It looks like this country is embarking on an all-out push to reduce air pollution and explore alternatives to fossil fuel-based energy sources.

As practitioners, you probably run into people who are anti-asphalt with respect to the environment. They often perceive asphalt as dangerous, produced in smoke-belching plants, then smeared over the landscape to decay into the water table and contaminate our aquifers. Nice.

We know, of course, that over the years, the asphalt industry has been a leader in controlling emissions – who remembers back in 2002, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed asphalt plants as major sources of air quality polluters from its list after years of study. Even ancient peoples knew that asphalt was impermeable to water, safe enough to build reservoirs for drinking water. They used it to caulk their wooden ships to make them watertight.

And we all know asphalt is the number one recycled product in the U.S.

So we are already leaders in environmental, green activities. Yet, each citizen is called to do still more.

Recycle ImageCertainly, consider that asphalt is a fossil fuel derived from oil. If by some outrageous, totally unlikely turn of events, someone were to ban the further use of all oil, that would shut us all down. While we can count on that scenario not unfolding, we still need to face the facts that oil and its asphalt are a finite resource that may not last forever. For quite some time, synthetic engine oils have proved themselves to be effective, even better in some cases than natural oil products. Who knows, perhaps in 50 or 500 years, we will be paving with molasses or school glue!

Indeed, on March 19, 2002, U.S. patent number 6358621 was awarded to an inventor of a synthetic asphalt product made of resins, polymers and plasticizer. While it is important to ponder the future of the industry, it is vital to consider what to do when you get to the office tomorrow.

Key efficiencies for tomorrow

How can an inherent fossil fuel user cut back on the use of fossil fuels? Start with baby steps. You own trucks and equipment that run on fossil fuels. You already know the checklist to increase fuel efficiency – drive sensibly, remove excess weight, avoid excessive idling, use overdrive gears and so on. And, for the vehicle itself, change the oil, keep all fluids clean and at recommended levels, keep filters clean, replace cracked hoses, align the vehicle and so on. Don’t forget to maintain politically correct tire pressures.

We know all these things, but do we always do all these things? Do you ever find yourself absent-mindedly accelerating toward a red light instead of coasting? Out of habit, do you change the oil every 3,000 miles – when many vehicles now tolerate higher mileages between changes?

Certainly gasoline and diesel fuel prices over the past year have been a jolt to the system, increasing awareness about taking good care of equipment, using it sparingly and thinking more about making fewer trips.

Macro efficiencies

Another efficiency is to look into the advantages of warm mix paving. Paving at 250 or 300 degrees significantly cut fuel consumption and decrease the emission of greenhouse gases – up to 30 percent in some cases.

Warm mix also has the potential to extend your paving season, even to broaden your market area, as it can be hauled longer distances. Where hot mix must be rolled at around 280 degrees, a warm mix, modified with latex or emulsions, for example can still be worked at temperatures as low as 220 degrees. A dense-graded thin-lift mix using a high RAP content can restore an asphalt surface for as long as 10 years.

Infrared technology is another area to explore for its economic and environmental advantages. There is no more efficient way to repair asphalt than to recycle in place, reducing haul costs altogether.

Still another efficiency to explore is to keep your eye on computer software developments. There is asphalt-specific software that not only runs many of your office and administrative functions from payroll and bidding, as well as mix design, thickness design, rolling patterns, striping design and so on. Estimating software helps assure you don’t make expensive mistakes in the bidding process. Computerized scales help prevent wasted material. Inventory management software can help assure you don’t run out of aggregate or maintain too much on hand.

There is no question the asphalt industry faces a host of challenges and trade-offs in the years to come. As oil supplies continue to dwindle, there will be uncertainties in the raw materials markets. Advances in refinement technology continue to extract more gasoline from a gallon of oil, leaving less asphalt available, and certain to continue to drive up material costs. As people drive less, tax revenues may drop, and they are the major source of funding for the industry. Traffic volume has been declining all year. As global warming continues, there is the potential threat for damage to roads and bridges, especially near coastlines.

The savvy asphalt business owner must keep an eye on these trends. In some cases, outstanding opportunities may become available for those stay on their toes and stay up-to-date, flexible and open to new ideas. Increasing sales is only one way to expand your business; adding new services and technologies is another viable way to grow.

There is no question that the more efficient asphalt operations will be the ones that survive and thrive over the next few years.