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Failure? Analyze This (or Don't)


By Warren Brand

So, I get a call from the manager of a tony high-rise condo on Chicago’s Gold Coast.

About five months after the aluminum balconies (now 12 years old) were installed, the balcony paint—a shop-applied, high-quality fluoropolymer—started peeling.

We were called out and determined within a few hours that the primer had failed to adhere to the substrate. So either the primer had not been applied properly or the surface prep had been flawed.

I told the manager, and she looked ... irritated.

Reporting as Artwork

Later, she handed me a report from a large, prestigious engineering firm.The report was a work of art: 112 bound, color pages with microscopic photos of broken screws, energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy, and 300x magnification of paint chips.

© / DNY59

The analysis was a gorgeous document that was 95 percent useless.

It was beautiful. And a complete waste of money.

Here is Point 3 from Page 10: “The paint failure at the balcony railings is due to improper preparation of the aluminum railings, improper application of the paint coatings, or both.”

Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of coating issues could have made the same determination.

Fattening the Firm

I’ve seen this time and gain: Large firms charge exorbitant amounts to conduct highly detailed failure analyses that do little but lighten the client’s wallet.

In this case, this was the second or third report the condo board had solicited. The first was requested for litigation support. This was despite the fact that the painting contractor in question was out of business and the warranty was up.

This document was designed to provide repair options. Much as I tried to wrap my head around its value, I couldn’t. Nor can I reconcile the hubris of this firm to offer such tomes, which benefit the client not at all.  

And such reports are endemic in the consulting industry.

Mr. Fix-It

It’s like going to a car dealership and having the mechanic recommend replacing, well, everything, because all these things might break at some point and “better safe than sorry.”

© / londoneye

These reports are like being offered $9,000 in "recommended maintenance" with your oil change.

(I say this as someone whose dealership once literally urged more than $9,000 in repairs that I did not need.)

All this client needed was a repair specification. The other 95% was of no value.

Analysis Paralysis

Recently, I was contacted by another condo association for a failure analysis involving its balconies. I explained that while we were qualified to do so, we believe it is often not a good use of client resources.

I haven’t heard back. I suspect that the board told this manager to obtain a failure analysis, and that’s what she’s looking for.

Now, there is a time and place for failure analyses. But, in my experience, they are grossly overused and overvalued. Too often, they appear to be manifestations of large firms with significant resources but questionable judgment.  

What Matters

Whenever a client asks for a failure analysis, I ask myself, “What value will the report provide?”

© / Fotmen

When the coating fails, the client's main concerns are whose fault it is, who is going to fix it, how, and who is paying for it.

In the vast majority of failure cases we’ve encountered, the client is interested in only four things:

  1. Whose fault is it?
  2. Who is going to fix it?
  3. How will it be fixed?
  4. Who is going to pay for it?

Unless you’re interested in litigation, the reason for the failure is irrelevant. It has no bearing on the repair requirements.

So instead of spending $5,000 or $80,000 on a report, put the money toward repairs. If you’re concerned about technical issues, conduct a proof of concept first.

Tanks, but No Tanks

A while back, we were designing a longer-lasting tank lining system for a global petrochem supplier. Other engineering firms had charged for inspections, failure analysis, you name it.

We simply wrote a specification to repair/remove the existing material and do the job properly.

From good, sound research, we determined that:

  • The existing coating was not the optimal type;
  • The coating was not installed at the appropriate DFT; and
  • There would probably be chloride issues to address.

We didn’t need to send in blister caps, blister liquids or conduct any fancy-shmancy testing.

© / ImageGap

Do you want the details of a relatively simple cause, or do you want the solution?

We just needed to ensure that we:

  • Understood the tank and substrate’s operating parameters;
  • Identified the optimal coating solution;
  • Wrote a site-specific coating specification; and
  • Ensured the specification was followed via third-party inspection.

Pool School

Another time, we were involved in lining a world-renowned pool. To our shock, our coating had started to blister.

I called a trusted consultant and asked whom to contact for a failure analysis.

“Don’t waste your time and money,” he said. “The blister liquid will be inconclusive, they’ll take fancy pictures of the paint chips and conduct other tests, and the end result will be the same. You’ll need to blast it off and do it again properly.”

I didn’t believe him and paid for a failure analysis—that proved him right. It was of no value whatsoever.

When Analysis is Important

There are times that failure analysis may be warranted. For example:

Litigation support. If an owner is considering legal action against a vendor, a failure analysis may be important. However, the owner should also consider this: If the analysis comes out in his favor, are there people to sue? If so, what is the likelihood of success?

We advise clients to pretend that we’ve conducted a failure analysis and that it came out completely in their favor. Then what? Do they need to sue? Will the vendor make repairs that they wouldn’t have before?

© / ntzolov

On some major projects, a failure analysis will be warranted. But don't start until you know the purpose of the results.

Change of protocols.  If you line transmission lines, paint bridges or perform other mega-scale work and you spot an unusual failure trend, an analysis may help determine if there is a systemic problem in application, surface prep, materials or procurement.

Even then, however, the analysis should be done only if the results are likely to change the protocol or system in question.

Complex modes of failure. There are certainly times where a mode of failure is unclear or complex and requires further evaluation.


Some may argue that you need to know the mode of failure to ensure that the repairs will work. Hogwash.

What difference does it make in determining repair protocols if the peeling paint is due to exceeding the recoat window, amine blush, failure to allow sufficient induction time, or something else?

The repair solutions are typically going to be simple and clear, and the money should be spent on those.



Warren Brand

Warren Brand’s coatings career has ranged from entry-level field painting to the presidency of two successful companies. Over nearly three decades, he has project-managed thousands of coating installations and developed specs for thousands of paint and coating applications. NACE Level 3 and SSPC PCS certified, Brand, an MBA and martial-arts instructor, now heads Chicago Corrosion Group, a leading coatings consultancy. Contact Warren.



Tagged categories: Coating Materials; Consultants; NACE; Protective Coating Specialist (PCS); Protective coatings; Specification writing; SSPC; Asia Pacific; Chicago Coatings Group; Coating failure; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Failure analysis; Latin America; North America; Quality Control

Comment from Joni McGinnis, (11/18/2014, 2:44 PM)

Like it.

Comment from Warren Brand, (11/18/2014, 2:47 PM)

Hi Joni, Thanks much. I'm hoping to get feedback, both positive and negative. Have a nice Thanksgiving. Warren

Comment from Monica Chauviere, (11/18/2014, 3:26 PM)

Based on a couple of decades of experience with the correction of "failures," I must agree, Warren. I too have observed that there seems in many cases to be a "rut" that the professional side of human thinking falls into. That we must build this huge "case" of data and proof of reasoning to justify our recommended correction steps. . . . when in many scenarios, what is really necessary is recognizing that the real "rut" is the predominate mindset by those who manage major projects (both architectural and industrial) that there are no "trivial" or "benign" steps in a construction project. Every single step or task, if not engineered or executed properly, will have (at some point) undesired consequences. So when project managers are saddled with a "budget" that truly is unrealistic because it does not allow for qualification of applicators or even properly trained quality assurance personnel to oversee and verify a coating application OR when things get behind schedule or over-budget, it is often coatings and insulation that receive improper attention. I agree that there are legitimate reasons and scenarios when a full-blown failure analysis is needed, however your raise a very good point that such actions should be logically questioned before proceeding.

Comment from Warren Brand, (11/18/2014, 5:34 PM)

Hi Monica, Thanks for taking the time to respond. I really appreciate your time and opinions. Warren

Comment from michael deaton, (11/19/2014, 5:17 AM)

As we all know, coatings failure can be caused from a number of issues. In large construction projects, many times, the coatings phase can receive less attention than other larger and more important phases. QA's are normally covering multiple crafts and with the mindset of painting being "as long as it looks good",the technical aspects of coating are overlooked. Owners, trying to maximize profit, are pushing and taking short cuts. That, combined with weak supervision and even weaker hands ends up with premature coating failure. The condominium owner could have saved a chunk of money by, instead of hiring a law firm to determine the cause of the failure, just call Mr. Warren with the Chicago Coatings Group or a REAL painter.

Comment from Thane Katz, (11/19/2014, 12:32 PM)

Excellent narative on why excessive amounts of data are in most cases not needed. I've been doing failure analysis for over 14 years now and in nearly all cases a simple explanation is best. Unfortunately, there are too many firms out there that will do an analysis and charge an exhorbitant fee for a report that takes hours to go through when a simple one page explanation will suffice. It's also unfortunate that in many cases the firms that do the reports have no field experience with coatings and no real grasp of what can happen in the real world. The more simply worded a report is, the easier it is for the customer to understand.

Comment from john schultz, (11/20/2014, 9:20 AM)

The condo owner was relying on the balcony fabricator to provide a quality product - they probably thought the finish they paid for would be still shiny at 15 yrs, not peeling in 5 months. If they hadn't exceeded the warranty period the suit should have been against the metal shop and they would be responsible for determining failure and recoating. I wonder how many other structures they made have failed? None the less after 12 years I would think they need maintenance recoating anyways.

Comment from Warren Brand, (11/20/2014, 9:22 AM)

Thank you all for taking the time to share your comments. Most appreciated - and Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Comment from David Cerchie, (11/20/2014, 9:58 AM)

I can't resist chiming in on one aspect pointed out in the discussion. The four items of interest to the client; whose at fault, whose going to fix it, how will it be fixed, and who will pay for it; all lead generally to establishing an adversarial atmosphere. Certainly these are typically the concerns of the clients and might also be briefly answered by the consultant just like the reasons for failure. However, most consultants are hesitant to express opinions that will be the basis of liability claims without shoring the opinions up with a bit of science. Further, since it is rare for an "at fault" party to simply step forward with an admission, proper documentation of the problem is a necessary precaution in case the adversarial situation does end up in the court house. Efforts at remediation prior to full analysis can result in destruction of critical evidence and a potential failure of a legitimate claim. Even when the "at fault" party is out of business the potential for some sort of insurance recovery might remain, but that source will become adversarial unless presented with substantial "evidence" of the situation. So in the end the premise regarding solid experience and knowledge as a meaningful basis for evaluation is correct, but frequently the question is really not so much "how to fix it" as "whose going to pay" which is the ending point for the other three items of interest to the client. Happy Thanksgiving.

Comment from Warren Brand, (11/20/2014, 10:18 AM)

Hi David, Thanks for taking the time to chime in. Couldn't agree with you more. If litigation is at issue, great care and ample documentation will be required.

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