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Specifications: Does Anyone Still Care?


By Warren Brand

When I was nine or 10, my summers were spent with gun-toting workmen, driving around Chicago in old blue Metros, lining the exterior bottoms of 275-gallon tanks in the city’s basements. 

I would watch as these guys ground the tank bottom to SSPC-SP3 (long before the standard existed), cleaned it with “jet clean,” hand-applied one of the first 100% epoxies on the market, and embedded fiberglass cloth.

Photos: Warren Brand

Back in the day, our Metro would stop at a light, and the sloshing of 500 gallons of oil in the tanks welded into the back would rock the van back and forth. The workers lined; I mostly whined.

They would then hoist a row of heat lamps to force-cure the coating and return the tank to service.

Being a kid, I would complain about the smell and the boredom and ask if we could finish and go. But they were meticulous.

“Nope,” Robert would say. “It’s done when it’s done.”

Or Vic would say, “Can’t rush perfection.”

Back then, we offered a 20-year guarantee that the tank bottoms wouldn't leak—and we honored it.

275G Tank

The 275-gallon tank was a canvas for Robert's and Vic's lining artistry. And the work was guaranteed for 20 years.

When an elderly  lady called 18 years after a job to say her tank was leaking, Robert and Vic were out there the next day to fix it at no charge.

Specifications Stakes

Fast-forward some 45 years, and I fear that something has changed.

Granted, as a consultant, all I see are jobs that have gone bad.

But just this past week, I spoke with a contractor who said this about specifications: “Yeah, we look at them, but don’t really follow them unless we know an inspector’s coming.”

The same week, I reviewed a specification that had a number of simple, careless errors. And this was from a Fortune 100 company.

And just a few weeks ago, I identified serious flaws in a tank lining specification for a major automaker.

The client understood how serious the concerns were: They would, with 100 percent certainty, either cause a catastrophic failure or severely shorten the coating system’s service life.

Coating Failure

Specifications? Said one client: “Yeah, we look at them, but don’t really follow them unless we know an inspector’s coming." Experience tells me that that's too late.

But our repeated calls and emails to her went unanswered.

‘Just Paint’

What is going on here? Complacency? Lack of understanding? Project overload?

Whatever it is, it resides in varying degrees throughout coating procurement, in engineers, architects, salespersons, contractors and inspectors.

Owners, reliability engineers and others are overworked and tasked with responsibility for painting projects whose complexities elude them.

The refrain is the same: “It’s just paint. How hard can it be?”

Where’s the Coating?

Here's how hard.

We recently conducted a summary failure analysis of a floating roof tank in Wisconsin. The tank had been lined just four years earlier. Yet, chunks and pieces of it had been collecting in filters.

And as I peered at the tank's interior with my 70,000-candlepower firefighter's light, my mind became confused at what I was seeing—or, rather, not seeing.

The tank looked as if it had never been coated. There was no coating on the floor, none on the walls, and none on the bottom of the roof.

RoofTankCoating CoatingRemnants

The lining had been applied four years earlier. And the tank looked as if it had never been coated.

There was a thin black layer of something that looked like mill scale, but what was it?

Eventually, we found a black, greasy area that looked like a folded pancake hurled on the griddle. It wasn’t a pancake.

It was a coating. And when scraped with a multi-tool, it peeled right off.

The conclusion: The tank had been only minimally blasted before coating.

The consequence: failure of a magnitude I’d seen only once before.

The Pool that Peeled

That earlier case, about 15 years prior, involved the lining of a stainless-steel pool for a new high-rise in downtown Chicago.

About 18 months after the installation, the coating was cracking. The contractor and I were able to peel it off in 15-foot strips.


As it turned out, the stainless steel had not been blasted at all. You could see the grease pen marks from the original construction.

With no profile, it was a miracle that the coating had adhered for as long as it had.


The 18-month-old coating peeled clean off. As it turned out, the stainless steel had not been blasted at all. The only surprise was that the coating system had adhered as long as it had.

The case of the floating tank, however, was different. That later project had on-site inspectors, protocols, competent contractors and highly competent engineers.

Yet, in both cases, the catastrophic result was the same.

Bad Specs, Good Projects

Fellow PaintSquare blogger Lee Wilson recently wrote a great column called, “When Bad Specs Happen to Good Projects.”

The blog does a great job of exploring the flaws found in too many specifications—documents that you can hold, read, review and see the lack of care.

But while Lee focused on the "how" of bad specifications, I would like to address the why. I feel that the ubiquity of bad specifications is a symptom of a much more serious problem in our industry: complacency.

I wrote two blogs in the past six months critical of some of these practices and was crucified for them.

But the longer I’m in the industry, the more evident these serious issues appear.

Knowing, Not Caring

In recent weeks, I’ve reviewed specifications for a car maker, a chemical company, a school district, and a wastewater plant. Each specification was filled with errors that could compromise service life, if not cause outright failure.

Lee offered a variety of great solutions for such problems:

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

What to Do

Now, I don’t know what can be done about complacency, since the word implies a degree of not caring.

But I do know what can be done about owners, asset managers and others who feel demoralized and overwhelmed: Educate them.


Asset managers and owners who learn the basics and importance of the specifications will stay in the swim, along with their facilities.

Complacent individuals lack the motivation to do better. Demoralized individuals care, but need the tools and support to do better.

Seeding Solutions

Here are some tools and support I offer. Last year, I launched a vendor-neutral conference for asset owners and managers called Engineered Corrosion Solutions (ECS).

Attendance was thin, but the program was a technical Mecca. One NASA professional said it was one of the best technical conferences he’d attended.

Second, we just developed a brief educational quiz that more than 500 people have taken.

The experience has clearly proved both vexing and enlightening. Few people have gotten all eight questions correct.

The feedback (including a sincere offer to punch the test maker in the throat) has been colorful, to say the least. But we all have learned from it.

Whether you’re demoralized, overwhelmed, complacent or none of the above, I hope you'll check it out and share your thoughts.


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; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America; Quality control; Quality Control; Specification; Specifiers

Comment from M. Halliwell, (6/22/2015, 11:47 AM)

Warren, Thank you for the quiz. I'm not directly working with the application of coating systems as my 9-5 involves environmental engineering...I do deal with related items (i.e. lead paint, trying to get contractors to control blasting dust clouds and such) but it's not my forte. I was delighted to find that with a little common sense and some information gleaned from PaintSquare over the last couple years, I was able to ace the quiz. It just makes me wonder: where has the quality and pride in workmanship gone? I can understand the overwhelmed (more folks being asked to do more with less) and complacency / well as a bit of the "it's just a job" mentality in this age of short term, part-time workers. Still, if I can have the common sense to figure out the answers when I'm not directly in the industry, why can't those in the field figure it out? I know there are great painters and coaters out there...but it is too bad that it is becoming less the art and science that it once was and more "just a job" than ever. -Michael

Comment from Warren Brand, (6/22/2015, 7:06 PM)

Hi Michael, Thanks for taking the time to take the quiz (glad you enjoyed it) and thanks for taking the time to write here. The short answer is, some people pick up the fundamental concepts quickly - and some don't. It sounds like your an engineer by trade and education - which I suspect explains your ability to grasp the concepts. What I've written about is only the very tip of the iceberg. There are many, many subtle ways for people to intentionally or otherwise, skimp.

Comment from Matthew Burkett, (6/23/2015, 7:00 AM)

Warren Good article and quiz. Things will never get better. You will always be looking at failures. The people that write the specifications are not always qualified. The end client doesn't understand the risks. They think all responsibility is on the contractor and he will pay if anything goes wrong. The end client does not specify a thorough quality control process to be submitted, and probably wouldn't know what to do with it anyway if it was submitted. Most small contractors could never survive a failure and subsequent claim. Many contractors are incompetent. Driven by the almighty dollar, compromises and the attitude, 'she'll be right', are the order of the day. Unless the end client, the contractor who does the bid, and the painter blaster doing the work are educated, then there is not much hope. Famous words: You don't get what you EXPECT, You get what you INSPECT.

Comment from Wayne Yancey, (7/1/2015, 11:15 AM)

Warren. Thanks for the quiz. I scored 6 correctly. I am an architectural specifier with 48 years in the construction industry. Every thing Matthew said above applies to the entire construction industry. Owners want best quality for the least $. Contractors are only interested in the margin.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (7/2/2015, 11:01 AM)

Sadly, Matthew and Wayne, I think you're both right. The client and consultants / specification writers have been working hard for a long time to pass liability on to the contractor (while not necessarily specifying with enough info to truly do the job right). At the same time, they have been pushing for lower and lower pricing. The contractors are taking the less than stellar specs and, to be competitive in price, they are going least possible effort and least possible cost. I don't want to say we've lost the ability to do high quality work with actual craftsmanship, but I will say that it has become exceptionally rare to encounter it in this day and age.

Comment from William Feliciano, (7/3/2015, 1:24 PM)

There's an element of truth to everything stated above. Unfortunately, in today's day and age many projects must be completed in a rush, "due-yesterday-kind-of-thing". Time is indeed money, but when you want a coating to perform as intended for many years, investing the required minutes or hours for proper dry or cure shouldn't be asking too much. Way too often this is not the case. When the coating does fail prematurely, the initial rush to get it done has long been forgotten; only the search for the culpable remains. My two cents. Wishing everyone here a happy 4th of July.

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