The long history of ASTM International proves that its standards are the basis for settling disputes over product performance and testing.
By Claude Goguen, P.E.
Picture this: A sunny day along Maryland’s Atlantic coast grows warmer as an upset homeowner nervously listens to a serious discussion among the local inspector, her defensive project designer and a concerned precast producer. Standing around a recent excavation, their discussion grows into a heated argument over the architect’s demand for an on-site watertightness test on the precast concrete septic tank for the owner’s $2 million oceanfront home. The wealthy homeowner has the ability to pay for the best septic treatment system money can buy, but she can’t decide whom among the sparring trio to believe.
The stressed-out homeowner feels that the plumbing inspector, who says testing isn’t necessary, should know the regulations involved, but her designer insists that he is looking out for her best interests in demanding that the precaster run an on-site hydrostatic test to see if the tank leaks. That sort of test would delay backfilling of the tank for another day. How does the precaster resolve the situation to the satisfaction of all involved?
More to the point, how have designers, engineers, architects, consumers, producers, scientists and regulators resolved critical product testing and performance issues for the last century in a way that stands up to legal examination? The answer is: through a transparent, representative and consensus-derived agreement. In other words, an ASTM standard. In the septic-tank testing dispute just described, the precaster refers to ASTM Standard C1227 – 09, “Standard Specification for Precast Concrete Septic Tanks” and saves the day, because his products already comply with the vacuum-testing requirements in Section 9 of the standard. This section allows for two methods of testing for leakage: vacuum testing and hydrostatic testing. The vacuum test he performed satisfies the performance criteria; therefore, backfilling the tank can proceed.
Disagreement makes for good standards
Producers, designers and owners (or consumers) come from different perspectives regarding products; their inherent needs are different, and so they are naturally going to disagree. In developing an ASTM standard, contrasting product viewpoints are represented; in fact, in all ASTM product committees, diversity in representation is mandatory. The frequently opposing viewpoints on ASTM product committees are the necessary ingredient for creating a consensus standard that will be found reliable and balanced in a given industry.
For example, the ASTM producer member comes to the table knowing that the standard needs to allow room for a profit in manufacturing. The ASTM scientist or designer fields the arguments for product strength and performance. The contractor or consumer insists on a product that is both economical and provides good service for the money spent. Every ASTM standard, from steel and concrete to plastic and glass, represents a balance of diverse ideas in a credible and internationally respected approach.
Product arguments gave birth to ASTM
In the late 19th century, more than 300 years ago, heated arguments arose over steel used in America’s railroad industry. Steel producers, locomotive builders and railroad managers were all in an uproar over accidents caused by poor quality steel rails being supplied to the railroad industry. Emerging technologies of the industrial revolution, like Bessemer steel, demanded new manufacturing processes, new expertise. Old-time steel-making craft became obsolete overnight as technology charged forward. Railroad executives were so frustrated with inferior rail steel that they actually turned to more expensive British-made imports.
American steel manufacturers had to do something – and quickly – if they wanted to stay in business. Naturally, steel manufacturers wanted to control their own product formulas and processes. But after intense struggle and debate, the steel moguls realized that an industry standard for material properties and testing that included the input from the irate railroad engineers was desperately needed to establish acceptable product quality. More importantly than developing a product standard, perhaps, is that steel moguls and railroad men finally realized that a durable standard had to include input from all involved. The brainy material chemists and the sweaty steel mill captains and the raging safety engineers all had to hash it out together for their industry to progress as technology rumbled forward.
Just before the turn of the century, in 1898, ASTM (then known as the International Association for Testing Materials) was born through the hard labor of many individuals and, usually, after some disaster. ASTM is founded on the idea of developing material standards by a consensus of all parties involved. ASTM’s consensus standard has proven itself for more than a century. Whenever there is a disagreement about a product or material, whenever engineers analyze structural failure, whenever there is a problem with product performance, whenever a judge wants to determine who stands with established precedent, ASTM is the standard bearer, the specification that resolves conflicts.
Concrete standards came early in ASTM’s history
Before 1900, a construction contractor could receive any combination of stone, cement and water in concrete delivered to the job site. Portland cement had just been patented in the 1870s. Cement technology and concrete production processes were new and unproven. Concrete strength was not specified. Delivered cement and aggregate content were anyone’s guess. There was no consensus on what constituted a good “standard” concrete mix. Concrete quality was “catch as catch can.”
In 1902, ASTM Committee C-1 on Cement, Lime and Clay Products was created in the dust-up of disputes between cement manufacturers, concrete producers and civil engineers over poor-quality concrete delivered for road work. Committee C-1 was made up of cement producers, concrete mixers, road engineers, material testing experts and others in the construction industry who wanted to see a standard test developed for concrete compressive strength that everyone could agree on.
When two world wars demanded quality steel and concrete for military projects, ASTM standards provided performance and testing measures for American industry. Standards did more than give the producer and consumer better products and safer designs: ASTM standards developed hand-in-hand with emerging technologies actually fueled the engines of the industrial revolution.
ASTM standards used in the field and in the courtroom
Today ASTM International stands as the trusted source of consensus-driven standards here and around the world. An ASTM standard can be relied on in the field and in the courtroom precisely because it is the positive result of the divergent opinions of volunteers involved with all aspects of a given product, material or industry. A standard defines the consensus-preferred construction method and performance benchmark for a given product.
When systems or structures fail, forensic analysts and legal experts rely on standards to define the most reasonable basis for evaluating a product or component. ASTM standards are updated as technology changes so designers and producers can trust the standard to provide the most efficient and effective approach to their work.
When researchers, engineers, manufacturers and end users collaborate on material or product standards, everyone wins. Everyone wins because all sides, all attributes and all weaknesses of a given material or product have been examined and debated in the ASTM committee process. All ASTM proposed standards are submitted to all committee members and voted upon by ballot.
When product quality suffers, your competition wins
Just as in the example of poor-quality rails being produced more than a century ago for U.S. railroads, whenever product quality suffers, the market will turn to other alternatives – just as American railroads looked to Britain for more expensive but higher-quality steel. In the early 1900s, the U.S. steel industry faced the challenges of emerging material technologies, debates about inconsistent quality and fierce product competition similar to the tough market conditions faced by today’s precast producers.
All precasters, from the largest manufacturers to the small “mom and pop” producer, need to make a profit to survive. But ASTM’s long history proves that profit isn’t enough – that what works well for the producer doesn’t always equate to good product service for the consumer. ASTM’s strength is drawn from a history that tells us that product quality demanded by the user must necessarily affect production processes in order for any industry to survive.
ASTM is good for business. ASTM is good for the precaster’s bottom line. ASTM is the precaster’s most reliable friend.
Claude Goguen is NPCA’s director of Technical Services.
Sidebar: How to Use ASTM
To find the ASTM standards for the specific precast concrete products manufactured at your facility, visit one of the following sites:
- From The NPCA SHOP, obtain a CD containing all ASTM standards that are specific to precast concrete products at www.precast.org/npca-online-store.
- Visit ASTM directly at www.astm.org and search under a product category like precast concrete septic tanks or precast concrete grease interceptors.
Here are a few selected ASTM Standards related to the precast concrete industry:
- ASTM C478, “Standard Specification for Precast Reinforced Concrete Manhole Sections”
- ASTM C858, “Standard Specification for Underground Precast Concrete Utility Structures”
- ASTM C891, “Standard Practice for Installation of Underground Precast Concrete Structures”
- ASTM C913, “Standard Specification for Precast Concrete Water and Wastewater Structures”
- ASTM C1227, “Standard Specification for Precast Concrete Septic Tanks,” covers design, manufacture and performance requirements for sectional or monolithic precast concrete septic tanks
- ASTM C1613, “Standard Specification for Precast Concrete Grease Interceptors”
The complete 2011 Selected ASTM Standards for Precast and Prestressed Concrete are available from NPCA. Visit www.precast.org for more information, or call (800) 366-7731.