By Steve Prokopy
While the American Concrete Pipe Association (ACPA) continues internal efforts to streamline its operations with the goal of cutting costs, the group has also spent a great deal of time looking outward, specifically at alternative pipe products coming in from outside of North America that have not gone through the same certification and testing processes as have members‘ products.While imports may have the advantage of being less expensive upfront, 2010 ACPA Chairman Mark Omelaniec, president, The Langley Group of Companies, Langley, British Columbia, sees the longer-term outlook for such products to be potentially disastrous and costly. As a result, the ACPA has made it a priority to call attention to the influx of such products whenever it gets word from members that new, unproven drainage structures are being introduced through U.S. companies.
"It happens a lot more than you might think, and these products are introduced into either the United States or Canada," Omelaniec told Concrete Products, "and the sellers say; “It’s been used in Australia, so we should automatically be allowed to use it in the United States or Canada.” We're seeing that happen more and more, and it's a concern to ACPA because due diligence hasn't been done on installation or design procedures for a lot of these products. And because it was done in Australia or China or Europe doesn't necessarily mean it can be brought into North America and be used. It's become more of an issue in the last four or five years, and there are a couple of products, in particular, that we are very concerned about. For some reason they are able to convince DOTs to use them before they even have an installation or design procedure for them, which is really shocking to the association and the members.The Langley Concrete Group
at a glance
The Langley Concrete Group of Companies is comprised of two precast concrete manufacturing facilities in British Columbia—Langley Concrete & Tile Ltd. in Langley and Lombard Pre-Cast Inc., near Victoria. The group was formed in 1989 when Langley Concrete bought the assets of two other companies, resulting in an organization that formed the second-largest precast firm in British Columbia. The group is 100 percent Canadian owned and operated, with the Omelaniec family retaining control in both ownership and management. The parent company has been incorporated since 1960 and operated for 20 years prior to incorporation. The group has production capabilities that include: reinforced and non-reinforced concrete pipe, box culverts, manhole in all standard configurations, precast manhole bases, light pole bases, highway barriers, curbs, agricultural & specialized precast, Shaw Span precast culvert/ bridge system, PVC-lined pipe and manhole products, and custom products.
The Langley Group provides quality products that exceed the expectations of both the specifications and the end user. All pipe, manhole, catch basins, and related appurtenances are manufactured to ASTM specifications. The company works closely with many contractors and specifiers, plus it has a full-time engineer with 20-plus years in the concrete industry working as one of its plant managers, providing quick response to any inquiry regarding the use of precast concrete products. www.langleyconcretegroup.com
"There's one product in particular [whose promoters] say that it's designed like corrugated steel pipe and acts like a plastic pipe, but they don't provide a design procedure for an engineer to use to design the pipe in the [target] installation. But the company says, 'Just assume it's like a corrugated steel pipe.’ That's a lot of opening for miscommunication and also improper design, yet we have these DOTs accepting that and giving them a trial installation just because it's a 'new' product."
A large part of Omelaniec's concern is that there isn't a particular region of North America where these products are coming in, so targeting and alerting architects, DOTs, and design engineers on the hazards of such products has been difficult for the association. "The people bringing these products in are very large alternate products companies, and are hitting markets or state DOT that don’t have the same level of concern that another DOT might have,” he says. “One state may say, 'We want to see all of your design parameters and your installation procedures,' while another state might say, 'We can go ahead and let you stick that in the ground,' and they use that against us as concrete pipe people by saying, 'We've been installed in all of these states.' What they don't tell people is that their trial installations and approvals are done without their design and installation parameters being provided. It's like putting the cart before the horse, and we've been working hard to battle that. A couple of these products, to this day, do not have AASHTO [American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials] acceptance officially.”
Omelaniec explains that the ACPA prides itself on being a well-established, technically oriented association that is able to provide an abundance of data on every aspect of concrete pipe, while outside companies are being allowed to import technology for alternate pipes and install product with no information being provided. "This one particular product, which does come from Australia, we don't see a lot of history in Australia, and we've contacted the Australasian Pipe Association, and they said they were aware of it but that there wasn't a history with it. But when they brought it over here, they said, 'This has been accepted in Australia,' and there are people accepting their word, and that's what we're afraid of as an industry. We want to know as an association how are these companies allowed to do this."
Down economy, sustained growth Accepting that business continues to remain weak across most markets, Omelaniec says the association continues to remain strong and is identifying new and more efficient ways of supporting members and enhancing market development in the world of tight budgets and shrinking workforce. "On the association level itself, we're taking advantage of as much technology as we can." he says. "Face-to-face meetings are becoming a luxury as we're moving over to webinars and web meetings, which saves money and reduces costs overall, so we don't have to reduce our services. [ACPA] staff has done a great job making webinars and web-based meetings the standard, and it helps our members in times when there is restricted travel. This way, we can have a guy in his office for an hour and still be involved. As a result of some of our cost-saving efforts, we have a steady membership and a greater membership now than we did in 2007.
"The other key things we're doing are becoming much more involved in local marketing of concrete pipe through the addition of regional engineers and affiliation with local concrete pipe associations. That is something that came to us almost as a fluke. We had one state association ask us to help them administer their program, and now we are active in Georgia, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. We're also working to reach final agreements in California and Texas as they have accepted that same arrangement just recently. Negotiations are ongoing with two or three other state or regional associations also. This arrangement allows us to use state [channels] to provide the boots-on-the-ground to get our message out and to have a cohesive message across the industry.
Omelaniec says prior to these state association arrangements, the states still had access to the technical information ACPA had available but not the direct contact. Now that they are under the ACPA umbrella, there are much more open lines of communication between the state association directors and the ACPA, and information can be received faster. "It also allows for faster response time on our part if we see an issue, such as these alternative products," he says. "We can get the information out there quicker to the states. Our goal is to get more regional engineers, but that becomes difficult in the current economy. This arrangement has proven a really positive way of getting the message out and working with the state associations closer. This is something we're seeing in every market, in every state—people trying to get a better value for their dollar and taking advantage of relationships that are mutually beneficial and don't cost as much to maintain. And each state association doesn't have to reinvent the wheel each time they have an issue that requires a rapid response and need for our technical data."
"We have task forces that are very quick to react to any regional issue. In the three or four years that I've been a member of the executive committee, I've been amazed how quickly we do react and get that information out, and how positive it is received by the state DOTs or whoever it may affect. Not everybody believes what the alternate products people tell them, but they don't have the backup to dispute them. We are there to help them, and we are fighting for a common goal."
Many of the streamlining efforts from previous years are still very much in effect at ACPA, according to Omelaniec. Aside from monthly members-only electronic newsletters and the aforementioned emphasis on webinars rather than conferences or meetings that require travel, the association has monthly electronic update newsletters from staff president Matt Childs and provides the results of AASHTO committees responsible for drainage structures and practice. He also points to the association's efforts at The Precast Show (operated by the National Precast Concrete Association) as growing and helping members save money. "That's been a really positive, when you look at the results of that show," he explains. "I believe for 2011 [in Charlotte, N.C.], our exhibitor numbers are already up over this year's show in Phoenix. It's been a good working relationship. “What we've done as an association to create more attendance is combine our Production and Marketing schools together and have them just before The Precast Show at the same location, so members can do both events back to back. It saves on travel costs. Our attendance at the show last year went up about 20 percent. I've been involved on the planning committee of the school and I've been a presenter and member of panels, and I'm always impressed how much value our members get from our schools and the Precast Show being at the same location and time."
Growing in a green culture In terms of the day-to-day promotional efforts at ACPA, Omelaniec points to a new ad campaign geared toward engineers, but the theme of the ads remains the same: You can trust concrete pipe. He brings the conversation back to the streamlining work being done with state associations in an effort to promote concrete pipe. "In a bad economy, you have to narrow down what you're going to do, and then do it right. That's the one thing the staff has done a very good job with," he adds. "There's not a lot of mystery about our product, but you can trust it and you can put your stamp or seal on a drawingif you're an engineer and know that concrete pipe is going to work."
The chairman also points to the association's web site (www.concrete-pipe.org) as the place where engineers can download programs for designing concrete pipe. The site will also soon have a new version of the Boxcar software, the ACPA's box culvert-design program, which will include the AASHTO LFRD changes coming out from the states. "Our strategic plan is what we live by," he says, "and we updated and reinforced it a couple years ago. So we're sticking to that, and it's all about selling more concrete pipe."
Omelaniec updated Concrete Products on the work being done by ACPA's recently hired lobbyist, who he says is used more for advice than pressure lobbying. "We've been very active with our government relations committee," he states. "They've been doing a lot of Washington, D.C. fly-ins. We've also been hosting breakfasts and lunches for key members of Congress and trying to get their support in realizing that concrete pipe is there and that we still represent a fair number of employers and employees in the U.S. and Canada. I think one of our biggest concerns has been the Environmental Protection Agency’s consideration of classifying fly ash as a hazardous material. We are doing a presentation at one of the traveling roadshows they're having, expressing our concern. We're working with the other industry associations to ensure that the common message is getting out. We're concerned that if you classify this as hazardous material, no matter how benign that comment is or how many exemptions you make for it, the simple fact of labeling it a 'hazardous material' is going to make it a more costly thing to use and could potentially stop people from using it. It would be a shame to have all the extra fly ash end up in dump sites, which was the problem in the first place.
"In the last five years, my company has spent a lot of effort getting our fly ash content up to the maximum 25 percent that is allowable under ASTM. Is it a cost savings? Yes. But it's also a better thing for the environment. We want to be green and help get rid of some of this stuff, and it's a good, effective additive. As far as we see it, we have no concern regarding its effects, unless it's in a large landfill site that isn't contained or controlled properly. If you put it in a concrete product, it's going to be encased in that product and inert. As a Canadian, I'm concerned because a lot of legislation and activities that happen [in the United States] become something up here pretty quickly as part of the fallout. I think another significant concern is the emission controls and putting pressure on the cement companies as the culprit in global warming. “I think it's wrong to put so much pressure on these companies that they feel their only alternative is to stop producing in North America and rely on imports. Because when you rely on imports, all you're really doing is pushing the trouble thousands of miles away. In the end, it affects us all. I believe that North American cement producers are doing the best they can do to reduce the emissions and make the best and cleanest product. I don't think you're going to see the same effort made by producers you would be importing from."
One area where Omelaniec is particularly experienced is in the area of plant certification, and he has been a member of the committee that oversees certification for more than 10 years. "I'm very proud to say that the plant we built in 2006-07—during which we closed two plants down and opened one large plant—was certified last year, and we were very positive on the program," he says. "It's expanded into some related precast product lines and has done a great job helping us raise our bar locally. We have a new version of the manual coming out soon. The nice thing about the plant certification program is that it never stands still. We're always changing and trying to improve it. We want to improve the way the audit goes, in what we're looking for in the plant. We'd added a section for self consolidating concrete. It's definitely ongoing; I would never say that our program will be totally finished."
Rebound forecast In light of the latest Portland Cement Association forecast that pushes any significant consumption rebound figures to 2013 thanks to lagging federal and state investments, Omelaniec offered a unique perspective from the viewpoint of the Canadian construction products industry, which did not see as severe a drop in business as its U.S. counterparts. "It was interesting to stand back as an observer and say, 'The American banking system, which helped cause the problem, has extended the problem also." The Canadian banking system is very stable; we had no issues, no failures. Other than Ontario, which is the manufacturing mecca of Canada, especially in the automotive industry, we didn't get hit nearly as bad as America did. My outlook on the economy is slow growth. You won't see the return to 2008-08 levels of volumes in a year or two. I'm not a believer in a double-dip recession, but do feel recovery will be slower than people want.
"In British Columbia, where I am, we had the quickest rebound in our housing market in history after a slight slowdown because of what happened in the U.S. We're back to record-setting housing prices in the province, which is amazing. Yet, I go across the border into Washington state and I see the impact it has had. I think we're all in the same boat overall, and I believe the American economy is going to recover, but it will take some time. I think the PCA's 2013 forecast is right on, with Canada slightly ahead of that. The other thing people should realize is that the Canadian government spent as much on infrastructure in its stimulus package as the U.S. did, but we're only 10 percent the size of your budget.
"I'm lucky to be supplying some product for some major infrastructure work here in Lower Mainland of British Columbia and in Vancouver, some of it was related to the stimulus package but some was already planned before that. Infrastructure guarantees jobs and that volume of work. As concrete producers, we all rely on the tonnage to get us up over that edge, and without the tonnage, you don't make the money in a bad economy. In my travels as chairman, I've seen markets that are worse than others in the states, but I've seen some pretty poor markets in the last six months."
Omelaniec says he has noticed areas in the Northeast where work appears to be picking up at a better pace than other places. A recent visit to California also made him think that the situation there wasn't as bad as he'd been led to believe. "I noticed new houses being built," he recalls. "Definitely, the values have dropped and maybe it's a correction--like we saw in Canada--more than a drop. It was a little more extreme in the United States, but at least you're seeing people spending money and getting back into the market. I think it's going to be a slower recovery in the States because there's another wave of bad debt to go through before the end of the year, but once that's through, those sub-prime mortgages are gone. I personally know a lot of Canadians who have taken advantage of the lower housing prices in the states, between Phoenix and California."
Continuing the work Omelaniec says that pet projects during his chairmanship aren't as interesting to him as keeping efforts and projects that are already in place moving and growing. "We all understand that we're doing this for the best of concrete pipe," he says. "We've had some amazing chairmen in the last few years—independents and members from large companies—and the beauty of our association is that we all want to see the strategic plan kept in effect and the goals to come forward and continue on with the good work we've been doing. I'm from quality control and my background is in production, so that might be the closest thing to a pet project I have. It's the one I still sit in on the committee meetings with. I take being chairman as a learning experiences. I've learned an incredible amount about American government and politics and how the AASHTO groups, the DOTs, and the ASTM work. If there's one thing I'm saying to members it's get involved, be part of this. It's the future of our product and of association. You don't get anything out of something if you don't put time into it."
As for his own company, The Langley Group, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Omelaniec mentions that the number of infrastructure projects in recent years has been exceptional, in particular, providing the drainage system for the new rapid transit system from Vancouver International Airport to downtown for the Olympics earlier this year. The company has been involved in supplying product to the Gateway Project, the major expansion of the highway system in the lower mainland from Vancouver extending out past Langley (about 45 minutes east). In addition, the company has been heavily involved in shipping to a large sanitary sewer project made up of 1,000 pieces of 120-in.-diameter, 10-ft.-long, PVC-lined pipe. The project may end up being the largest single concrete pipe installation ever in lower British Columbia. Prior to this job, Langley had never done pipe diameters beyond 96 in. nor ever done long-length pipe. "For our company, probably the biggest change in the last 50 years is that every year since we've built the plant we opened 2006-07, we have added machinery to it and expanded our line or capacity," Omelaniec says. "And every time we finish a big job, we ask ourselves, 'Can we do anything bigger than this?' And every two or three years, we seem to get involved in something bigger. That's the fun part of our job."