Part 1: What to Do With a Bad Specification

Part 1: What to Do With a Bad Specification

For those of you who follow my writing at all, you’ll know I’m obsessed with coatings, family, and martial arts. What they all have in common is that they’re difficult to manage and are technically challenging.

When teaching combat Jiu Jitsu, I try to be lenient and patient, but only up to a point. What I teach is based on combat and self defense, so mistakes and poor techniques are simply too costly in a real-life situation.

It’s the same thing with coating specifications. Let’s start first with two distinctions that characterize a bad specification:

  1. The specified product is the wrong one.
  2. There are technical flaws in the specification.

For the purpose of this article, we’re going to deal exclusively with #2.

Technical Flaws in the Spec
I had the opportunity to review specifications for a major oil company about six months ago. The document included dozens of smaller specifications and was probably 80 pages long.

Let me give you examples of a few issues we identified:

  • The specification called for a 3-5 mil profile on a product that was specified to have a DFT of 2 to 4 mils. That means, that, theoretically, if the contractor blasted the surface to 5 mils (within spec) and applied the coating do a DFT of 2 mils (also within spec), the highest tips of the blast would extend 2 mils higher than the coating thickness. While that may not seem a lot, as a percentage, it’s 100% higher.
  • Multiple times in the same document, in multiple separate specifications, it read, “Apply the coating to a minimum of 15 mils.” So, theoretically, a contractor could dump a bunch of paint on the floor, say 500 mils (a half inch), and still be compliant with the specification.
  • We were conducting an informal failure analysis for a client. They had a tank that, as I recall, was 250’ in diameter. There were cracks in the coating on the floor. One of the product data sheets of the installed material said very clearly, not to be used in a tank larger than 200’ in diameter.

I could go on for pages—and I’m sure you have your own examples and stories, which I hope you’ll find time to share.

However, there are some specifications that are not quite wrong, but yet not quite right.

Those Peaks Are Too Steep
About 15 years ago, when I owned my own coating company, we were going to bid on a very large, prestigious project here in the Midwest. We were a preferred vendor, having worked at the facility before, and there were highly competent vendors from as far away as California.

In this case, the specification also directed logistics. Specifically, there was one very large concrete water tank. As I recall, one wall was over 150’ in length. And the specification called for the tank to be blasted, all at once, and then coated, all at once, to avoid any seams from blasting an area, coating an area, and then having to tie the coatings together (the coating needed to look aesthetically pleasing.)

Technically, it made sense, but logistically, I didn’t think it was tenable. There would be other trades working round the clock, as I recall. DH and environmentals would be challenging. How could we, as a contractor, ensure that the entire area would stay pristine? What if another tradesman accidentally just wiped his sweaty hand on the wall or spilled some coke on the floor? Further, the specification extrapolated out the anticipated production rate of surface preparation and, therefore, provided a timeline that the contractor would have to follow. And, if the contractor was not completed in time, there would be serious daily liquidated damages of, as I recall, $15,000 per day.

I’m not sure I would define the specification as bad, because I have the highest regard for the folks who wrote it, but I felt the logistics and threat of damages were too confining—and did not allow the contractor to manage operations as required.

We reluctantly withdrew from the bidding process. Unfortunately, there was a massive failure of the coating due to technical reasons. Fortunately, it was all addressed before it was put back into service.

PDS Conundrums
In fact, not two hours ago, I called a company to ask them about their coating and what temperature range it could withstand in immersion service. I had looked online and the product data sheet had a dry temp rating, but not one for immersion. I was speaking with one of their technical support staff and the conversation went something like this:

“Good morning, can you please tell me what the temperature range is for your product in immersion service in water?”

“It’s on our product data sheet.”

“Well, unless you have a different data sheet than the one online, all I saw was a listing for dry heat.”

“Um, ok. Let me check.”

I’m now waiting on the phone for him to check his own data sheet. Now this company only has about a dozen or so products—and this one was their workhorses. And so, I’m waiting.

“Yea, so, it says here that the dry temp is good up to around 400 F, so it should be good in water up to 300 F.”

He caught himself, however, and said, “Well, it wouldn’t be water then. Um, you know what, let me get back to you on that.”

I spoke with this firm hours ago and one of my people contacted them over a week ago, and we still do not have a technical answer pertaining to immersion.

The problem is specifications are complex, people are busy, and not all people are as competent, as perhaps, they might be.

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