Culverts and storm sewers have been getting more attention in recent years, as municipalities and states have taken notice of their aging and deteriorating conditions. Many have been around since the advent of the federal highway system after World War II, while some were constructed years before that. Their upkeep is critical to the overall infrastructure they are a part of.
West Chester, Ohio-based Contech Engineered Solutions has been in business about as long as there have been such structures, with its roots traced back 115 years ago when it was called the American Rolling Mill Co. (ARMCO). The company has come a long way from its early years, growing into a leader of engineered solutions for general construction, infrastructure repair, storm water management, bridge replacement and rehabilitation, site development, soil stabilization and erosion control markets.
Today, Contech is a leader in providing the products and solutions to rehabilitate existing drainage structures, as well as constructing new ones. The product portfolio includes: corrugated metal pipe (CMP), PVC products, steel-reinforced polyethylene pipe (SRPE), high density polyethylene pipe (HDPE), as well as steel and aluminum structural plate products and precast concrete products and a range of arches used for bridges, large culverts and storm water detentions.
“About one-third of our product families could be used in relining applications,” says Hugh Mickel, P.E., vice president of reline technologies for Contech Engineered Solutions. Mickel has been with Contech for 30 years, with 19 directly involved with relining drainage and sewer pipes, culverts and small bridges.
The company has more than 1,800 employees throughout the United States, working in its headquarters facility, as well as its 39 manufacturing plants and 10 yard locations. Mexico is now home to one of its manufacturing plants. With all these locations, Contech is able to meet the needs of its clients.
“We have long held the belief that our clients and customers all want the same thing: civil engineering site solutions that meet the specific needs of their project. They want honest answers and strong technical support,” says Michael J. Mihelick, vice president of corrugated metal products for Contech Engineered Solutions. “We have 14 product families that we can do relining with so we don’t try to force a round peg into a square hole. We have the ability to choose from a wide variety of products to solve specific problems.”
Contech has been a standalone business since 1986 but its foundation goes back to 1900 with the formation of ARMCO, the first fully integrated steel mill in the United States. A few years earlier, James Watson and Stanley Simpson had been granted a U.S. Patent for corrugated metal pipe (CMP) as an alternative to masonry or vitrified clay tile. By 1909, ARMCO had developed a hot-dipped galvanized steel that provided improved resistance to corrosion and prompted the widespread use of metal pipe — this grade of steel was to become the industry standard for more than 40 years.
The proliferation of the automobile and development of the national highway network after World War II spurred demand for new and innovative products. ARMCO Drainage & Metal Products responded with a portfolio of new products and manufacturing processes and published the first edition of the “Handbook of Drainage and Construction Products,” which was later published by the American Iron and Steel Institute and is now published by the National Corrugated Steel Pipe Association.
In 1931, ARMCO developed MULTI-PLATE, which allowed for larger diameter CMP by bolting together sections of corrugated plates in the field. In 1960, ARMCO formed its Metal Products Division and soon developed the highly automated HEL-COR conversion process to manufacture CMP, replacing conventional riveting and allowed the company to produce large diameter storm sewer pipe. ARMCO formed the Construction Products Division in 1980 and continued to develop new PVC sanitary pipe products.
Contech Construction Products Inc. was founded on July 1, 1986 when Robert Gage led a management buyout of ARMCO’s Construction Products Division. For the next 10 years, Contech continued to expand its presence in the marketplace with a range of material types including steel, aluminum and PVC plastic. The company continued to lead the corrugated steel pipe industry with more than a dozen acquisitions between 1986 and 1996.
Among the key acquisitions made was in 1988 with the purchase of the Drainage Products operations of Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp., making Contech the leading producer of aluminum corrugated pipe products, aluminum box culverts and aluminum structural plate. The company continued to invest in and expand its portfolio of plastic pipe products for storm drainage and sanitary applications in diameters up to 36 in. In 2009, Contech acquired all of Hanson Pipe & Precast LLC’s corrugated metal pipe assets, as well as Thompson Culvert Co. and Plateau Pipe Co.
In 2010, Contech opened its first facility in Mexico and it also acquired Plastream Pipe Technologies Pty Ltd., an Australian company that is the exclusive, worldwide licensor of Plastream technology for the production of proprietary steel reinforced HDPE pipe that is currently marketed and used by Contech in the United States and Canada under the DuroMaxx brand.
The company rebranded itself in 2012 and became Contech Engineered Solutions to better describe what it is all about. “Although we provide products, our real strength is our ability to provide engineered solutions, as well as consult and make sure the right solution is available for the customer,” Mihelick says. “We believe our people are the key to differentiating us from the other companies in what we offer. We believe we have the best people in the industry — out in the field and in our support and manufacturing locations.”
Entering the Trenchless Market
Contech joined the trenchless technology market long before anyone was actually calling it that, working in tunneling and sliplining and later expanding into relining.
“We trace our roots [into trenchless technology] to 1929 when [ARMCO] invented 2-flange steel tunnel liner plate. It’s a product that is still manufactured today and used quite a bit in trenchless applications,” says Mickel, explaining it was designed for hand tunneling. “We’ve been involved over the decades since in sliplining using various products. One early project involved the Hoosac Tunnel [in Massachusetts] in the 1960s. That tunnel was one of the original civil engineering marvels, dating back to the 1870s. We sliplined part of it with 2-flange tunnel plate.”
Contech’s move into the modern era of relining came in the 1990s, starting with a significant project at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey that involved several thousand feet of large diameter storm sewers. A product called aluminized type 2 HEL-COR CL, a concrete-lined aluminum-coated steel corrugated metal pipe. The diameters were 102, 108 and 114 in.
That project — along with the development of A2 Liner Pipe in 1996, which is a sanitary and drainage segmental sliplining product — launched the company forward into the trenchless market.
Contech’s interest in the trenchless market was a relatively easy decision to make as it had become a player in the sanitary sewer new construction market years earlier — the company loved the market potential trenchless offered. “We knew the engineers and agencies that were doing [trenchless] work,” Mickel says. “Cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) and other trenchless methods were coming on strong in the United States and we wanted to participate to the extent we could.
“We made an adjustment to our A2000 PVC product to give it a constant outside diameter and that made a very good segmental approach. For sewer lines and drainage lines, that allowed access for a segmental approach. It’s a really cost-effective product.”
Mickel notes that Contech has a number of corrugated metal and structural plate products that it uses for trenchless applications, including relining. Among its newer product offerings is a factory-made, steel-reinforced polyethylene pipe. In 2012, Contech and SEKISUI Rib Loc Australia signed a strategic agreement giving Contech the exclusive license to its field wound version steel-reinforced polyethylene pipe, called SPR PE.
Twenty-plus years into the modern trenchless era, Contech officials are enthusiastic at the continued long-term potential they project for trenchless technology. “We see this as a growth market that is developing quickly,” Mickel says. “Some of the growth is around new technologies that are being introduced and new applications to some old technologies. We see the significant amount of growth opportunity coming from traditional non-trenchless solutions.”
Over the last few years, the culvert and storm sewer segment of the trenchless market has taken on a higher visibility and, in some areas of the country, a higher priority as these structures continue to age and require attention. More awareness to their plight has come through better condition assessment efforts by the state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and the local municipalities. Trenchless technology is critical to the culvert rehabilitation market.
“I think the interest [by municipalities and DOTs] has always been there,” Mickel says. “The sanitary sewer rehab market naturally was the first area of their focus. Major storm events and catastrophic failures are ripe for attention and we are seeing an increase in that. The tendency is for drainage structures to not see the same level of attention as sanitary sewers unless a catastrophic or noticeable problem develops. A lot of the attention to the sewers had to do with inflow and infiltration challenges and the cost of running treatment plants. With drainage, a lot of them are in the midst of highly effective service but have reached the end of their service life. Unfortunately, drainage structures don’t seem to get the level of inspection attention that sanitary sewers have gotten.”
Mickel describes the conditions of North America’s culverts and storm drains as all over the board, with their problems ranging from invert erosion to joint failure to just age. The culverts in service today run the gamut of design from cast-in-place concrete boxes to round and pipe-arch corrugated metal, the latter becoming popular post-World War II. Over time, the design and materials evolved to include precast concrete boxes, used in shallow applications, with corrugated metal pipe used in deeper ones. The challenge with CMP is the invert, Mickel says, explaining the erosion of the inverts occurs through low-level flow and higher flow event which results in sediment traveling and rumbling along the invert. A lot of the current CMP needing replacement is galvanized steel, which ARMCO introduced in 1909 and has a typical service life 25 to 50 years. New coatings, such as aluminized type 2 and polymer-coated steel, have been introduced to the market. These coatings provide enhanced corrosion ad abrasion resistance. Pipes with these coatings will see a service life from 75 to 100 years, Mickel says.
Thankfully, municipalities, DOTs and engineers have become familiar with the trenchless methods through their experience on the sanitary sewer side, giving them a comfort level to use trenchless on their drainage structures. “The biggest competing technology to trenchless is the traditional open-cut approach,” Mickel says. “Within the drainage and storm sewer infrastructure world, it remains the most understood and straightforward but it’s often the most disruptive and expensive. Our challenge, as well as everyone involved in the trenchless industry is to educate on the most cost-effective and least disruptive solutions to enable the available funding to go further.”
However, culverts and storm sewer rehab projects are not at the forefront of infrastructure concerns of the general public — until there is a catastrophic event that results in flooding or severe traffic disruption. “ASCE and other engineering and contracting groups do a good job of making data and information available,” Mickel says. “But when it gets to the general public level, it falls off until there is a catastrophe. The large municipalities and DOTs are making great strides in assessing what they consider smaller infrastructure. The sanitary sewers are in good shape as far as assessing those and understanding where the issues are. The major bridges are in pretty good shape as far as understanding where the issues are. The mid-span and short-span bridges, large culverts and large storm sewers — that is where the current gap is. But there is an effort by some major DOTs and agencies to address that.”
Contech plans to continue to grow its partnerships in the long- and short-term through acquisitions when the opportunity presents itself. “Where there’s an opportunity for us to add more value to the marketplace through an acquisition, we will definitely consider that,” Mihelick says. “That is how we achieved our national footprint. The foundation of that was organically grown but we’re a national company, and we want to make sure we can cover all of the potential clients and customers out there, we’re always taking a look at how we can do that better.”
“We anticipate having even a broader portfolio of solutions and products that we can bring to the marketplace. We hope to continue to be a very valuable resource for advancing the awareness of relining solutions,” Mickel says. “I don’t think we’ll get there in just five years. It is a vast market and there are a lot of players. I think the level of awareness is so low that we will still be fighting the same battles in five years that we are fighting today.”