cold material, according to an analysis by the Chicago Department of Transportation.

"There were issues with maintenance. During the test, the materials-dispensing equipment would clog up and jam, and it would take some time to get it back working again," CDOT spokesman Pete Scales said.

In addition, the machines were out of service for 18 days during the test period, Aug. 15 through Oct. 28, 2011, Scales said.

"We don't see a need to bring back the machines this year because we have done a good job eliminating the pothole backlog," Scales said. "We would consider using them again as a supplement to other tools if we were to have a really bad winter and we fell behind the pothole problem."

Because of the mild winter of 2011-12, CDOT crews that would be on pothole duty this month have already begun street and alley resurfacing work, officials said. The switch from pothole repair to resurfacing would usually occur in May, officials said.

CDOT crews filled more than 600,000 potholes in 2011, up from about 450,000 in 2010. They've filled more than 145,000 potholes in 2012, officials said.

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