It was a crisp, fall morning and I had my office door open to the backyard. It was cool and damp and smelled of sweet brown and tan leaves. Every now and again a gray squirrel would peer into the stairwell.

The older I get, the more I try to practice mindfulness, for a variety of reasons. First, it’s really cool. It allows me to appreciate those things that I would otherwise take for granted. When my three daughters were younger, up to the age of about 16, they would laugh at me when I would, literally, stop to smell a flower, point out unusual clouds or even just offer that we stop for a moment and just appreciate being together. They laughed even harder when I stopped to look at peeling paint or unusual manifestations of corrosion while walking around. Once they became older, and wiser, they started to understand. In fact, just last night I received a text from my last home-bound daughter, which read, “Dad, take a look at the moon!” which she texted before leaving from work.

How does any of this relate to failure analysis and vendor-neutral corrosion mitigation consulting?

Directly. It places me in a place of calm and focus, so that I can see issues clearly when others may not. (Learn more about failure analysis in the article The 3 Stages of Corrosion Failure Analysis.)

The phone rang on this fall morning and it was a client who sounded urgent and concerned. A large secondary containment area and associated trench had recently been lined with an elastomer, and the coating was peeling and blistering terribly. Winter was rapidly approaching and my client, who was highly sophisticated in coatings, understood the need to do something before we ran out of weather.

“We need to move quickly,” he said. “I need you to come ASAP and provide us with a full failure analysis.”

We spoke some more. I asked a variety of technical questions and finally asked if he intended on suing any of the involved parties, like the contractor, material supplier or engineering firm, which specified (IMHO) the wrong material.

He said no, and that they just wanted it fixed.

I then offered, “Jim, I don’t think you need a formal failure analysis. We just need to understand how to fix it. Let’s not waste your time or money on finding the precise cause of the failure. It doesn’t matter. Let’s spend your money on remediation.”

We consultants live and die on providing deliverables – and I had just talked my firm out of a deliverable, which means I just talked our firm out of a paycheck.

But that’s what we do – tell the truth. I was at a U.S. Department of Defense conference a couple of months ago and was explaining our value proposition to an Army Major. He said, “I see. You’re a truth broker.” I had never heard the phrase before, but I like the ring of it.

Directional Corrosion Failure Analysis

So, here's the truth: Unless you’re going to sue someone you only need a directional failure analysis (DFA).

I wish I could take credit for the phrase, “directional failure analysis,” but that goes to Damon Givens, a reliability engineer at Cargill I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years.

What do I mean by a DFA? Let me give you an example. We had been called in to inspect the interior of a wastewater tank that had just been lined with a polyurea. The coating was severely blistered and poorly adhered. A full failure analysis would have included extensive lab testing, review of applicator notes, analysis of blister liquid, etc. I just needed to know if the coating could be repaired or if it required removal. That’s it. We needed to understand the condition of the existing system to provide us with direction on how to repair it.

Blistering corrosion in wastewater tank lined with polyurea
The adhesion was so poor that the author was able to easily pull the blistering polyurea off the wall, exposing an unusual blistering pattern in the carbon steel.

Another glaring example was a few years back when we were consulting on a failure of some aluminum railings in multimillion-dollar condos overlooking Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. The railings, coated with a fluoropolymer, were peeling. I was speaking with the property manager and several board members when I explained that the likely cause of failure was that the coating was applied too thin, but that the cause was really irrelevant. They simply needed to focus their attention, time and money on how to fix it.

Peeling fluoropolymer coating on a condo building showing coating failure
Peeling fluoropolymer on the railings of a multimillion-dollar condo building.

They were stunned and angry. They slid a 60-page formal failure analysis report across the desk. The executive summary indicated that the coating was likely too thin and went on and on about test results, photos, scans, etc.

The report was literally worthless. It provided no firm remedial solutions. The company that had applied the coating was out of business and the warranty on the work had long expired. There was no one to sue and no repair plan. The board had spent upwards of $40,000 for nothing. I still have this report (the board didn’t need it) as a reminder of what not to do.

But how did this happen, and how does it keep happening?

It’s natural for people to want to understand how something went wrong. In the two cases above, the broad answer is that a lack of technical knowledge went wrong. The details of how doesn’t matter. If a drunk driver smashes into a tree or a kid taps the car in front of them because they were texting, it doesn’t matter why they were drinking or what they were texting.

It’s also a natural phenomenon that the more complex the issue, the more likely one is to solicit help from an expert. You don’t need a surgeon if you cut your finger chopping tomatoes, but you might if you get a hernia. The problem, however, lies in issues of procurement and understanding the motivation and abilities of the firm providing the failure analysis. Unlike doctors, who have a moral and ethical responsibility to tell the truth and to act in accordance with their Hippocratic Oath, consulting firms, as all firms, are in the business of making money.

So what’s a business owner with a corrosion problem to do?

Don’t get emotionally involved in the failure.

I was providing mediation the other day with an owner and contractor. Things were heated and they were taking personal potshots at each other. It was unproductive and unpleasant. Focus on how to fix the issue.

Ask questions.

If you think you need a failure analysis, be sure you understand what you’re going to do with the results when you get them. Will understanding the components of blister liquid provide any value? Unless you’re suing someone or trying to ascertain blame, probably not.

Is the vendor you’re using of very high integrity?

That is, will they try to sell you lab work and a comprehensive analysis because they have a lab and that’s how they make sales? The saying, “If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” comes to mind. One of my favorite examples is if you walk into an Apple store and ask them to recommend a phone. They won’t be recommending a Samsung! (Discover more tips in 6 Ways to Prevent Failure Analysis Frustration.)

Failures are inevitable in all things and we need to understand how best to respond to them. A quote from Albert Einstein comes to mind, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I think he would support my twisting it a bit and suggesting, “ Failures should be understood only to the point of understanding how to fix them, and no further.”