Getting Better Infrastructure Via Better Bid Specs

Specifying coatings for water facilities can be tricky. Consultation with coatings experts can lead to selection of a product that protects effectively and extends service life.
Getting Better Infrastructure Via Better Bid Specs

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Whether restoring existing assets or building new ones, municipalities need to make reasonable economic decisions about how to best update their wastewater infrastructure. Many could benefit from more knowledge when specifying protective coatings and lining materials and from writing better bid specs.

One issue is that municipalities usually don’t have experts on staff qualified to develop complete and accurate coatings project specifications. As a result, specifiers simply choose solutions that worked in the past and use those specifications, no matter how old. They may also approve change requests from bidders without knowing the implications of swapping out technologies. In addition, they can be prone to accepting low bids from contractors with suspect qualifications because the specifications don’t accurately define the project parameters.

All this means many municipalities inadvertently limit competition from qualified bidders and restrict their ability to take advantage of newer technologies. The key to better infrastructure outcomes is to consult with experts, improve the specifications, select the most appropriate products, and ensure that qualified contractors are part of the bidding process.

Relying on experts

To develop accurate project specifications, it’s critical to know which coatings and linings are the most suitable to address specific situations. However, neither small nor large municipalities typically employ coatings experts.

At best, they may have staff engineers with broad knowledge about wastewater infrastructure and the materials used to control corrosion and facilitate repairs. However, without help from a qualified coatings expert, these engineers are likely to make specification mistakes, from not considering newer technologies to improperly defining service environments and specifying inappropriate products. Getting help from a local engineering firm may lead to the same missteps if that firm also lacks a coatings expert.

The remedy for these concerns is to work directly with representatives from third-party coatings suppliers during specification writing. This ensures that all parties have the most accurate information to complete the specification. For repair projects, the process should involve a site visit so that the coatings representative can inspect the service environment and note any specific challenges.

For example, consider a headworks repair specification that calls for products rated for immersion service. If the repair is also within a highly corrosive vapor zone and that detail is left out of the spec, the products offered in the bids likely won’t adequately address the more severe environment. A coating supplier’s involvement can ensure that the specification properly defines the site conditions.

Updating old specs

When building new facilities or expanding existing ones, municipalities often revert to the original materials and construction specifications used for older assets. Unfortunately, this may exclude new and better products introduced since those specs were developed. Copying older specs may also limit competition: Some bidders may not respond because they no longer use the products specified.

It’s best to make sure everyone involved in the process considers all potential solutions — old and new — to produce the best specification. This starts with recognizing and questioning older specification language.

Especially problematic are specified technologies that don’t meet current life cycle expectations, such as a commodity-based aliphatic urethane coating specified for a water tank exterior. Such products may deliver only a three- to five-year lifespan, whereas a fluoropolymer coating could extend the service life to upwards of 25 years with significantly better UV stability and color and gloss retention. Reliance on the original specification would mean much shorter maintenance cycles and higher total cost of ownership.

Another risk for older repair specifications is that the service environment may have changed. For example, a specification for a 25-year-old wastewater treatment plant may stipulate the use of coal tar epoxies. However, the plant today likely has more corrosive operating environments that would rapidly deteriorate such material. Therefore, the specification should be updated to include newer, more suitable technologies, such as a polyurethane elastomer or a glass flake-filled, amine-cured epoxy.

Handling change requests

After projects are put out to bid, contractors sometimes request to use different materials than those specified. However, the municipal staff members usually aren’t qualified to know whether a substitute coating or lining is acceptable. In these cases, it is advisable to reconnect with a coatings supplier expert who can verify whether the alternative will deliver the intended results.

Failure to verify a change request can mean exposure to greater risk. For example, on one real-world project bid, the municipal engineer issued a specification for a robust zinc, urethane, fluoropolymer topcoat system. Instead, a contractor requested to use an epoxy system with a polyurethane topcoat.

The contractor claimed this recommendation was equal to the specified system, but in fact, it was not even comparable. The proposed substitution cost less than one-third of the specified solution, but it did not meet the requirements for service life and aesthetics. If the municipality had not asked a coatings expert for advice, it may have accepted the lowball bid and faced the reality of short-term performance and higher life cycle costs.

The right help

Another pitfall is failure to understand who is qualified to do the work. Many municipalities simply select the lowest bidder, not questioning whether the contractor is qualified to do the job correctly or will use the specified materials.

The solution to this problem is to separate specialty coating applications from regular painting, explicitly stating the project parameters and required qualifications from bidders. It is then necessary to look beyond a contractor’s ability to brush, roll, or spray coatings and to require references, documentation of quality-control processes, copies of safety programs, and more as part of the bid submittal.

Contractors with extensive quality, safety, and other programs may not offer the lowest prices. Therefore, evaluators should look not just for the lowest bidder, but also for the lowest responsible bidder, based on the submitted information. An alternative is to ask a coatings supplier for a list of qualified applicators before issuing a bid. This should ensure a greater number of accurate bids.

Improving outcomes

Municipalities can overcome a lack of in-house expertise when drafting coating and lining project specifications by working with coatings experts to define project operating environments and conditions and the expectations for service life and aesthetics. Often, this exercise reveals oversights in older specifications that can be updated to reflect modern technologies.

A coatings expert can also help qualify bidders and review proposed change requests to ensure that competent contractors use appropriate products. Following these steps will help officials develop better specs that can lead to improved project outcomes.

About the author

Kevin Morris is market segment director for water and wastewater with Sherwin-Williams Protective and Marine Coatings. He can be reached at


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