How the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and precast concrete can put the United States on the fast track to resilience.
By Joe Frollo
American infrastructure was built to endure.
But nothing lasts forever.
As state and federal officials consider how to administer the most significant infrastructure investment in American history, much of the news coverage focuses on roads, bridges and rail. The majority of U.S. wastewater systems, however, also are nearing a half-century of use at maximum capacity and will be a key part of any major civil investment.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card, the 16,000 wastewater treatment plants across the United States, on average, are at 81% of their design capacities, while 15% are exceeding it.
And with expanding urban areas expected to accommodate even larger population numbers each passing year, the stresses on those systems only increase.
Rural areas have issues to address as well. Approximately 20% of Americans rely on local on-site wastewater systems that include septic tanks. While many large, urban wastewater treatment plants were designed with a 40- to 50-year lifespan, smaller on-site systems often are designed with an average lifespan of 15 to 40 years, though they can last longer if properly maintained.
However, a 2021 National Association of Home Builders report estimated that median owner-occupied housing across the United States is 39 years old, and with no concentrated records of how often homeowners replace these systems, there is no way to know how significant the needs are to address on-site wastewater infrastructure.
With $55 billion of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package budgeted for water and wastewater projects, it is imperative that specifiers target resilient materials such as precast concrete. Funds will move quickly as projects are identified and prioritized. Utilizing precast concrete within these projects will help cities, states and municipalities maximize their dollars not just because of its durability but also for its adaptability to different conditions.
Precast concrete creates resilient infrastructure. It is strong. It is durable. It has a long service life. It stands up to natural and man-made disasters. Precast producers must meet this once-in-a-generation funding with a concerted, industrywide effort to demonstrate why precast concrete is the No. 1 option for projects that must be built to last.
‘Do It Right’
Leadership sets the tone within organizations, but it is the workforce that ensures quality and craftsmanship with every job.
At Concrete Pipe & Precast, the company has a simple slogan for 2021 to reinforce its approach to infrastructure projects: Do it right.
“The thing that needs to separate us from not just other precasters but from people who work with other materials is that we do it right the first time, and that precast lasts a long time,” said Scott Crumpler, senior manager of QA/QC for Concrete Pipe & Precast in Ashland, Va.“That end quality combined with concrete’s inherent durability is what will set our industry apart.”
Success as an industry requires diligence and trust between not just producers and specifiers but between fellow producers as well.
Frank Bowen is the business development manager at Jarrett Concrete Products & Supply in Ashland, Tenn. He eagerly awaits the opportunities that are coming.
With precast concrete’s intrinsic qualities and the attention to detail within facilities, precast concrete is in a strong position to take on a generational challenge.
“It’s not like, ‘Well, if we mess up, this money will come around again in three, four, five, 10 years to fix it,’” Bowen said. “Every job that goes out has to be built to last. Those are the benefits of concrete. That’s why someone uses it.”
America’s aging infrastructure
ASCE represents 150,000 civil engineers in private practice, government, industry and academia. Every four years, the association assesses the state of U.S. infrastructure in 17 categories, assigning a letter grade to each area and offering solutions to fix the issues.
The 2021 report card gives the United States a C-minus overall. That sounds bad, but it marks the first time in 20 years the grade is up from a D or D-plus.
Among the individual grades is a D-plus for centralized wastewater systems.
“Our nation is at a crossroads,” the ASCE report states.
“Deteriorating U.S. infrastructure is impeding our ability to compete in the global economy, and improvements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future. While we have made some progress, reversing the trajectory after decades of underinvestment in our infrastructure requires transformative action from Congress, states, infrastructure owners and the American people.”
Though large-scale capital improvements have been made to systems experiencing sanitary sewer overflows (SSO), efforts have slowed in recent years. As many treatment plants and collection networks approach the end of their lifespans, operation and maintenance will become more costly.
Within its report, the ASCE calls on all parties – from producers to engineers to politicians – to stress resilience and innovation in all projects moving forward. That includes building into the design the ability to withstand and adapt to the impact of natural and man-made disasters.
With innovation, the ASCE report states, infrastructure producers cannot be complacent to rely on what they’ve always done, and government officials can’t simply select the least expensive bid to invest for the future.
Sounds like a resume for precast concrete.
“Many roads and highways have been in place for 50 to 70 years, but repairs are done every couple of years,” Bowen said. “A lot of the city wastewater facilities are pushing 50 years, so whatever replaces that has to be built not just for today but for future generations as well.”
Working together as one
Most precast facilities started as “mom-and-pop” organizations that produced septic tanks among other products. It is there that they worked with smaller, sometimes one-off projects.
As companies grew and expanded their service lines, many eventually moved on to handling the needs of major metropolitan areas.
Bowen has been part of everything from stocking manholes to a 6,000-gallon grease interceptor, so he’s seen both ends of the spectrum.
Jarrett will focus on securing some of the major contracts that come to Nashville and surrounding areas once the infrastructure bill’s funds are released. But Bowen sees plenty of work to go around, even for companies that aren’t primary contract holders.
“This federal investment is going to be exciting,” Bowen said. “And not just for us but for all of our precast competitors who honestly at this point I am considering our ‘allies’ in precast. I think there’s the potential for all of us to be busy because cities, counties and municipalities are going to want to move fast once the money is available.
“I keep my forms as busy as I can, but there are only so many forms to go around. That’s the same everywhere. Someone with some extra lead time may be able to pick up extra work. We are all planning for what’s coming, but that’s difficult when we are not 100% sure what to expect. We will need to be open to helping each other.”
Planning will go hand-in-hand with execution, Crumpler said. And everyone from the corner office to the front lines are in this together.
“It is my personal philosophy that in the end, everyone is in sales,” Crumpler said. “It doesn’t matter if you are in quality control, production, marketing, administration, wherever, we all have an impact on how our product sells and how our industry is perceived.”
Joe Frollo is NPCA’s director of communications and public affairs and editor of Precast Inc. magazine.