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  The Idiots' Guide to Highways Maintenance

Copyright 2000/16, C.J.Summers

ROAD MARKING WITH WHITE THERMOPLASTIC (the process is the same for yellow thermoplastic markings)



This page relates to the application of road markings using thermoplastic material that is screeded by hand using a conventional "trolly" built for the purpose. This form of road marking is widely used but takes place mainly on small sites of newly laid road surfacing and more complicated areas of markings, especially in urban locations, where it is not possible or difficult to use a fully automated vehicle.
Also, I do not have any good photographs of fully automated processes.


white thermoplastic road marking materialThe thermoplastic is supplied in "poly" bags that will melt when put in the heating pot,
i.e. you put the whole bag into the heating pot.

The thermoplastic consists of, a light coloured aggregate (silica sand), white pigment (titanium dioxide), glass beads, and it is all held together with a thermoplastic resin

Until quite recently in the UK the thermoplastic was made to a BS 3262 generic specification that laid down a "recipe" composition of stated quality components to which the the material must comply,
and there will still be many term maintenance contracts where BS 3262 will still be the specification in force.

drop on glass beads for application to white thermoplastic road markings to achieve good retro-reflectivityGlass beads of a suitable grade / quality for the contract specification requirements are supplied in bags as shown. 

Glass beads are applied to the surface of the still hot thermoplastic to ensure the initial retro-reflectivity requirement of the road markings is achieved.

The glass bead parameters/quality can be specified if you use the appropriate specification, as can the level of retro-reflectivity.


vehicle for supporting thermoplastic road marking applicationRECIPE OR PERFORMANCE BASED SPECIFICATIONS
The new set of British Standards are based purely on "performance" testing and do not include a specification (recipe) for the thermoplastic.

However, many suppliers of thermoplastic still produce product to BS 3262 as there is still a demand for a standard, recipe based product amongst their customers.
This method of confirming quality of product still appears widely used in many countries around the world.

The thermoplastic is heated in one of the two heaters on the back of purpose built vehicle, when molten it is transferred to the holding tank on the "trolly" which is heated to maintain the thermoplastic in a molten condition.
Many clients / specifiers still include a requirement for a basic specification for the formulation of road marking thermoplastic, and usually achieve this in one of two ways.
1) Include the BS 3262 formulation for thermoplastic, often without reference to BS 3262, as it is now withdrawn, although still widely quoted.

2) Specify a road marking thermoplastic to the current basic AASHTO formulation which is more or less accepted world wide, and is a stronger worded document than BS 3262.

Links to :-

Thermoplastic Road Markings to BS 3262, (Recipe & Performance Criteria)
Previous "recipe" specifying method, still used in some countries.

Thermoplastic Road Markings to BS EN Specifications, (Performance only Criteria)
Current "official" method of specifying in the UK.

A Table/List of Specifications/Information/Reports Related to Road Markings and White Lines


I try to refer to as few commercial sites as possible in compiling my site,
but when a site offers particularly useful information about a subject I make an exception.

To obtain more information on the properties of road marking thermoplastic, press ------> HERE

The items to the left are examples of of the materials used to produce good quality thermoplastic road markings that are durable and exhibit good retro-reflectivity, other good quality materials capable of producing road markings of various standards appropriate to the site where they are laid.

Note that these two particular products give full information of the material that they contain, or with some products should contain.

But as sampling and testing of these materials is not now required, although there is nothing to prevent you doing it, you never really know the quality of the products, but depend upon the finished performance of the road marking.

However the performance of the laid road marking  is very rarely tested because of the cost of traffic management to perform the testing safely, usually the cost of the traffic management dwarfs the cost of the actual testing, which with the improvement and lower cost of the retrometers tends to be coming down.

My opinion, for what it is worth, is that we should still be sampling and testing the materials used in the road marking process. This is because you will keep all suppliers on a level playing field, and those suppliers supplying good quality product will be supported, and those supplying out of specification materials will not be paid.
But of course you cannot implement this testing when you no longer have a BS Standard for materials to comply with, as with BS 3262, and the laboratory back up to be able to perform the required tests.
But there is nothing to stop an authority including such a specification in their contract document. It would be interesting to see which companies claimed this was a restriction on trade, rather than just comply with the specification.


An example of a typical well equipped "road marking lorry", click to enlarge.All the materials and equipment for producing and laying thermoplastic road markings is usually contained on a single purpose fitted out vehicle, as shown on the left.
Discharging hot termoplastic road marking material and transferring it to the "trolly", click to enlarge.The careful heating of the thermoplastic is critical as it needs to be hot enough to allow the operator to correctly screed a smooth unbroken line of the correct thickness on to the road surface.
You will see from the images above that most well equipped road marking vehicles will have two "melting pots". One of which will be up to temperature supplying correctly heated thermoplastic to the operator, and a second pot which is in the process of heating up, thus allowing a fairly continuous flow of work.
An example of typical road marking work on a local highway network, click to enlarge.PRODUCING QUALITY ROAD MARKINGS

Most thermoplastic road markings on local authority highway networks will be applied in the manner described on this page.
Providing it is performed correctly, with good quality materials it is a highly successful and proven process.

However I will make the comment that the bidding for local authority road marking contracts, and subsequent sub-contracting is very competitive, little testing of these road markings takes place, and it is my opinion that the standard of the finished road marking generally is not what it should be.

But standards of the road marking will vary throughout the UK according to contractor and the vigilance of the Engineer, whether working directly for the local authority or the consulting engineer / contractor who is contracted to undertake, and be responsible for, the highways maintenance work of the employing authority.
Applying thermoplastic road markings, click to enlarge.The Road Marking "Trolley" and its Operation

The apparatus in the photograph may seem rather basic, but let me assure you that this machine, in the hands of a skilled operator, will produce excellent road markings that will comply with most contract documents.
That is, providing a well formulated thermoplastic material has been used at the correct temperature, and the correct amount of good quality glass beads have been applied to the still molten surface.

This equipment is used for the bulk of thermoplastic road marking for local authority networks, because it is relatively cheap, basic in function and robust, i.e. nothing complicated to go wrong, and it is easy to maintain.

The "trolly" actually in the process of screeding line on to the road, click to enlarge.This procedure, correctly performed, will ensure a durable marking that has good initial retro-reflectivity which should be retained during the life of the line as the traffic slowly abrades the line surface exposing the glass beads incorporated in the thermoplastic mixture.
It really is not that difficult to produce good quality road markings providing the contractor uses good thermoplastic product, well maintained machinery and correctly trained operators.

The factor that is outside the control of everybody is the weather, but if the weather is unsuitable then road marking should not be taking place.
The hopper at the back contains the glass beads.

The glass beads are discharged from the hopper on to a flat plate that spreads the beads to the width of the line.

The flow of beads is adjusted to a rate to achieve the initial retro-reflectivity requirement stated in the contract document.
It is not uncommon to state a rate of beads as 70% of the amount that would be required to achieve shoulder to shoulder cover when tested in the laboratory.
But less than this amount may achieve the required retro-reflectivity stated in a performance based specification.
The element that is critical is that the glass beads must be applied to the surface of the screeded thermoplastic while it is still in a molten state to ensure that the beads will form a firm bond with the thermoplastic.

There are various "coatings" that can be applied to the glass beads in manufacture to improve the bonding process.

The thermoplastic flows on to the road surface and is spread to the required width and depth by a small screed plate.

It is the skill of the operator pushing the "trolly" at the correct speed according to the heat and viscosity of the thermoplastic that will achieve a consistent road marking of the required width and thickness.

It is also necessary to point out that the nature of the road marking industry in the UK is such that the majority of operators are often self employed working "on contract", almost a franchise arrangement, to the main company.
This results in the situation that the more "line" they lay with provided equipment and product, in a minimum time, the more money they will earn.

Therefore, and I repeat myself, as I have given this advice in many forms, in many aspects of the highways maintenance industry, unless the "authority" / managing Engineer has some on site supervision and some random testing regime that they enforce, i.e. do not pay for road markings that fail to meet the specified standard,  you will not be supporting the contractors who make the effort to provide good quality road marking as specified in the contract document.
If you do not support the contractors / suppliers who offer the better product and workmanship, they will revert to the general standard in the industry, they have no incentive not to do so, and this will bring about a general decline in road marking standards, which in my opinion, is already happening.

This is not just my opinion, many comments have been made recently by a number of respected highways maintenance engineers that the quality of roads markings in the UK is falling because of the lack of maintenance of markings and a decline in the standard and durability of the new markings.

I am one who believes that good quality road markings contribute a great deal to safety on local highway networks, providing the motorist with much visual assistance, especially at night.
However I expect them to be durable and I expect them to be able to be seen at night, it is not rocket science.


Thermoplastic road marking being laid and glass beads being applied, click to enlarge.Yes, the glass bead hopper is a bit "bashed about", but it is still functioning and if you look really close, especially in the enlarged image you can see the the glass beads being spread on to the molten, newly laid, thermoplastic road marking.

If you are able to conduct the retro-reflectivity testing at the time the road marking takes place, perhaps on a random basis, you will save on traffic management costs and be able to inform the contractor of the quality of the road markings he is, or is not, producing.
The random nature of the testing will mean that the contractor will not know if you will be turning up or not, and they are likely to make sure all markings are of the required standard.

To obtain more information about road markings, when using the recently introduced performance based specifications, press -----> HERE

The often required minimum retro-reflectivity of a road marking is 100mcd/m/lux on new work. I believe this is aiming rather low as it is not particularly difficult to obtain 200mcd/m/lux from most good contractors with their premium thermoplastic formulation and appropriate application of good quality glass beads.
A road marking of 200mcd/m/lux has a distinct  "brightness" that is quite noticeable.
Be aware that any road marking will have a lower retro-reflectivity in wet conditions, and there are specially formulated thermoplastic mixtures and increased sized glass beads that will improve performance in known "wet" areas and difficult road conditions.

Testing thermoplastic road markings for retro-reflectivity, click to enlarge.It is not difficult to test the retro-reflectivity of a laid line, as the cost of the testing apparatus, a retrometer, is not that expensive, and their reliability is much improved compared to earlier models.

The difficulty and cost of the traffic management can be the main factor when conducting performance tests on laid road markings.

Retro-reflectivity testing of newly laid thermoplastic road markings with surface applied glass beads, being performed at the time of laying to avoid traffic management costs.
A retrometer for testing the retro-reflectivity of road markings, click to enlarge.An example of a retrometer for testing the retro-reflectivity of road markings, other makes are available, and the models now available are much improved in accuracy, reliability and ease of use to early models.

They can also be easily calibrated by performing tests on a reference panel supplied with the apparatus.

You can see that you do not need a lot of equipment, and it is likely that the gang will already be carrying it for other uses.
Just use the correct amount of heat, i.e. just enough to make the thermoplastic molten, so that it will bond with the road surface, and that is all.

Preformed thermoplastic road markings, pre heating the road surface.It is possible to purchase reformed thermoplastic road markings in one metre strips as shown here, it is also possible to buy it in "rolls" of longer length, but the principle is the same as shown here.
The principle being is that they are thermoplastic, so carefully applied heat to the road surface and the preformed road marking will bond it to the road surface without damaging the thermoplastic.

Preheating the road surface to which the preformed thermoplastic road marking is to be applied.

Applying preformed road marking to preheated road surface.Removing the preformed line from the backing paper and applying it to the preheated road surface.

The process is fairly self explanatory if you follow the photographs. I must add that there is only so many people about is because this was a demonstration of the product.

The procedure could quite easily be carried out by a small patching gang after laying the patch or by an "emergency gang" / "highway patrol gang" that most local highway authorities possess.

Heating to preformed thermoplastic road marking until it is molten and bonds with the road surface.Carefully heating the applied preformed thermoplastic road marking until it is molten thus ensuring a complete bond with the road surface.
The applied preformed road marking
Heating applied preformed thermoplastic road marking.The process being repeated to achieve an unbroken continuation of the double yellow line system.
Finished appearance of applied thermoplastic road markings.The job not yet complete but showing the general appearance of the reinstated yellow road markings.


Road marking removal using a "thermic lance".Small areas of thermoplastic road markings can be removed using a "thermic lance", I am sure it has a correct name but I do not know it, it is usually referred to as a thermic lance.
I believe it uses a combination of propane and compressed air. It removes the line by vaporising it and produces a "stream" of tiny molten droplets so you do not want to use this process in close proximity to stationary vehicles or properties.
Thermoplastic road marking removal using a "thermic lance". It is also very noisy.
But it is a relatively inexpensive process that does not require a lot of bulky equipment and therefore is very useful for removing small areas of road marking.


High pressure water road marking removal, click to enlarge.Large areas / lengths of road that need to have thermoplastic road markings removed are usually treated with a high pressure water treatment. These pictures are of one such process.

There are other "scabbling" processes for similar large areas of road marking removal, but I have no experience of these processes.

To the left is the lorry that carries all the equipment, i.e. the small work unit, the clean water, the high pressure pump and the holding tank for all the removed road markings and the water used in the procedure.
The aluminium side to the lorry, just behind the cab, is in fact a fold down ramp which allows access on and off the lorry for the actual work unit that performs the road marking removal.
High pressure water road marking removal, click to enlarge.The small self powered work unit that controls/positions the high pressure "head".

You can see the various pipes that feed, from and back to, the various units on the back of the lorry, i.e. water, compressed air and the large pipe taking the removed marking and the used water back to the holding tank.
High pressure water road marking removal, click to enlarge.Image of the high pressure head whilst working.

I have seen underneath but the supervisor preferred that I did not take a photograph, but it did not seem that much different from other high pressure water devices that I have seen. Perhaps an expert in this type of equipment may have noticed something special
High pressure water road marking removal, click to enlarge.Image showing the work unit and lorry, as work is undertaken.

Please note the straight pass of road marking removal to the left of the roundel was from another device trialled earlier.

This particular process seemed very efficient causing the minimum of damage to the road surface beneath, even when working on the red pigmented hot applied resin treatment. The process was quick and clean.
However the operators were very competent and knew exactly what they were doing, and this was a trial so it is likely that the best men were sent to provide the demonstration, but it does show the potential of this and similar processes.

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