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What is a Tandem Roller?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 17, 2024
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A tandem roller is a piece of machinery used in paving roads and parking lots. Commonly referred to as a steam roller, the tandem roller is made up of two very heavy and unequal sized steel rollers fitted to a chassis, which is powered by steam, gasoline or diesel. The tandem roller is used to smooth out and compact asphalt or blacktop before it cools and hardens. The steel drums or rollers the machine rides on are often cooled with a stream of water in order to prevent the pavement from sticking to the rollers.

Aside from being heavy, many tandem roller units also contain a vibratory unit aboard the machine. The vibrating rollers aid in compacting the pavement as the heavy tandem roller passes over it. Working at very slow speeds, the tandem roller is a machine which requires skill in operating to assure that each pass slightly overlaps the pass prior to it. By overlapping each pass, the roller operator is able to maintain a uniform thickness to the surface and avoid any dips or high-spots.

Early versions of the roller relied on a steam-powered engine to move the large machines. This led to the common naming of the roller to be known as a steam roller. The name steam roller often finds itself attached to the machinery of today due in part to the steam that forms on the rollers as the equipment is being used. This steam is a result of the water that is used to cool and lubricate the rollers coming in contact with the very hot pavement. Steam is created by this contact and hence, the steam roller title remains intact.

While the steam propulsion system is very uncommon today, modern machinery is diesel-powered for the most part. Some smaller units use gasoline engines and battery-powered versions are beginning to emerge on some construction sites. Many models utilize two separate power systems. A diesel-powered tandem roller might also utilize a battery-powered vibratory motor.

While the huge steel rollers are very heavy all by themselves, most tandem roller units use water to add weight to the rollers. Each roller is equipped with a threaded bung which can be removed. Water is then placed inside of the roller by placing a hose into the open bung. Once the roller is filled with water, the bung is replaced and the unit becomes operational. The weight of the water aids the roller in compacting the pavement.

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Discussion Comments

By matthewc23 — On Jul 12, 2011

@titans62 - It sounds like what you are describing is called a trench roller.

I just helped with building a new baseball diamond for my son's young league. Before the final dirt was put on the infield, we had to go over the ground several times with one of those machines. It basically works the same as the tandem roller, but is usually used for dirt. They also have the vibratory rollers.

When we were renting the machine, it looked like there were other versions, too, that someone might be able to use when paving a driveway or parking lot.

By titans62 — On Jul 11, 2011

There is a new house being built a couple of blocks away from me. The other day, I drove by and there was a steam roller looking piece of equipment that they were driving over the dirt. I would assume it was to pack it down.

Is this the same as a tandem roller? It was much smaller than the machines they use to pack down asphalt on the streets. Also, both of the wheels were the same size and located below, and to the middle of the machine. It was an odd looking piece of equipment, and I haven't seen anything like it before.

By stl156 — On Jul 10, 2011

Does anyone know the purpose of having two different sized rollers on the machine? I have always noticed the two wheels, but could never figure out the purpose. Does it have anything to do with how well the machine compacts, or is it more of a stability and steering feature?

By cardsfan27 — On Jul 09, 2011

That was very interesting. I didn't realize how much went into what I have always called a steam roller. I always thought it was kind of odd that they were called a steam roller when there was never really any steam.

I would imagine that operating of the road rollers would be a very hot job. I figure that most of us have been next to new asphalt. It can be quite hot.

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