From highways to bridges and other structures, concrete, cement, and asphalt are some of the most ubiquitous building materials around. Each of the three has its own unique properties, advantages, and disadvantages depending on the intended use.
The choice of concrete, cement, or asphalt all depends on the task at hand and the desired outcome. One isn’t necessarily an overall better choice than the others, since they each have their strengths and weaknesses, making them individually ideal for different projects.
If you’re contemplating a new project, such as a new driveway, outdoor patio, or a walking path, and you’re debating which of the three materials to use… read on as we’ll be taking a more detailed look at these three materials.
How Are Concrete, Cement, and Asphalt Different?
Before we can get into how to use concrete, asphalt, and cement, let’s dig a little deeper into what they are, individually. Understanding the components of each and how they’re used will help later to figure out which one you’ll want to use.
Concrete has long been one of the most, if not the most, dependable building materials on the face of the earth. While various forms of concrete have been used for centuries, the quality of concrete that we see used today was developed in the 1800s. It’s been around for so long that it’s easy to see why it’s so trusted.
How It’s Made
Even though concrete resembles stone in its appearance, it’s very much a man-made material. Concrete is the perfect mix of ingredients, and in varying amounts:
- Binding material
It can be used for its strength or looks, depending on what you’re after. The proportions used are all contingent upon what the final product will be.
The most often used binder in concrete is cement. Lime comes in a close second. This is the foundation of the concrete.
Again, depending on the final outcome, there are a few options for what to use here, depending on how the concrete should look in the end, as well as the strength needed. Aggregate is basically combining lots of smaller particles to create a larger piece, which is exactly what these materials are doing in the concrete. Traditional choices include:
- Crushed stone
Water is the life of the concrete mix. Without water, it’s really just a bunch of rocks. Adding water allows all of the other elements to mix together until the concrete is the desired consistency. Thinner concrete will use more water but will be less strong. Thicker concrete will use less water and will be sturdier.
There are all kinds of things that can be mixed into concrete to give it different qualities. Some help the concrete dry quicker, while others can give it the ability to drain better when wet. Here are some of the ones that are used most frequently:
- Slow-setting admixtures
- Shrinkage reducing
Cement alone isn’t an effective building material, or anything really. It’s another example of just sediment. But, when mixed with other things, it can be one of the strongest building materials. Cement, as we’ve briefly touched on, is one of the key ingredients in concrete.
How It’s Made
Cement is made from lime and clay in their powdered form. Cement, as we know, is a binding agent, so it clings to other elements and causes them to stick together. Cement comes in two types: hydraulic and non-hydraulic.
This cement doesn’t dry and adhere on its own; rather, the drying is a result of a chemical reaction. When the dry ingredients get together with water, they harden. Because this type of cement is reliant on a chemical reaction, it can set in different kinds of weather.
Non-hydraulic cement is really just the opposite of hydraulic. It dries naturally, without the help of a chemical reaction. Because it does dry naturally, however, it can’t be done in wet or damp conditions. Pouring non-hydraulic cement right before it rains is definitely a no-no.
This building material is most often used in road construction. It’s actually a form of concrete. You’re most likely picturing it in its common form, a dark and thick liquid, known for its viscosity. Asphalt is sticky in its liquid form but then hardens to become another solid building material.
How It’s Made
Asphalt does occur naturally and can be harvested from the earth. In Trinidad, Pitch Lake houses the largest deposit of asphalt. However, asphalt can also be made as a byproduct of petroleum. When asphalt is combined with aggregates, it is heated and then poured.
If you’ve ever been lucky (or unlucky) enough to witness a street being paved, you might be familiar with what this looks like and smells like. The smell is not pleasant, but definitely unmistakable. Once the boiling liquid is created, it’s distributed, where it’s later poured. Other materials such as gravel or sand can be added to the asphalt as it’s drying, creating the desired surface.
Why Use Concrete, Cement, or Asphalt?
Now that we know what we’re working with, and how each of these materials is made, we can get down to the nitty-gritty. The specifics of why concrete, cement, and asphalt are used. What makes each one of these ideal for certain projects, and less for others.
Why Choose Concrete?
There are all kinds of different concretes available for use. Whether you’re a contractor or a DIYer, there’s a type
Types of Concrete
There are many different concretes available, however, we’re going to focus primarily on the ones that are most frequently used. These are the types of concrete that you’re most likely to use or encounter.
This option shows up, literally, at your door, ready to go. Concrete is mixed according to the project, and the customer’s needs then brought to the construction site and poured.
Although ready-mix concrete sounds like it might be the best choice for a DIY job, be warned. There is a lot of room for error if you’re not exactly sure what needs to be added to the concrete when it’s mixed. And, not knowing could cause a majorly botched job.
One obstacle that can cause a challenge with ready mix concrete is that it’s ready to go, like right away. It needs to be used quickly, or else it will start curing and hardening. If a job site is more than three hours away, or won’t be used in that time frame, then ready mix is not your best option.
This particular kind of concrete remedies the issue of the concrete hardening before it’s ready to be poured. With a little science and the help of a super special truck, this concrete is able to maintain the perfect combination of temperature and moisture, long enough that it will remain liquid until poured.
Volumetric concrete is used when there are multiple sites involved in the project. It’s also used frequently in making basements. Not surprisingly, any projects that are larger and will require more concrete and a longer time frame will also usually use volumetric concrete.
If you’re on the opposite of the time frame mentioned above, and time is of the essence, then a rapid set concrete is the best option. Just like the name says, this concrete will set quickly.
Rapid set concretes are perfect for jobs that have concrete as the first step in completion since the rest of the project can’t be started until the concrete is installed and dried.
Concrete is also fairly temperature-sensitive, especially in the pouring and curing phases. Rapid set concrete is rather resilient in colder temperatures, so it works well for patios and other outdoor areas that are likely to be exposed to cold winters.
If strength is one of the main priorities, such as with bridges or ceiling construction, then reinforced concrete is where it’s at. This is the muscles behind the operation. The strength comes from steel, in the form of:
- Other fibers
Once the concrete has one of these added, it’s able to withstand additional compression and tensile stresses. Steel plus concrete equals strength.
Like other concretes, the main elements are water and some sort of crushed stone. But, polymer concrete is actually very different. Polymer concretes harden and cure with the help of an epoxy. Most commonly used for polymer concretes are:
- Vinyl ester
- Polymer resin
The various epoxies used give the polymer concrete different amounts of strength. However, as a whole, polymer concrete is very durable. But just because it’s stronger doesn’t make it the best option for any job or project. Polymer concrete is not only one of the more expensive options, but it’s also fairly dangerous due to the chemicals used.
Polymer concrete is used most often in construction when it’s necessary to create a joint that merges two pieces. The chemicals used also make it ideal for resisting corrosion from temperature changes, and shrinking as it cures.
In many home improvement projects that call for concrete, decorative is the path most taken. Decorative concrete comes in so many forms and can be used in so many applications. There’s a color and texture of decorative concrete that will fit into any project.
Different elements are mixed in with the concrete, so it really can take on any aesthetic it needs to. In addition to adding things to the mix, it’s also easy to add something on top of the concrete as it’s drying, changing its appearance. Here are a few ways that decorative concrete can be adapted to fit in any project:
- Coloring from stains and tints
- Adding texture from various elements (such as pebbles)
- Molding concrete to take different shapes
- Polishing set concrete for overall smoothness and shine
- Embossing or stamping before concrete dries
- Embedding items
Decorative concrete is used for all kinds of different projects. But, here are some of the places that you might have seen it used:
- Swimming pools
- Flooring tiles
- Outdoor decor
Why Choose Cement?
Cement is different from concrete, as we know, because, on its own, it’s not a building material. By itself, cement can be used to construct anything. But, it’s a very important ingredient in how other things are created.
The powdered material we know as cement is ground clay or limestone, as we noted earlier. In addition to these two ingredients, cement can also be made from grinding:
- Silica sand
Along with the powder from any of the above, and sometimes a combination of one or more, iron ore is added to make cement. Together, these ingredients are heated to an incredibly high temperature, just above 2,500 degrees (F). That’s too hot to even imagine.
The result is known as a “clinker.” Once this has cooled, it’s again ground into a powder, and this is what we know as cement. This whole process is where cement gets its strength. And the strength is why it’s used in making concrete.
Why Choose Asphalt?
Asphalt is the number one choice for paving roads, as you know, from earlier. Asphalt isn’t exactly an entirely different building material than concrete; rather, it’s a type of concrete, as we previously mentioned.
The process of heating the compounds in asphalt and then pouring while it’s hot is what makes it so strong and durable. Durability is one of the main reasons why this option is so widely used for paving, as opposed to traditional concrete paving.
Just like concrete, there are a few different kinds of asphalt that are used for different applications. And, each of the types of asphalt comes with its own set of reasons for why it’s used. Here are the major players in the asphalt world.
If stormwater is a problem, then this type of pavement provides the solution. As the name suggests, this particular form of asphalt allows for optimum water draining. And, water is managed through the construction of the asphalt, making it a fairly cost-effective method of paving as well.
Porous asphalt is also better for the environment. The pores allow this type of pavement to cool down, and not retain heat as much as others. Also, water is driven back into the water table instead of other places where runoff ends up, so it doesn’t add to water in the sewers or stormwater drains.
Stone-Matrix or Stone Mastic
This is a fairly new type of asphalt. The purpose of this asphalt is to keep roads that are frequently traveled, well-paved, and in need of less repair. This is achieved through mixing course asphalt with stabilizing agents.
The coarse stones, as opposed to finely milled powder, is why it’s called stone matrix asphalt. The result is a road that’s traveled often, without developing extensive rutting. And, if you’ve ever felt your car dip into a rut while you’re driving, you know just why this is dangerous and should be avoided.
But, SMA, as this asphalt is commonly referred to, gets bonus points for doubling as a noise reducer. Sounds from traffic can be quite a nuisance, which is why noise reduction is great, no matter where it comes from. So, SMA is not only used for its durability, but also gives urban streets, airplane runways, and racetracks the chance of being a little quieter.
Layers of asphalt are used in this kind of asphalt technique, which makes the road smooth and long-lasting. Together, these make for a safe road. Each layer, for the most part, has a different role to play in creating the road.
There’s flexibility and strength, along with crack prevention and a layer to maintain structural integrity. When done properly, this kind of paving will require little maintenance. Hence the name, perpetual pavement.
A thin layer of asphalt over the top is a newer idea in asphalt technology, but effective, nevertheless. Regular asphalt, along with recycled asphalt materials, is mixed together to create an overlay.
The top layer can help preserve the existing asphalt, and if needed, make repairing the surface easier and less of a challenge. As long as the asphalt pavement underneath is properly installed and maintained, then the idea is that the layer on top can preserve the integrity.
While there’s still a lot to be learned about the type of asphalt, there are some big-name companies that are putting a lot of effort into developing the products. This is slowly becoming more and more used in asphalt paving.
Paving: Concrete vs. Asphalt: What’s the Difference?
We’ve gone into detail about what concrete, cement, and asphalt. What they are individually, how they work together, and what they’re used for. Another key piece of the pavement puzzle is how these are different.
We know that cement isn’t effective on its own, so we’ll put that one aside for now. This next chat will be just for concrete and asphalt, the two most common forms of paving.
Knowing how these two differ can be a determining factor in which pavement option to use. Or, if you’re trying to identify an existing pavement, the differences between the two can help you figure out what you’re working with
Variety of Appearance
Concrete has a lot of options, as we know, from just a few common ones we discussed above. And again, those are just a few of the choices. Within each of these types of concretes, each one looks different. There’s no limit as far as texture, color, and even shape when it comes to concrete.
But asphalt is quite the opposite, as far as appearance goes. Because of the materials used to make asphalt, along with the actual process of making asphalt, the aesthetic outcome is pretty limited. This is why we often hear asphalt referred to as blacktop. It’s usually black, or gray.
There’s quite a price difference when it comes to asphalt paving vs. concrete paving. Asphalt is far less expensive than concrete. This is due to the ease of installation and availability of materials.
There are also so many different ways that concrete can be used, as we know, so that really affects how much the overall cost will be. Each variation of concrete has different installation and maintenance requirements, and some require professionals.
Overall, asphalt is nearly 40% less expensive, on average, making it a much more affordable option than concrete.
Exposure to Extreme Temps
Both concrete and asphalt have their climate preferences. Depending on where you live, this could help determine the choice of which pavement to go with. However, the wrong choice could end up costing you in the long run, with more repairs and maintenance being necessary.
Asphalt is Not Good in Heat
If you live somewhere that heats up a lot during the summer, you’ve probably experienced hot asphalt at some point. It’s something you don’t forget… the smell or the sight of the heat
Not only does it make the surface undesirable for any kind of life when it’s hot, but the structural integrity is also compromised by heat. Asphalt is a flexible material. However, as it grows hotter, the flexibility increases. When it cools and hardens, the asphalt is likely to crack and crumble.
Concrete is Not Good in Cold
Even though concrete can withstand extreme heat, it’s very sensitive to the cold temperatures—especially frequent, consistent exposure. Places with extra chilly winters can just expect that roads and sidewalks, as well as any other concrete paved surface, will experience some sort of damage during the colder months.
And, we’re talking about just the damage that comes from the coldness. Add in the fact that most places that have really cold winters also experience a lot of snow. Snow means freezing, and the use of ice melting agents, which can also wreak havoc on concrete.
Temperature damage to concrete can come in many forms, but cracking is the most common. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that any paved roads you drive on during the winter months could have potholes lurking, not to mention small imperfections that can turn into giant nooks and crannies, and any of these can cause damage to a car or vehicle.
Asphalt and concrete both require upkeep and maintenance. However, asphalt is the least needy of the two. Once the asphalt has been fully cured, it will need to be sealed. And, sealed again, every few years. This is fairly simple to do and protects the asphalt surface.
Concrete, on the other hand, doesn’t require sealing. Although sealing can be done to assist concrete from fading, it doesn’t offer much more protection than that. Concrete is especially susceptible to staining, so it actually requires a lot of cleaning in the event that it does have an oil or grease stain.
Asphalt is much easier to keep “clean” and free of dark stains. It’s not stain-resistant, so to speak, but it does hide stains and imperfections better, thanks to its darker coloring.
Ease of Repair
Asphalt is much easier to repair than concrete, and a lot of the time, it’s a pretty simple DIY job. There are so few variations and a little more room for error with asphalt. The color is easy to blend since it doesn’t have a color. Not to mention, if there is a mistake, it’s hidden by the darkness of the asphalt itself.
Anything that’s been paved should last upwards of twenty years. That’s if there was a level surface, and proper subsurface was done before the paving. And even if those two are present, then the installation of the asphalt or concrete itself has to be done properly.
If all of that’s in place, leaving out any environmental factors such as extreme water damage or temperatures, concrete pavement usually will outlast asphalt by about ten years. Concrete will last, on average, about 30 to 40 years. Asphalt, on the other hand, tops out between 20 to 30 years.
Keep in mind – this doesn’t take into consideration any additional wear and tear that isn’t of regular circumstance. Severe weather plays a major role in the strength or deterioration of each kind of pavement. This average only considers average traffic, too.
If you’re paving a surface that’s needing to be used fairly quickly, like a driveway, sidewalk, or even a playground, it’s important that it can be back in action as soon as possible.
A concrete driveway can take a week or longer before it’s fully ready for use again. This is because once it dries, concrete has to cure as well. Curing, and allowing the concrete to properly acclimate to its surroundings, is imperative to concrete’s longevity.
Asphalt, however, can be regularly used after just a couple of days. Naturally, this depends on the weather, as well as they type of use for the particular area that’s been paved. But, in most cases, asphalt is done drying much quicker than concrete and doesn’t need to be cured.
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