It takes an enormous amount to get under my skin. I’m generally an incredibly patient and calm person. I’ve developed these skills having been married for nearly 25 years and raising three daughters. I’ve also studied combat martial arts for decades, which is very calming.
But I attended a conference for the benefit of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and I was appalled.
I’ve contacted a number of individuals at IDOT over the years and explained, as humbly and as accurately as I could, how virtually everything they’re doing pertaining to bridge painting is wrong. But no one has shown any interest.
I suspect that most, if not all, of the DOTs are in the same boat, relying on the advice of self-interested parties for guidance.
I didn’t stay until the end of the meeting, because I became physically ill. I went home, threw up and ran a fever running on two days now. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but who knows?
Flaw #1: Specifying coatings that are unnecessarily technically demanding to apply and are not in the best interests of owners
One of the presenters at the conference was talking about standards. And he said something like, "Well, 1 mil could be the difference between the success and failure of a project."
Do you understand how thin 1 mil is? We all know it’s 1/1,000th of an inch, but what does that look, feel and taste like?
If you were able to slice the thickness of a piece of paper about four times, each slice would be about 1 mil. Or, take a human hair, which averages 4 mils. Yes, cut that in four slices and there’s your mil.
Why, in all that is good and holy, is anyone specifying coating systems with such exacting application requirements? Simple: because everyone is able to take more money out of IDOT’s pocket.
Inspectors need to be very diligent and measure, and measure and measure. So inspectors make more money. Standards are created, and modified and submitted. Contractors, out of necessity, must take much more time and care in the application.
My bachelor’s degree was in journalism and I wrote in California for several years. In investigative journalism, the watch phrase is "follow the money." It’s no different in our industry.
Who is designing and specifying these coating systems? And why?
Are the coating systems chosen in the best interests of IDOT, or any owner for that matter, or are they in the best interests of others?
Solution: Identify optimal coating solutions that have more "wiggle room" during application. And no—that does not mean that you’re compromising performance.
Flaw #2: Testing Coating Samples
I cannot tell you how many companies I’ve met with that are testing their own coupons. I know, now, that when I run into a company like that, the likelihood of my firm working with them is low, because they are laboring under incredibly flawed assumptions.
First, it’s a common, and seldom-discussed, dirty little secret that accelerated testing, for the most part, is not a good analogy for real-world applications.
Second, are you telling me that there aren’t enough bridges around the country (world) successfully painted over the last 100 years to evaluate what’s worked well in the past?
I met with one of the largest entertainment companies in the world years ago, which has theme parks all over the globe. They flew me out for a meeting and explained that they constantly sample and test new paint samples.
When I asked why, the response was something like, "Um, well, to see how they hold up." And I asked, "So, you’re looking for a paint that is going to last for upwards of 15 years, and you're testing samples in the back lot?"
After further discussion, it turned out that one of their facilities in Asia had the lowest paint and maintenance costs of any of their other facilities. The obvious question was, "Well, have you looked at what they’re doing there to duplicate that at other facilities?"
Of course not.
Yet, testing coating samples has become commonplace. Why? Because a lot of companies have large, costly labs. I have yet to hear a single, technically sound reason for testing samples for bridges.
The argument usually is that there’s a new system on the market that requires testing. Why would anyone want to test a new system when there are numerous systems that we all know will do the job?
I cannot begin to imagine the tens of millions (hundreds of millions) of dollars that all of the DOTs are wasting on testing paint samples.
There are, of course, times when testing is appropriate. Developing a proof of concept for application issues or appearance, perhaps. Or working on a waste treatment tank that has a variety of different chemicals.
But can someone please explain to me the technical justification for testing anything for bridges when there are hundreds (thousands) of successful bridge applications all around the country to use as references for what works?
Alternative: Do good research. Find out what has worked 5, 10, 15, perhaps 30 years ago, and either do that, or improve on that. Develop a national specification or regional specification.
Flaw #3: Creating an Adversarial Relationship with Contractors
A variety of companies that advise IDOT put more and more pressure on contractors. They have to test more, and document more, and dance to the tune that others are whistling more.
In the meeting, one of these advisors was describing a standard pertaining to soluble chlorides contaminating reusable blast media. He said that it almost never happens that the blast media becomes contaminated, but it’s better to check. So, someone got paid to write the standard. Someone is going to get paid to teach the standard. And someone will get paid when they buy the equipment to comply with the standard. The contractor will have to charge IDOT more to comply with the standard. Wow, great deal for everyone but IDOT, particularly for something that "almost never happens." And I left the meeting before asking, "Well, if all the soluble salts are removed before blasting—which I assume would be required in the specification—where would the salts come from?"
When we conduct our "optimal coating identification" services, we almost always confer with contractors. We ask for their input. Why? Because I’m not so full of myself to think that I know better than everyone else I confer with, and create a consensus, all to determine what’s best for the client.
Contractors are some of the most knowledgeable people on each and every job. Yet they are often treated as second or third-class citizens.
I cannot tell you how many meetings I’ve had with public entities. They all go exactly the same way: "Wow, I understand that your services would add enormous value and save us money, but I can’t figure out a way to get you into our procurement system."
Hello, anyone out there?
Which is why I’m spending less and less time banging my head against the wall with large public entities. I would just think that someone at IDOT, and other large public institutions, would have the courage and motivation to find a way, and take up the banner, of doing things better.
It doesn’t have to be my firm. Anyone who has a firm technical grasp of paint and coating, is vendor-neutral and of high integrity, can do the job.
It’s the concepts that are flawed and they are easy, from a technical perspective, to fix.
But my words have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. I have no doubt that our country is wasting millions (billions?) every year by following these ubiquitous and flawed practices.
Perhaps this will start a dialog to begin to save billions of dollars on public infrastructure. But I doubt it.