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Standards: Guidelines or Gospel?


By Warren Brand

Note: Some of these details have been changed to ensure the anonymity of our client.

In coatings, as in every other profession, you can go by the book or you can go with what real life demands. Sometimes, those are very different paths.

Which brings me to this question.

© / aluxum

Are standards ever meant to be flexible?

Is it reasonable to veer away from standards if the individuals on site have sufficient experience and expertise? If so, when, and under what circumstances?

The Cold Truth

Consider this: We were working on a highly complex project in the dead of a Chicago winter. There were a dozen large concrete tanks, decades old, 50 feet wide by 30 feet tall.

There were numerous issues with damp concrete, humidity, temperature, cracks, leaking roofs, generators, scaffolding, you name it. Oh, and each day of lost operation or delay cost the client about $10,000.

The specifications cited a variety of standards for different coating issues.

Our first dilemma: what to do about moisture testing the concrete.

There are two schools of thought with this and similar issues, and they go like this. 

School 1: The Coating Contractor

As a former contractor involved in lining hundreds of thousands of square feet of concrete, I knew the tanks would not have a moisture issue. They had been empty for many months, uninsulated, exposed to the atmosphere, and on pedestals, not at grade.

© / PixHouse

Sure, legalities are a concern, but standards were meant to distill expertise, not replace it.

They were also going to be water blasted, but each tank would have heaters and DH equipment.

On the one hand, we were going to apply a polyurea.  On the other, we would first apply an epoxy primer.

Things become even more complex when generators failed, a parge coat had to be removed, and areas needed to be dry-reblasted.

Thinking as a contractor, I knew we needed to move things along.

School 2: The Inspector

But then, I put on my inspector hat and thought, “Wait a second. If we’re wrong, and moisture content is excessive, we would have a massive and catastrophic failure on our hands.”

Enter the standard. Inspectors, as a rule, find solace, hope and protection in standards. If not for the standards, what guidelines do we use to inspect and hold the contractor to the specification?

In this case, a number of standards applied.There’s ASTM F1869, which requires the use of anhydrous calcium chloride. But this test takes three to five days. Specifically, “…the test conditions should be 75 +/- 10°F (23.9 +/- 5.5°C) and 50 +/- 10 % relative humidity. Maintain these conditions 48 hours prior to, and during testing.”

© / payphoto

What's the rule when a standard that you know to be overkill will cost the client another $50,000?

Ok, 48 hours. That’s $20,000 to the client. Then, once the test is in place, it needs 60 to 72 hours. That’s another $30,000.

Then there’s the old plastic bag trick: ASTM D4263, which uses a plastic sheet to qualitatively test for moisture. This test requires only 16 hours but requires “one test area per 500 ft2 (46 m2) or portion thereof of surface area unless otherwise specified. The recommended practice is a minimum of one test for each 10 ft. (3 m) of vertical rise in all elevation starting within 12 in. (300 mm) of the floor."

And What About...

Or there's DFT testing per ASTM D7091, which requires a certain number of spot tests according to the size of the area. On a very large tank, this can be a costly and time-consuming process.

If a coating is applied correctly, and an experienced coating professional can visually determine the DFT with a high-degree of accuracy (and demonstrate this accuracy by spot testing those visually deficient areas), does one still need to follow the standard?

© / shotbydave

The bottom line is how you interpret your obligation to the client. Is the rule book always in their best interest, or does another duty trump that?

Or take this: Is it reasonable to requite holiday testing if a three- or four-coating system has been specified?

Then There's...

What about this? About 20 years ago, we were working on a time-critical project.  The specification called for a coating system with a DFT of 18-22 mils.

We worked with the coating manufacturer and all involved parties and, instead, recommended 40-50 mils.

The blast profile was sufficient to support the additional mils. The additional material and labor were minor, and we collectively decided to conduct only a handful of DFT tests.

The lining is still performing properly, and we saved the client money with no degradation in quality.

Why Standards?

Remember, standards were developed, in my opinion, to codify the collective expertise of seasoned professionals to provide the less-experienced with guidelines for successful—essentially, trying to transfer decades of experience onto a piece of paper.

But what if the coating professional onsite knows more than the standard?

I know there are legal issues here that basically boil down to this: “Of course, you need to follow the standards so if there’s a failure, your ass is covered.”

But I’m not talking about legal issues. I’m talking about doing what’s best for the client.

Are we serving the clients’ best interest, and using their resources responsibly, by blind adherence to standards?

Or are we, occasionally, unnecessarily transferring money from our clients’ pockets to our own?


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; Certifications and standards; Chicago Coatings Group; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Inspection; Latin America; North America; Painting Contractors; Quality Control

Comment from Robert Bullard, (4/7/2015, 8:26 AM)

There are micro-pore sealing proprietary materials (liquid solutions) which can seal the high moisture bearing concrete at SSD conditions. They may even enhance the bond of specified primers compared to low moisture concrete meeting spec for the primer. The liquid sealers also penetrated down the inside surfaces of cracks, but to be on the safe side two or three coats of primer should be stripe coated over cracks. Finally, all concretes and all moisture chemistries thereupon or therein are not equal, so raw moisture is just the starting point.

Comment from David Johnson, (4/7/2015, 9:57 AM)

Why would one wait for coating operations to start to perform any tests? Were the tanks in use immediately prior? If bnot, I would start by saying it sounds like poor planning. Standards and regulations, while I love them...sometimes cannot be performed to the letter of the law because of outside circumstances. In these cases, experience is what counts..and ultimately the coating contractor is putting their reputation and financial backing behind such decisions. 3rd party inspectors provide good faith opinions...but do not provide any warranty or become entangled in financial considerations if something goes wrong.

Comment from Antonio Leal, (4/7/2015, 10:58 AM)

rules are trails are not tracks, can be out of date, you may have a better experience on this subject, the community should have access to the committee that formulated the rule, for a query, after analysis support and update the rule in question.

Comment from Tony Rangus, (4/7/2015, 11:57 AM)

So if you are told to do 500 DFT measurements and have them recorded, and you take it upon yourself, because you think you are smarter than the client, and only do 50 DFT measurements, do you refund the money in your bid for the 450 measurements not performed and recorded? Contractors know no bounds when maximizing profits.

Comment from Warren Brand, (4/12/2015, 5:05 PM)

David, I can see how one could view this as poor planning, but, as we all know, we have to work around the schedule of the client. The bottom line is the project was completed, technically, properly. Tony, I'm glad you commented as well. In many of my blogs I've pointed out that one of the major flaws within our entire industry is the adversarial relationship that has developed and remains promoted among inspectors, contractors, manufacturers and others. It is a dangerous and increasingly growing trend of distrust. It's also unwarranted. If you look at any of the entities involved in a coating project, you will find that each one of them is working hard to maximize their profits.

Comment from Tolga DIRAZ, (6/24/2015, 2:00 AM)

Dear Warren, I really enjoyed reading your article, your practical approaches to coating issues in everyday life and esp. your conclusions like "Remember, standards were developed, in my opinion, to codify the collective expertise of seasoned professionals to provide the less-experienced with guidelines for successful—essentially, trying to transfer decades of experience onto a piece of paper." (I will use it in my projects mentioning your name:) My five cents goes to well established "Standard Deviation Request" forms to keep all the process written down so that every party can argue the changes if feasible or not before,during and after the project.

Comment from Warren Brand, (6/25/2015, 11:50 AM)

Hi Tolga, Very nice to hear from you - and thank you for your kind words. I need to find a project in Turkey so we can grab some chai together.

Comment from Jack Dalley, (12/22/2020, 11:05 PM)

There are so many different types of concrete coatings that I'll use for my concrete driveway.

Comment from Tom Leonard, (3/30/2021, 7:07 AM)

I enjoyed reading this article. It is important to hire a contractor who value the quality and always on the standard especially when it comes to concrete.

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