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Comment |

Can We Save Our Corroding Infrastructure?


By Warren Brand

Just the Facts, Ma’am

It's time for a new way of thinking.

Let’s first start with a story from a 60 Minutes exposé that aired November 23, 2014. CBS correspondent Steve Kroft reported the story “Falling Apart: America’s Neglected Infrastructure.”

One of Kroft’s guests was Ray LaHood, former secretary of transportation under Obama’s first administration. At the time the report aired, he was also co-chair of a committee pushing for more spending on infrastructure.

Photos: Warren Brand

A typical rusted bridge column in Evanston, IL, only a few miles from my home. This type of corrosion is ubiquitous within the U.S. infrastructure, yet there are no intermediate (inexpensive) steps being taken to reduce, or stop, the rate of corrosion until full remediation can be carried out.

I’ll paste here only the first few comments taken from the CBS News website, where you can watch the piece and read the transcript:

Ray LaHood: Our infrastructure is on life support right now. That's what we're on.

Steve Kroft: According to the government, there are 70,000 bridges that have been deemed structurally deficient.

LaHood: Yep.

Kroft: What does that mean?

LaHood: It means that there are bridges that need to be really either replaced or repaired in a very dramatic way.

Kroft: They're dangerous?

LaHood: I don't want to say they're unsafe. But they're dangerous. I would agree with that.

So we have a problem. LaHood was talking about the worst of the bridges, but there are many more that remain structurally sound yet—as you read this blog—are slowly and surely rusting away.

The gist of the 60 Minutes piece was, not surprisingly, that we need to throw more money at the problem.

But the 60 Minutes piece missed the mark. I know something about this for two reasons.

First, I was a journalist, writing for a daily newspaper in Southern California many years ago, and my undergraduate degree is in journalism.

Second, I’m a competent corrosion professional.

I tracked down Steve Kroft’s contact information and called and sent him an email. When I persisted, I received a call from his production associate, Allison Saltstein.

Close-up of same column exhibiting severe pack rust which either will, or already has, lead to exceedingly costly structural damage.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that CBS had no interest in delving deeper into the meat of the story, as it is complex and filled with powerful interest groups.

There are also many facets to the story, but I will only talk about one: how to fix our infrastructure.

Where’s the Life Support?

LaHood referred to our infrastructure as being on “life support,” but I think that misses the mark.

There are no interim triage-like steps I can see being taken to prolong our bridges’ personified lives. We’re all just sitting around watching them rust away waiting until we have enough money to paint them.

It’s like watching someone who was just stabbed, laying on the ground bleeding, while everyone stands around saying: “Yeah, wow, that guy is sure in trouble. What a shame. Look at all that blood. Looks like he might die. But let’s all wait and not do anything until we have enough money to get him to a hospital and have a bunch of surgeons work on him. Hopefully, he’ll live long enough to make it to major surgery.”

Of course, the injured man would receive care from bystanders, then from paramedics on the way to the hospital, then from people in the emergency, and so forth. There would be a number of steps for assisting the injured man before he got to surgery.

But where’s the life support for our bridges and infrastructure? The flow chart is tragically simple for rusted structure: Do nothing or do everything.

And here we all are, knowing with 100 percent certainty that our infrastructure is literally rusting away in front of our eyes, and we have only one expensive solution: blasting and coating or other costly remediation.

How about we triage our bridges and find some inexpensive Band-Aids, tourniquets and meds to halt or dramatically reduce the corrosion until we have the funds to fix them over the long-term?

Paint Over the Existing Rust

(I can hear the gasps….)

I’ve been in the coating industry for nearly 30 years, and in that time I’ve come across, researched, read about or applied thousands of different materials.

I painted every other rusted piece of rebar. The white stripes are the rebar which was painted on a bridge in a suburb outside of Chicago. The waterborne material was applied with a brush, with no surface preparation whatsoever. This type of material, and others, should be evaluated as an interim step in saving the U.S. infrastructure. Data indicates, that this, and similar materials, have a very high likelihood of stopping or greatly reducing corrosion very inexpensively until such time as major, substantial repairs can be carried out.

From everything I’ve seen and read, I have found only two that can be applied over rust with no surface preparation whatsoever.

Both products are single-component; one is waterborne and the other high solids. Both are manufactured abroad and are ridiculously easy to use, reasonably priced and require virtually no training.

I installed one of these products just a few weeks ago on the severely corroded rebar of a bridge in a western suburb of Chicago.

The material was water-based, and I literally shook it up, poured it out and brushed it on to every other exposed, rusted piece of rebar as an informal proof of concept.

Application took about 20 minutes, and I used about a quart of material, or around $20 worth.

Will it work over the long term? I’m not certain. I do have rusted samples in my backyard that are two years old now and performing well. The data I’ve read and conversations I’ve had with the manufacturers look promising.

In my proof of concept, I would suspect that it will reduce rust on the coated rebar between 75 percent and 100 percent over the next five years.

At left is a closeup of painted, rusted rebar. The material deeply penetrated all rusted areas. On the right is a closeup of untreated rusted rebar.

Additionally, the material was so easy to apply and inexpensive, it could be reapplied as many times as necessary to extend corrosion protection until such time as funds are available for a more comprehensive repair.

A New Way of Thinking

The technical complexities of rust are sublime and far too complex for this brief blog. However, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the concept of finding suitable materials to go directly over rust with little or no surface preparation is valid—and should be explored immediately. It’s not like there’s a shortage of rusted bridges and overpasses we could use for proofs of concept.

And it may be the case that a simple power wash might improve performance profoundly and inexpensively. In fact, one of the materials is designed to be applied onto a damp, rusted surface.

It very well may be the case that, for pennies per square foot, we as a nation can stop, or seriously reduce, the corrosion rate of all of our bridges and infrastructure by rethinking the issues.

My hope is that someone in reading this will either act, or pass it along to those with the authority to act.

My hope is that this blog will make it into the hands of those in authority (public or private) who have the intellectual capacity to think critically about the issues and courage enough to make some tough decisions.

And finally, on May 5, 2016, I am hosting the third, annual Engineered Corrosion Solutions conference, where we will talk about alternative approaches to rust remediation, among many other topics. Hope to see you there.


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; Bridges; Corrosion; Corrosion control coatings; Corrosion inhibitors; Corrosion protection; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; North America; Roads/Highways; Rust

Comment from Mario Colica, (10/7/2015, 3:42 AM)

The most effective remedy to save corroded iron structures and rusted rebar is spraying Zinc ,of course ,after an accurate blasting preparation. There many examples in the world and the authorities they know how to deal with it

Comment from Brandon Lecrone, (10/7/2015, 6:33 AM)

I love the idea and think it could do a lot of good. Wondering how the author proposes we paint all the rusting rebar that is still embedded in concrete and not accessible?

Comment from Frank Goodwin, (10/7/2015, 8:58 AM)

The interior rebar can be protected by zinc thermal spraying the surface. This has been done for many Oregon coastal bridges, see S. D. Cramer, et al, “Corrosion Prevention and Remediation Strategies for Reinforced Concrete Coastal Bridges.” Cement and Concrete Composites, Line 24, No. 1, February 2002, pp. 101-117. I agree with Mario Colica for the exposed rebar.

Comment from Warren Brand, (10/7/2015, 7:17 PM)

Mario, I don't disagree. However, the cost of what I did, if I had coated all the rebar on the bridge instead of every other one, would have been less than $500.00. There was no blasting, no downtime, no lane shutdowns, etc. The whole point of the blog is that owners cannot always afford, certainly in the short term, to remediate corrosion issues "optimally." Brandon, I haven't looked into it, but I would suspect that there are materials that would go a long way to reducing corrosion on embedded rebar. If a solution of water and salt are able to penetrate into the concrete to reach the rebar, I believe there are materials which can be applied on the surface of the concrete to reach the rebar and reduce (stop) "hidden" corrosion. The point of the blog is let's start looking at new ways to get good, if not, perfect, results. Frank, I would say the same thing to your astute comment that I said to Mario. Of course there are optimal and very costly ways to get the job done. But are there dramatically less-costly solutions which will benefit clients in the interim?

Comment from Joe Miller, (10/8/2015, 10:13 AM)

Warren, I agree with your approach completely. I too have over 30 years of experience in the paints and coatings world. Trouble is that it is very difficult to get decision-makers to adopt your/our approach. Since they are mostly Professional Engineers each of them and the outfits they work for have different algorithms for waht works, for what is cost-effective and what they can get approved from their upper managements. So not only are budgets insufficient the conditions of the infrastructure is so bad that only critical items can get attended to. And I think rightly so since the Governmental Agencies were told that these are 1,000 year structures and now they are failing at far less than that time period. I am also including steel reinforced concrete structures. So yes you are correct but the root causes of the decision makers must be addressed or else we go nowhere. I have tried for many, many years to convince the engineers---and I am still trying to do so. I even have proposed a topical liquid crystalline penetrating sealer/waterproofer for bdige decks and columns---and I am still not gaining much acceptance of it---despite the fact that it is a patented formulation and many successful projects worldwide. So I humbly ask---what can we do to change hearts and minds? Hope this helps. Thanks, Joe Miller/President/

Comment from Warren Brand, (10/8/2015, 11:33 AM)

Hi Joe, thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree 100%. It is astonishing that decision-makers will not take a better look at alternative, sound solutions. I've burned many a bridge on this blog and in my business by fundamentally telling technical truths that have the potential of taking away large sums of money from highly influential vendors. We rarely market to government agencies anymore. The red-tape, politics and other issues are too time-consuming to overcome.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (10/8/2015, 12:12 PM)

Warren, When you finish your evaluation, will you publish with the material names?

Comment from Antonio Leal, (10/9/2015, 8:01 AM)

According to the pictures shown above, where appears protected irons bars and not protected,why was applied white matter on the "protected", hiding poured?

Comment from Joe Miller, (10/9/2015, 9:09 AM)

Warren, Thanks for your kind words. Yes there are also other issues to consider to try and get P.E.'s to make changes based not only on efficacy but on reducing or eliminating toxic products such as Silanes and Siloxanes. These compounds are toxic to plants, animals and the technicians who apply them. But getting DOT's and P.E.'s to create new categories for Clear Water Repellents seems to be impossible as well. Even a quick review of MSDS's reveals these statements to be true for these materials yet getting even a review of the new, patented, non-toxic crystalline penetrating waterproofing formulations is something I have NOT been able to achieve despite my several decades of experience and presentation of the patent data. What does it take to get changes made that would clearly benefit the taxpayers, the application techinians and the rest of us who drink water that runs off these structures and enters the water table---albeit over a long period of time. By the way, the same goes for the use of toxic, coal-tart based sealers used on asphalt surfaces that also pollutes our water supply with known carcinogens. Hope this helps, Joe Miller/President/

Comment from john schultz, (10/9/2015, 10:38 AM)

Goodness gracious. If the state dot would have just beat the rust off those bridges and put on just a rusty metal primer it would reduce the corrosion rates until they could budget the money for something better. Why let them just rust away? It doesn't have to be only sspc certified union employees in space suits all the time does it? Could basic prep be used with labor by prison teams or the welfare to work candidates? Basic maintenance has been neglected for decades on these structures because "The most effective remedy to save corroded iron structures and rusted rebar is spraying Zinc ,of course ,after an accurate blasting preparation" (no offense, Mario) is the mentality that prevents routine basic maintenance. Now it is a huge problem instead of a series of minor ones.

Comment from Warren Brand, (10/9/2015, 11:38 AM)

Hi Tom, I'm struggling to remain vendor neutral and the testing I've done has been highly informal. In the first place, there are no "rust" standards. So it's impossible to define what rust actually is, as it's a complex material.

Comment from Warren Brand, (10/9/2015, 11:41 AM)

Hi Joe, I hope it's the case that decision-makers are simply overwhelmed and too busy to make these individual evaluations. However, there may be other reasons that there is not a mechanism for evaluation of alternative solutions.

Comment from Warren Brand, (10/9/2015, 11:45 AM)

Hi John, Bingo. In talking to the Village I conducted the proof of concept for, we were talking about using college labor - which would work just fine. In their case, two college kids could do the entire bridge in a day. The material selection is secondary to the change in attitude. Without a fundamental change in attitude, no materials or alternative solutions will ever be evaluated. It's concerning that no decision makers are speaking up - or engineering, architectural or consulting firms. Their silence is deafening.

Comment from luiz de miranda, (10/9/2015, 8:13 PM)

I have a technology based on eletrochemicma I develloped a technology based on solid electrochemical principles and after 8 years, in a catalysis plant, the corrosion stopped at all. Some time ago I tried show this in this site but the coordinator understood as publicity.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (10/12/2015, 8:53 AM)

Joe: I see a major obstacle to DOTs adopting your clear water repellent. The word "patent." Typically there are laws and/or regulations in place which make it significantly difficult (and certainly requiring more effort/time/documentation) when a proprietary or sole-source material is specified for use.

Comment from john schultz, (10/13/2015, 8:30 AM)

Warren, Thanks for bringing this article to light. I believe it is just institutional inertia that keeps things like this from happening. The public works departments are closed fiefdoms with bureaucratic walls that prevent new products and ideas from reaching decision makers. Short anecdote - My sister works with us in the paint store. She had to purchase a lobbying permit to go to our school paint standards committee meeting. At her suggestion, not all the other guys in the room, they get off their self-imposed product testing and are moving to use MPI for future specs. This is a no brainer but it would never have happened without the will to break the barriers and speak up. I'm going to use the email sharing app above to send this to our public works contacts.

Comment from Warren Brand, (10/13/2015, 9:41 AM)

Hi John, Thanks for taking the time to respond. I had no idea when I started my consulting firm that politics and related issues would play any role. It's why I spend very little time marketing to governmental agencies. Thanks for passing along the article. Kind Regards, Warren

Comment from Joe Miller, (10/14/2015, 5:23 AM)

Tom, OK so it's another catch 22? Patent Laws and Patent Office and Patent Review Process exist to allow even small outfits or individuals to invest the time, money and effort to "invent" new technologies. Then the Patent Office issues the Patent and a 17 year "window" for the patent holders to take their inventions to market. Other Governmental Agencies and Quasi-Governmental Agencies actively resist evaluations of patented technologies due to an over emphasis on open bidding. So we the taxpayers lose both ways. Filing for patents takes a lot of time and money. And then these other Governmental Agencies block adoption of these technologies. Does anyone think that the U.S. Patent Office is NOT checking the efficacy of these technologies? Does the U.S.Patent Office exist because they do not know what they are doing? Sounds like Warren is correct---something else is going on within the Governmental Agencies that should NOT be going on. How can we fix this? Thanks, Joe Miller/President/

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (10/14/2015, 8:46 AM)

Joe - it's usually possible for agencies to use patented products, but it imposes another significant hurdle to approval. Typically the open bidding requirement is imposed by legislation (ie Congress or state legislature) and the agencies have to obey it. And yes, I think the US Patent office is NOT checking the efficacy of technologies. They don't have a testing department.

Comment from Warren Brand, (10/15/2015, 9:26 AM)

Hi Tom, I also don't understand why there's such a propensity for DOT's to test. The only time we "test" anything is during a proof of concept, which is typically to evaluate logistics, production rates, application procedures (if the contractor has never used the material before), production rates, appearances, etc. Instead of testing, our firm does a considerable amount of research. There's ample data on all but the newest products on the market, and I'm not sure why anyone would want to test a newer product, and go through accelerated testing when there's also ample data to support that accelerated testing is an exceedingly poor analog for real-world performance. I remember your response to a blog I wrote which touched on this briefly, where you enlightened us about whale oil as a paint additive.

Comment from Joe Miller, (10/15/2015, 12:24 PM)

Tom, Open Bidding should mean everyone bidding gets a shot at the project. They could all be bidding the same products/systems. To insist on 3 products seems like a deliberate attempt to exclude superior technologies that might just be patented too. So therefore an over-reliance on supposedly competitive bidding driven it seems by over zealous manufacturers or distributors who want to insert their stuff into the bidding process. It does not seem like this process allows for patented products to get a fair shot. And it stifles innovation and progress. Thanks, Joe Miller/President/

Comment from Warren Brand, (10/16/2015, 9:39 AM)

While I am not an advocate of big government, there is precedence for a government mandated performance specification for bridges. Back in the 1980s EPA enforced guidelines for corrosion protection of underground storage tanks. The internal lining material had to be a certain mil thickness, the manufacturer had to guarantee the material for 10 years, and applicators needed to be certified. Yet here we all are, wasting time and taxpayers money testing, and supporting no interim solutions, scratching our heads trying to find good coating systems for bridges. Here, I'll save our economy billions by providing a spec to make all new bridge last between 40 and 100 years with little to no maintenance. Galvanize it and then coat it. Existing bridges, there are paint systems out there today, that are decades old that, which, if installed properly, will provide decades of service.

Comment from Joe Miller, (10/19/2015, 11:31 AM)

Warren, Achieving useful life of well over 100 years for these expensive and critical infrastructure elements, I think, should be our goal. Bridges cost an immense amount of money and they require a long time to construct. Even pre-cast concrete elements although faster to build still take a long time to do so. And these bridges are critical to our transportation system. Therefore I suggest we should all be looking at solutions to extending the useful lives of these structures to 200, 300 or more years. The cost-benefit equations are very, very favorable to do so as well. Hope this helps. Thanks, Joe Miller/President/

Comment from Susan Holt, (4/30/2018, 2:12 PM)

Wow this is crazy! I wonder if these said bridges are still in fact rusting away. It wouldn't surprise me one bit. Money has long been an issue for multiple states to fix infrastructures and roads. And with all the war and natural disasters lately we are falling further behind in debt.

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