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When Bad Specs Happen to Good Projects


By Lee Wilson

As we are well aware, many factors can and do cause premature coating failure. The usual suspects, it is widely accepted, are inadequate surface preparation and coating application.

However, I have recently come to question this conventional wisdom when investigating coating failures. Why?

During my time as a protective coating inspector, I have found many failures that can be attributed to these factors.

© / alacatr

Before you blame the painter for the coating failure, take a step or two back in the project to examine root causes.

But once you look deeper, to the root cause of the failures, it is evident that a growing number can be laid to something else entirely:

The inadequate coating specification.

The Project Bible

The specification can be defined as a detailed or exact statement of particulars. Simply, it is the governing document on any protective coating project and the inspector’s Bible.

It is the document that protective coating inspectors are programmed to follow to the letter—and many inspectors do just that. Inspectors are taught that their first duty is to obtain, learn and understand the specification.

The specification should list inspection methods, standards, equipment to be used, acceptance and rejection criteria, frequency of inspection, reporting and all other technical requirements for the coating project.

This is done to ensure that the quality requirements are met and to maximize the lifespan of the coating system.

Continuing Chaos

Ambiguous, conflicting or confusing information in the specification should always be discussed with the project management team before the job. (We are all well aware of how easily confrontations erupt when work is underway.)

© / teekid

The specification should list inspection methods, standards, equipment, acceptance and rejection criteria, frequency of inspection and all other technical requirements for the coating project.

An inadequate specification can and does cause chaos.

But why are we still dealing with inadequate specifications in 2015, anyway? After all, the industry has had years to perfect the art of specification formulation.

I see a number of reasons for this.

What Goes Wrong

The specification is often developed by personnel who are not versed in the technical aspects of the coating industry and lack the in-depth knowledge and experience required to fulfil the technical aspects of such an important document.

The specification is sometimes not suitable for the current project. Often, specifications are corporate generated and moved from one project to another without their suitability checked or cross-referenced to the job at hand.

(See, for example, a maintenance specification used for newbuild construction or even the reverse.)

© / AMR Image

Too many specification errors arise from the tendency to copy and paste a specification from another project without reviewing or adapting the document to the new project.

The specification has been copied and pasted from another document that has no relevance to the job at hand. This lapse can be attributed to the previous two factors.

Errors as Orders

We have to face facts. Some specifications are never reviewed by a paint or coating specialist. That means that the governing document for a project may contain ambiguities and errors that become project requirements.

Chaos, of course, will reign.

On my last two projects, the specifications were completely inadequate and the problems in question were not found until incorporated into the project.

My first job was to rectify the issues with the specification, which is a lot easier said than done.

The problems had been caused by individuals cutting and pasting from past specifications whose technical requirements were not suitable for the current project.

How unsuitable? One specification was for the Middle East; the other, for Siberia! Naturally, there are huge margins in climates and environmental conditions between the two regions and the specification parameters must be adapted to suit.

Achieving the Impossible

Inadequate specifications and the copy-and-paste trend not only lead to coating failures. They also cause huge problems for contractors.

© / mkurtbas

When the specification is contains contradictory, ill-fitting, erroneous or ambiguous information, your job can end up looking like this.

I have seen specifications that are truly absurd and their technical parameters simply not achievable.

This leaves the coating contractor trying to achieve the impossible and throws a by-the-book, to-the-letter inspector into the equation without any common sense (a rare commodity these days).

Again, chaos reigns.

More Questions than Answers

I once attended a project where the specification stated, “Surface profile shall be measured and should be 75μm in depth.” This single statement spawned numerous (and unanswered) questions in my mind, including:

  • How is the surface to be measured?
  • What does should be mean?
  • What instruments are to be used for measurement?
  • At what frequency should testing for profile be carried out?
  • What action is suggested if the profile is above or below 75μm in depth?

Clearly, this one sentence has the potential to cause huge problems during a corrosion control project.

Clashing Standards

On another large coating project, I noticed that one requirement for surface preparation called for removing mill scale in accordance with NACE No. 3/SSPC SP-6 (Commercial Blast Cleaning).

© / arenacreative

Inspectors aren't the only ones derailed by inadequate specifications. Truly absurd errors can leave contractors trying to achieve the impossible.

As we are all aware, this standard allows for 33 percent of tightly adhering contamination to remain on the substrate after blasting and clearly would not suffice for the removal of mill scale present on the steel.

In both cases, I made a note and brought my concerns to the pre-job conference, where both issues were quickly rectified.

There are many other examples. I cannot remember how many times I have reviewed a specification that contradicts itself, the manufacturer’s technical requirements, and/or a specified standard—usually, due to copy and paste.

By now, you can surely grasp the extent of the problems that can occur if a specification has not been put together correctly.

What to Do

It is not easy to compile a specification; the process requires significant time, effort and thought. This is why the copy-and-paste approach persists. Make haste! Just copy and paste!

But there are solutions. Companies must:

  • Ensure that specifications are compiled by competent, knowledgeable painting and coating engineers;
  • Regularly review and update company specifications and always review a corporate specification before new painting project;
  • Ensure that the specification is constructed for the new painting project, not the previous one, as projects differ substantially; and
  • Insist upon a pre-job conference, as this is the perfect stage to deal with any of the above issues.

Any other suggestions?


Lee Wilson

Lee Wilson, CEng, FICorr, is a NACE Level 3-certified CIP Instructor, NACE Corrosion Specialist, NACE Protective Coating Specialist and Senior Corrosion Technologist, as well as an ICorr Level 3 Painting Inspector and Level 2 Insulation Inspector. The author of the best-selling Paint Inspector’s Field Guide, Lee was named one of JPCL Top Thinkers: The Clive Hare Honors in 2012. Contact Lee.



Tagged categories: EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Engineers; Inspection; Institute of Corrosion (ICorr); Lee Wilson, CEng, MICorr; NACE; North America; Quality Control; Quality control; SSPC; Asia Pacific; Coating failure; Failure analysis; Latin America; Protective coatings

Comment from Bill Patterson, (3/20/2015, 12:27 PM)

In my opinion, much of the problem arises from the replacement of greed (a.k.a. maximizing profit) over professionalism, and the acquisition and consolidation of consulting firms into conglomerates whose prime purpose is to serve the owners with ever-increasing profits instead of serving the public. One of the easiest ways to do this is to assign a novice to "assemble" a specification instead of assigning an experienced spec writer or project manager to "prepare" one with a realistic budget to do so. Part of the problem lies in the process by which an owner chooses a consultant, which is often (usually?) heavily skewed towards the lowest price. As a project manage employed by a municipality, I reviewed many specifications prepared for my projects by consultants. On receiving the heavily red-lined copy of a draft spec, one consultant's project manager blurted out "How do you know all this stuff?". Well Doh! Another spec listed provincial safety legislation that the contractor had to comply with—The Trench Excavators Act, The Construction Safety Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Problem was, only the last was current, each having superseded the former. The first had ceased to be law over 40 years previously. Now that's just sloppiness, and when it spills over into the technical spec, why would one expect a successful outcome?

Comment from Bill Connor, Jr., (3/21/2015, 3:14 PM)

Even in residential contracting copy and paste results in product specification where the specified product has been illegal to use or discontinued for years. Also the architect often lacks an up to date knowledge of the rapidly changing product lines. With new VOC specifications coming out every year the product you used last year may not be available or suitable. VOC regulations have no bearing on serviceability of length of coating life. Only an applicator has the day to day knowledge as to which products are best and even then was no clue as to product life.

Comment from Lee Wilson, (3/25/2015, 12:08 AM)

Good comments guys i believe your remarks just go to show the extent of the problem and prove that this is still causing issues within the industry.

Comment from OM PRAKASH JAT, (4/17/2015, 4:20 AM)

I have gone through a inadequate project specification for a power plant construction project recently. it was a fully copy and paste mistake. in results so much re-work done approximate 40,000 m2. thanks a lot to all for your valuable comments.

Comment from Lee Wilson, (5/13/2015, 10:47 AM)

And who carried the cost for the reworks ?

Comment from Asanda Bukula, (10/26/2015, 10:11 AM)

Is there an acceptable spec for auto body clearcoat regarding adhesion and indentation resistance? I need this information for my dissertation.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (10/27/2015, 8:29 AM)

The major automotive manufacturers have those specs.

Comment from john schultz, (10/27/2015, 9:51 AM)

I can only imagine the difficulty with technical specs. In the architectural coatings it is hard enough to get good specs much less compliance. You can add confusion to the mix with rapidly changing product offerings by the manufacturers. Many coatings have become obsolete are still being specified because the architects specifiers can't keep up. Even the painters are having difficulty relearning how to paint with the new products. And I agree with Bill on the greed aspect. Even if you can demonstrate a two coat acrylic texture system can be less costly and more durable than texture and 3 paint coats, the builder will look only at the price per gallon.

Comment from Asanda Bukula, (10/28/2015, 6:54 AM)

Thank you Tom for your response.

Comment from Antonio Leal, (10/28/2015, 7:13 AM)

Unfortunately the metal protection specification within the project in most cases is a copy and paste, I already admit that I did it when I was working in this sector, it is more comfortable. But with the passage of time working on corrosion noted the importance of metal protection. "The best way to treat corrosion is on paper." It is very important that good paint seller be in touch with the project engineering guiding the work.

Comment from Jamey Maddox, (7/24/2017, 9:10 AM)

I'm about to begin a bridge painting project that was shown to have 465 bearings to be Vacuum shrouded SP-11. This would have been fine on a project with bearings with an open configuration. This project's bearings are steel plates resting on 1-1/2" neoprene pad. So the bottoms are 1-1/2" up from the concrete pier. This was just copied and pasted from another project. You mentioned to get this resolved at the pre-job conference. This was not something my company was willing to admit this far into the process. Our people put all of the plans together months earlier from an office four hours away. I can't expect any contractor to achieve the impossible, and knowing our people did not take the time to for a field visit is unacceptable. These bearings should have been called out for abrasive blasting wet or dry. I've been a coatings inspector for 18 years and I'm still amazed at how something so simple in the field can go so wrong on paper.

Comment from Mike Viejo, (3/18/2021, 7:23 AM)

I totally agree with the thought that concrete sealing is complex than we thought it is, but the good thing is that the industry is keeping up their technology.

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