One small, but stinky, mistake construction project managers should avoid

One small, but stinky, mistake construction project managers should avoid

About 25 years ago, I was involved in the lining of several underground diesel fuel storage tanks. They weren’t just any storage tanks. They measured roughly 60’ square and 15’ tall – and were made of 1” thick steel. They were built into the foundation of a building in downtown Chicago and, as I recall, were designed to withstand a “near” nuclear blast.

I can’t divulge who the tanks belonged to, where they remain located or any other details, but what I recall most from the entire process was the final, pre-construction meeting. There were roughly 20 of us representing about a dozen different vendors seated and standing around a large, rectangular table. The VP of national facilities had flown in and was sitting at one end of the table. He was listening. Just sitting and listening, while the PM made notes, and polled people around the table and asked various questions.

The meeting was nearly over when the PM turned to the VP and asked if he had any questions.

Out of the 20 or so people there, he stood, looked directly at me and pointed his finger.

“We did a project like this about two years ago in another city. The odor from the coating caused an evacuation of the entire building.” He was firm, direct, and, frankly, kinda scary. He finished by saying, “Do not cause an evacuation of my building!”

And he walked out. Fortunately, I had worn my brown pants that day.

While the bulk of our work is industrial, I’ve completed hundreds of commercial tank lining projects in and around Chicago, including a notable private swimming pool in the basement of a Chicago mansion for a famous actress many years ago.

Back in the day when I owned a tank coating company, you’re very sensitive to unhappy clients and law suits.

The Difference Between VOC’s and Odor

VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) are typically (but not always) various types of solvents. And they stink. They also have other risks associated with them. They are typically hazardous to breath and work with (depending on concentrations) and flammable or explosive. And anyone specifying, procuring or working with these materials can simply go to the MSD or product data sheet to find out all of the information they need pertaining to VOC’s.

VOC’s are being used less and less due to a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that a low-VOC paint won’t have an odor. They all do. Even waterborne coatings can have a strong odor. And there’s really no way to tell, without asking the supplier beforehand, how strong that odor is.

This is particularly true in floor coatings.

We recently completed a project at an aquarium where we specified a 100% solids (zero VOC) material specifically for its low-odor installation characteristics. However, due to the sensitivity and proximity of some of the animals, a negative pressure system was set up at substantial cost to ensure that no “odor” left the work area.


If any paint or coating application is going to take place in areas which odor may be an issue, don’t assume that because a material is low, or zero, VOC, that there won’t be an offensive or harmful odor.

And in procurement and awarding of contracts, sniff before you sign!

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