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New 'asphalt recycler' ready to fill Missoula's potholes

04/29/2014

If another pothole outbreak descends on Missoula, the city now has a way to attack it.

On Friday, with city officials, Mayor John Engen and a couple of city council members on hand, the city streets superintendent fired up a brand-new "asphalt recycler" designed to warm old millings into pothole patches. In went a bucket of dry crumbs, out came steaming asphalt.

"We could have used this last year, huh?" said chief administrative officer Bruce Bender as a worker shoveled and spread the material on a truck.

Last year, potholes popped open all over city streets - and some roads, including large portions of South Avenue and Russell Street, were nearly impassable. Drivers and passengers got knocked about, and the city saw claim after claim get filed for damages.

The warming and cooling weather meant pothole patches didn't work for long, and with asphalt in short supply so early in the season, the fixes weren't coming fast enough. Streets superintendent Brian Hensel went on the hunt for a solution, and he borrowed a machine from Bozeman. It worked so well the Missoula City Council spent $188,826 to buy one for the Garden City.

The machine, a PT3000 asphalt recycler, shoots fire into a giant rotating vessel that sits inside a big metal bin on a trailer. Workers use another piece of machinery to dump a claw full of millings and "rejuvenating" liquid into the bin, the fire heats it all up, and when it's good and cooked, the machine drops the steaming pile of asphalt into the scoop on a small loader.

The loader dumps asphalt onto the bed of another truck, and the truck heads off to the pothole fields. The city patches potholes all year round, and now, it doesn't have to rely on asphalt plants for supply. Instead, it can recycle its own asphalt, chunks that come off old roads and used to go to the landfill.

"We can patch potholes in the middle of the night now if we need to," Hensel said.

***

Public Works director Steve King said the estimated cost savings is $10,000 to $15,000 a year because the city won't have to buy some supplies: "Hopefully, it will pay for itself in a few years."

When the flames lit up, he had an idea the machine could do another job, too.

"Any marshmallows?" King said.

Diesel fuel powers it, and as the recycler hummed, Councilman Ed Childers noted the emissions. He wondered about the effects of the smoke, but said the city must do something about the pothole problem.

Councilwoman Caitlin Copple agreed, and said potholes are one of the most persistent complaints from citizens. In particular, she appreciated the fact that the city will be able to recycle old streets instead of dumping pieces into the landfill, and she was glad for a front row seat at the demonstration.

"It's just cool. Any excuse to look at the big machinery," Copple said.

Superintendent Hensel said the emissions are low, but the output of hot asphalt is high. He estimated it can crank out three tons an hour, and he also said the city will be able to sell to private contractors to help make up the cost of the purchase. On an average day of patching potholes, the city uses six to eight tons of material; last year, when the potholes were bad, it used 30 to 40 tons a day, Hensel said.

The machine is movable, but Friday it operated at the city shops site off Scott Street. Missoula Fire Department Chief Jason Diehl looked on and said the new purchase may come in handy for him. Diehl oversees five fire stations with parking lots, and if potholes break open, he said he'll call in city crews.

"It's just good to know if we need to patch 'em up, that this is available," he said.

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