Advantages of Gravel Driveways

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Mar 15, 2011 | Kevin Stevens

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The street I live on is about three-quarters of a mile long, with 22 homes scattered along it. Of all of these homes, just one has a paved driveway, which was laid last year. A couple of other driveways have been improved over the native soil. A handful of these homes, like mine, are close to 30 years old, and have had this type of drive since the homes were built. A few of the newer homes have had recycled asphalt applied to reduce springtime muddiness.

The most recent tally of roads in the US has a national rate of over 67% paved. Our big city friends often go months and months without ever leaving the pavement, and millions and millions of other Americans also never see anything other than pavement roll by. Does it make sense to have a paved drive…even if your street is dirt?

Pro and Cons of Pavement

In many urban environments, pavement can cover vast expanses of land and create problems that rural folks never see. The two biggest concerns with paved surfaces are usually their cost and storm runoff. When rains come, these surfaces do not allow moisture to be absorbed and great quantities of runoff often overwhelm municipal waste water facilities, instead of absorbing into forests, lawns and gardens. Billions of dollars are spent each year to clean this water, which would otherwise be an asset. Pavement also contributes to the “heat island” effect that many cities experience during the summer months.

On the positive side, pavement provides convenience for snow plowing, reduces levels of roadside dust, and prevents excessive wear and tear on our cars and trucks. In the early days of automobiles it was not uncommon to see a team of horses pulling a car out of knee-deep mud -- something today’s motorists simply wouldn't tolerate.

Alternatives to Concrete and Asphalt

A few years ago I cleared a bunch of trees from around my home, as part of a wildfire mitigation effort. At the end of that project, I had a nice supply of firewood and a slash pile that ran the entire length of my driveway. To kill two birds with one stone, I chipped the slash and applied it to my muddy dirt drive, thinking this would keep the mud down, and make the slash disappear. The first few years after that were great - no driveway mud and a refreshing pine scent. Eventually, the wood chips composted and I had even more mud. It was time for plan B.

Last summer I applied 4 yards of road base (gravel) and then 10 yards of crusher fines (some people call this crushed stone or “breeze”) to my drive. The mud is now gone, the drive is level and smooth, and it looks good. The crusher fines cost about $50 a yard and my new driveway cost me about $600 total. I saved tons of money by picking up and applying the material myself. I shoveled each load (1/3 of a yard at a time) into buckets and brought it home in my truck.

It took all summer to improve my driveway because I would only get one or two loads per week. I combined trips down the mountain with other errands in order to make each trip efficient. Each load could be loaded and unloaded in less than an hour and, at 1100 pounds, was about right to keep me from overloading my truck and wearing myself out too much from the day’s effort. Another benefit to the crusher fines is I can do touch-up work whenever I need with a few buckets of material and a rake. The gravel I chose still allows moisture to permeate, so I do not contribute to excess runoff. 

The Costs and Benefits of Pavers

Other materials that allow water to percolate through are brick pavers, large concrete tiles, and natural stone. The gaps between these elements allow the water to percolate down and not run off. Set on packed beds of light gravel or sand, these projects are well within the skill set of any DIY enthusiast but are very labor intensive. I have seen prices for “installed paver” driveways from $10 to $60 a square foot. This style of drive tops  the list, for both cost and amount of work involved. If I had used 6” square bricks, my drive would have used over 7000 pieces -- each one laid by hand. You can see why labor costs can be so high with this type of drive.

Concrete & Asphalt Driveway Costs

If I'd utilized concrete for my drive, the cost would have exceeded $3000 for the concrete alone. Concrete delivered to my home runs about $130 per yard, plus truck time at $75 an hour. This cost varies by your specific locality. Concrete, when used for driveways, is normally 4” thick -- a bit thicker than the layer of crusher fines I used. Labor to install forms, rebar or reinforced wire grid and its installation cost, plus the labor to pour, screed, and float my drive would have put the final figure up near $5000 to $6000. That translates to basically TEN TIMES the cost of my DIY crushed rock version. Even if I'd decided to hire a handyman to help me out with the project, I still would have come out ahead.

Asphalt is cheaper than concrete, but still pricey compared to gravel or crushed stone. An oil-based product, its cost is closely tied to the price of crude oil. For an asphalt driveway to last, proper preparation is needed. This prep work can run from $.50-$1.50 a square foot. One advantage to larger drives is usually a cheaper rate per square foot. Labor and base equipment cost are pretty constant. It's not that much more work to prep 1000 square feet than 500 feet once all of the heavy machinery is transported to your site, unloaded and fired up. This is why getting an onsite estimate is valuable. In my neighborhood asphalt runs about $2-$2.50 per square foot, including the prep, so my 1800 square foot driveway would have been about $4000.

The “Greenest” Driveway

A new trend in these greener driveways is just that: Green, as in of grass. Many companies make a product comprised of a coarse plastic mesh, a grid-like structure that allows grass to grow in the open spaces. The structure of the grid disperses the weight of the vehicle so it does not damage the root structure of the grass. (Compression of the roots is why repeated driving on lawns can harm them.) Manufacturers claim that the grass will not be harmed by up to five trips a day over this surface, which for most people is well within their schedules. The cost of the grids can vary, but ballpark pricing is within the $2-$3 per square foot range. Who would have thought a few years ago that people might someday need to mow their driveways?

Updated March 7, 2018.

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