Top Coat

The True Cost of Repair Work in the Coatings Industry

“The hundreds of millions of dollars that are being wasted in this country on poor painting jobs… it’s unbelievable to me,” says Mr. Harper. “There’s just no excuse for it.”

With decades of first-hand experience in industrial painting and lead abatement, Clifford and Joy Harper incorporated Kootenay Powder Coating Ltd. in Castlegar, British Columbia in 1994 with three full time employees. In time, the name changed to Certified Coating Specialists Inc., and the company expanded its service offerings, incorporating protective coating products with a technology known as Thermal Plastics, surface preparation, abrasive blasting, and more. By 1997, due to client demand, Certified Coating Specialists purchased its first paint pump to provide “wet” coating application services and by 2000 saw the business grow from a plant-oriented company to a field driven, proactive operation throughout B.C.’s interior.

Embracing the latest technologies over the years, the company has evolved into a recognized industry leader. With over 20 fulltime staff, Certified Coating Specialists employs up to 100 additional workers over the course of a year, and is able to take on large-scale, complex jobs for a wide variety of sectors, including power generation and transmission, marine, industrial, oil and gas, pulp and paper, and waste water, offering services ranging from coating application to abrasive blasting, lead abatement, technical support and more. For the past decade and a half, much of Certified Coating’s work has focused on removing lead-based coatings from bridges, tanks, and other containers and structures.

The Price of Warranty Work

For years, however, Mr. Harper says that he has seen an increase in his company taking on coating projects that, putting it simply, simply weren’t done right in the first place. “For three years running, the majority of our revenue has been generated repairing the work that others have done.” He estimates that this kind of repair work comprises approximately 60 percent of Certified Coating Specialists’ revenue. “I’m taking about so-called professional shop applicators applying new materials, and doing an inadequate job.”

Considering the company’s annual revenue, the fact that over half of its earnings come from repairing or entirely redoing the work of others is far from insignificant. There are, says Mr. Harper, a number of reasons for warranty work. It is a consequence from one, or a combination, of the following: inappropriate specification and scope; poor craftsmanship; a lack of understanding of atmospheric, safety or environmental conditions; and scheduling requirements. By his own estimate, Mr. Harper says warranty work carried out by Certified Coating over the last few years – on behalf of both general contractors and owners – has exceeded $15,000,000, a significant sum for just one company.

Over the years, the team has gone into the field to apply or remove coatings from a variety of structures and equipment. In countless cases, the original coating was applied poorly or incorrectly, often requiring the item to be stripped and completely re-coated. Lead-containing paint was in widespread use for decades up until the 1980s, and is still found on many items being shipped from Asia. Although it has its advantages when it comes to corrosion resistance, colour vibrancy, speed of drying and durability, lead has many adverse health effects, particularly for children and pregnant women, and can impair physical and mental development.

Today, zinc has become one of the key coatings currently being used to replace lead-based primers to provide protective coatings and is adherent, flexible, and helps prevent corrosion. Despite these advantages, zinc materials must be applied with great skill, usually at a mere one to two mil in thickness (in comparison, a human hair is three mil in thickness, and a sheet of copier paper is four mil). If applied properly and within acceptable guidelines, coatings containing zinc are extremely durable; put on too thickly, it will crack.

“Zinc is a rather expensive paint to apply, and I don’t know why shops aren’t more careful when applying it,” says Mr. Harper. “Some shops apply it much too thick, and they think they’re doing the customer a favour when they’re doing the greatest of harm.” As with most liquids, paint with zinc shrinks as it dries, and when an epoxy-based material is applied over the paint, the resultant tension actually pulls it off the substrate.

In one instance, a client had a large tank manufactured which was coated in zinc paint which had been applied far too thickly. Certified Coating was called upon to repair the work, and the job ended up costing the client well over a million dollars more because it wasn’t done properly in the first instance. “Repairs always take longer than doing it right the first time,” says Mr. Harper.

Right the First Time

There are a number of other reasons behind poor quality coating work, including a lack of education on the subject and inappropriate products being touted for the sake of a dollar. Items being coated have different requirements – particularly those which must travel over salt water, such as shiploaders, enormous machines used to load bulk materials into vessels for transport. Located at ports and jetties, shiploaders and other large pieces of marine equipment are found next to bodies of salt water, which accelerates metal corrosion and damages coatings.

In many cases, engineers will consult a number of salespersons for their recommendations about which coating to use. Each coating company, representing his or her own product line, will make coating suggestions or systems which may not always be appropriate for the job. Often, the engineers – who are not trained coating specifiers – have to rely on the advice of competitive salesmen who make their living selling paint. At the same time, engineers will draft a tender document, which is then sent out for competitive bidding, and in almost every case the tender will be awarded to the lowest bidder, who simply does not have the skills, equipment or capabilities to do the job with the precision it requires. A two-page proposal is submitted, and the job is started.

“With companies like Certified, we send in a 50-page proposal to a tender,” says Mr. Harper. “The reason we do that is to drive home the realities of what the client really has to be considering when he is evaluating the prices.” For competitors to keep their prices as low as possible, the low-priced tender will likely not include correct coating techniques necessary for long life, such as a stripe coat, which seals all bumps, sharp edges, welds, and drain holes. After the first coat is applied, a professional will stop and use a brush to apply paint to all of the welds and uneven areas to ensure proper coating thickness; since paint shrinks as it dries, failing to do this can see corrosion on sharp edges and irregular spots within a year, requiring the item to be stripped and entirely re-coated, an extremely expensive process.

Recently, the team at Certified worked on a number of penstock projects, essentially sluices or gates that are used to redirect water from a source to a hydroelectric power plant. In one instance, the owner of an asset decided to do the coating work himself to save money, and ended up spending over $14 million to repair an $800,000 job, all to save a mere $100,000, before calling Certified to fix the work. “These are massive sums of money being wasted,” comments Mr. Harper. “Owners aren’t as aware of this as they need to be, and this is the risk they are running, and hopefully we’ll convince more and more people that it’s not worth it.”

Unlike Certified Coating Specialists – which has earned its reputation as a hazardous material abatement and painting contractor – many small companies simply don’t have the resources necessary to deal with today’s sophisticated coating technologies, coating systems, or equipment, and don’t have the environmental and safe work practices or quality control staff needed to ensure work is carried out without causing harm to the environment or site workers. To take on jobs professionally and properly, Certified has invested over $5 million in equipment to do it right.

A member of the Steel Structures Painting Council (SSPC), a non-profit, professional society concerned with the use of coatings to protect industrial steel structures, Certified Coating Specialists is dedicated to elevating the quality of workmanship in the trade worldwide.

“I get so frustrated when I continue to see bad work being done, and listening to owners’ say, ‘We’re not going to paint this, we’d rather replace it, because we can’t get good painting work done. A properly applied paint job today on a bridge, on a ship, anything, should give you 20 years of service life.” In fact, owners can borrow money from the bank for painting jobs, says Mr. Harper, because they can write it down over the life of the coating.

Along with attending trade shows and keeping abreast of developments in the industry, Certified Coating is a great believer in educating clients and the industry as a whole, including new workers. This year, the team worked with its local union to incorporate into the collective bargaining agreement that industrial painters must take the certified applicator specialist test developed by SSPC to establish a base rate of knowledge that an industrial painter must have.

“What we’re trying to do across North America is find out where the knowledge level is of the trade today, and then once we’ve established that across the continent, then we want to develop more enhanced training programs to elevate the knowledge level,” comments Mr. Harper, who emphasizes that there is a tremendous difference in the apprenticeship program of someone trained to be a commercial painter, compared to an industrial painter. “It is something in the industry that many of us have been trying to change for years. What you need to know to paint a house is entirely different from what you need to know to paint a bridge; they are two entirely different trades, in our opinion.”

The key message Certified Coating Specialists Inc. is trying to get across to owners of assets: familiarize yourself with the best practices of the coating industry. If properly applied by a professional company like Certified, regularly inspected coatings, with scheduled touch-ups and a new topcoat to enhance UV resistance, should last two decades. Coatings applied improperly will crack, sometimes in mere months, and end up costing much more than those done properly.

“There is a very well-known, absolutely credible methodology for maintaining the asset’s coating, but very few do it,” says Mr. Harper. “Owners need to recognize that that coating is an asset independent all its own, and that like all assets, it needs to be properly managed, and until they recognize that it is an asset, they are going to burn dollars.”

June 22, 2018, 6:45 PM EDT

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