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Tower Prep: An Interview with Curt Hickcox

Thursday, July 20, 2017

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You might call Curt Hickcox a “towering” figure in the coatings industry: Hickcox is vice president of business development for Public Utilities Maintenance Inc., an SSPC QP-1, QP-2 and QS-1 corrosion-control firm based in Queens Village, New York. PUM is focused on power transmission and distribution infrastructure, and throughout his 35-year career in coatings and corrosion management, Hickcox has focused largely on transmission towers. He is a member of SSPC, NACE and IEEE, and has served on three NACE/IEEE joint committees tasked with writing standards on corrosion control on transmission structures.

Curt Hickcox
Courtesy of Curt Hickcox

Curt Hickcox has 35 years of experience in the coatings industry, focusing primarily on electric transmission structures.

Hickcox co-authored the article “Transmission Tower and Pole Painting,” to be featured in the forthcoming August issue of JPCL, with Matthew McCane, of Greenman-Pedersen Inc. For our June surface prep special edition newsletter, Hickcox spoke with PaintSquare News about the special requirements of surface preparation on transmission towers.

PaintSquare: What’s the biggest difference between surface preparation on transmission structures and surface preparation on structures like bridges or tanks?

Curt Hickcox: The biggest issue, whether it’s surface prep or painting, is not only are you working at elevation and climbing all over these complex structures, but 90 percent of the time, the structures are energized. They don’t turn the power off while we’re up there. So you’ve got the combination of the complex, elevated structure and the issues associated with the energized electric circuits.

We do substations, too—it’s still the same issue. You’ve got the electricity issue and the climbing issue. That sets it apart from any other kind of painting.

You couple that with the fact that most of these towers are either heavily corroded or they have lead—the ones that have been previously painted, the vast majority have lead paint on them. The surface preparation becomes a bit more tricky. We’re dealing with lead—maybe not full abatement, but you’re removing old stuff and containing it. You’ve got issues of the type of structures they are, and where they’re located: Sometimes they’re on the water, in the water, in somebody’s backyard; you’ve got to collect the paint, collect the lead.

And just dealing with the configuration. Remember, we’re working with these energized lines; you can’t blast anything, and you can very seldom even use power tools, because you can’t have anything up there that can get into the energized circuit.

So, 98 or 99 percent of the time, we’re scraping or wire-brushing the tower. It’s all SP-2, which is a very labor-intensive project; picture a 150-foot lattice transmission tower, that’s a lot of surface area to climb and hand-scrape. It’s a slow process, it’s a physically demanding process.

How common is lead paint on these structures?

You’ll read in my article, in North America, there are basically around a million steel, high-voltage transmission structures. The bulk of them were built in the '60s, '70s and '80s, and the bulk of those were built of galvanized steel—lattice towers, especially—and they were never painted. But the rest of them, the older towers, or the tubular steel poles—in the past few years, they’ve been using more galvanized or weathering steel, but before that, it was all carbon steel, and that’s all lead.

Transmission  tower
© / gyn9038

According to Hickcox, there are about 1 million transmission towers in North America, and each year, about 5,000 are repainted.

There are tens of thousands of those. I guess the percentage, that’s a tough one, but we’re probably at this point at [a 60-40 split], galvanized versus lead, something like that. But it’s fairly even. Even this year, a lot of the lattice towers we’re working on were painted, so [in some cases] we’ve even got lead on the lattice towers. In a typical year, we’re dealing with lead on at least 50 percent of the work we do.

Pacific Gas and Electric recently announced a major project to eliminate lead paint hazards on their towers, and they noted that they weren’t looking to remove all lead paint from the structures, just to remove what’s loose, then encapsulate what’s still adhered. Is that typical of these jobs?

It’s never a full removal—well, “never” is a big word, but I can’t remember a job where we’ve ever done a full removal. It’s typically SP-2 or SP-3. But if you use SP-3, typically you’ve got cables and all that. If there’s lead in there, you’re raising more dust. So really it’s all just hand-scraping and wire brushing to remove loose stuff. Leave the tightly adherent coating.

Containment and worker protection presumably won’t be as strict on that kind of job as on a blasting job; what kind of health and environmental precautions are taken on these projects?

If there’s lead involved, the guys all wear Tyvek suits, they wear respirators, we do blood monitoring, air monitoring, we do all that stuff. Even though it’s a minor exposure because we’re not raising dust, we’re not blasting.

If there’s no lead involved, it’s just normal PPE—a lot of them wear dust masks, respirators. Not full air-vent stuff; we don’t need that because we’re not blasting.

As far as environmental stuff—if there’s no lead involved, there’s not a lot, because there’s barely any exposure. If there’s lead involved, it can vary a little bit depending on the location of the structure and how much lead is involved, whether to build any kind of containment. That doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen occasionally. Most of the time, what’s compliant with the law is: We tarp the ground, we do the scraping, the bulk of it falls to the ground, it’s basically paint chips. We remove them with a HEPA vacuum, put them in drums, and the utility typically disposes of it as hazardous waste in their normal hazardous waste stream.

If the structure is in the water, or in somebody’s yard, it might be a little more involved. It just depends.

How does the surface preparation method affect coating selection on these projects?

The coatings that we use are [...] typically designed specifically for transmission structures.

There’s more to it than just the surface prep: The configuration of these towers, it’s very difficult to use products that are two-component, that have a pot life, because you don’t paint that fast. You’re on the ground, if you mix up an epoxy that has a two-hour pot life, you can’t go through it that fast.

Nickthestick26, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hickcox works on projects involving substations in addition to transmission towers.

So, we use single-component products, very surface-tolerant. Whether there’s a coating on there, or rust, it’s generally a very deep profile. It’s not a 1- or 2-mil profile; it could be a 4-, 5-, 6-mil profile. The product we generally use is 90 percent solids, the optimal dry-film thickness is 8-10 mils, and it’s a slow dryer, which allows it to bond to the rust and the old paint. It’s an old technology that was developed in the 1950s, and it still works.

There are other products, like epoxy mastics, but they have detriments, like the pot life. When you take everything into account—the level of surface preparation, mixing, pot life, application methods, all that stuff, this older technology is still the way to go.

What’s the biggest message you’d want to communicate about the work you do?

I try to communicate this at Public Utilities Maintenance, but also when I wear my NACE/IEEE hat: The problem with the work that we do, it’s considered by the regulators to be a maintenance expense. Utilities nowadays, since deregulation, don’t have any maintenance money. They have all kinds of capital money, to build stuff and that sort of thing, but most utilities have very little maintenance money. So they’re not doing the work.

There’s a million towers in North America; in a good painting year, 5,000 might get painted. The problem is, nobody has any maintenance money to spend. The work doesn’t get done, the towers get worse and worse and worse. Especially if there’s lead involved, then it comes to the point where now you have to do more surface preparation; you’ve got to do power-tool cleaning. If you have to do power-tool cleaning, now you have to take an outage on the line. Now you have to do more containment. The cost, the effect on the worker and the environment, gets a lot more significant. What we’re trying to tell people is, don’t wait ‘til they get so bad! Most of the front-line engineers understand that, but they don’t have the money.

Some utilities are very proactive and have a long-term program, and paint them every year. But they’re the exception. More often, it’s “I’d better keep my head in the sand and let the next guy do it.” Or, “I’ve got all kinds of capital money; I’ll just replace them!” They’ll spend $200,000 to replace a tower instead of $10,000 to paint it.

That’s really my story with regard to surface preparation: The sooner you do it, the less it’s going to cost. It’s just like anywhere else, but even more so with the type of structure we have.


Tagged categories: Power; Sanding and hand tool cleaning; SSPC-SP 2; Surface preparation; Transmission Towers

Comment from Anthony Nicholas, (7/20/2017, 4:02 PM)

That's the message for sure Curt! "The sooner you do it, the less it’s going to cost". Simple stuff..........

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