Kerneos Inc.

Rehabbing manholes is just a fact of life in the world of a municipal manager or engineer. The list of products available to them is long as it is diverse. It all comes down to what they believe will do the job and be a cost-effective solution.

There are an estimated 20 million manholes throughout the United States. Of those, the U.S. EPA estimates that 4 million are at least 50 years old and another 5 million are 30 to 50 years old. The EPA further estimates that 3.5 million manholes are suffering from serious structural decay and are in need of immediate rehabilitation or replacement.

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These figures give the best indication of how the manhole rehab market has expanded over the last 20 years in terms of products introduced and the attention given to the crumbling, aging infrastructure that is needed.
Kerneos Inc. is part of that expansion, tapping into the market at the right time some 20 years ago, offering an alternative to an already expansive list of manhole rehab suppliers. Today, Kerneos Inc. is an ISO 9001-certified production facility based in Chesapeake, Va., that employs approximately 76 people and produces six types of calcium aluminate cement for customers in a wide range of markets in Mexico, Canada and the United States.

As the economic stratosphere continues to struggle, underground infrastructure work has been solid. In fact, many would say that it has grown over the last few years while other construction segments faltered.

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Manhole rehabilitation has more than done its part in bolstering its market, as municipalities have no choice but to tend to its aging underground pipes — whether because of a consent decree or just overall need.
“The [manhole rehabilitation] market has been surprisingly stable, considering what is going on out there in the economy,” says Joe Talley, market manager of pipes and wastewater for Kerneos Inc., the North American division of the world’s leading manufacturer of calcium aluminate cements. “The older manholes are obviously a problem and the newer ones can potentially become problems for various reasons.”

Talley sees a heightened demand for manhole products in the coming years, as regulatory agencies continue to crack down on the nation’s infrastructure. “As owners and infrastructure continues to age — the degree and prevalence of biogenic corrosion will increase, even in geographic locales once thought to be immune from the problem. This will heighten the demand for products that will be able to withstand increasing levels of this corrosion and for longer periods of time.”

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And while selling its product is the goal, Kerneos wants to be more than just a manufacturing company. It’s a company that wants to educate owners, engineers and whoever will listen on the mechanism of corrosion itself and the state of the wastewater environment.

Company History

In 1970 Lone Star Industries and Lafarge entered a joint venture that created a North American subsidiary of Lafarge Fondu International (LFI). At that time, Lafarge was importing and distributing finished calcium aluminate cement to the North American market. In 1974, with the markets for calcium aluminate products firmly established, Lafarge leased a Lone Star Portland cement facility along the Elizabeth River in the south Norfolk community of Chesapeake, Va. — a location that Kerneos Inc. calls home today.

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“The City of Chesapeake was chosen in part because of its proximity to the harbor and access to the international waterways,” Talley says, noting that in this way, it is possible to satisfy a fast-growing demand from American customers for aluminous cements.

LFI invested in a grinding mill and began importing clinker from France, as well as manufacturing calcium aluminate cement in the United States. By 1985, LFI had acquired Lone Star’s portion of the joint venture. LFI was looking to further expand its product line and strengthen its commitment to the North American market. By 1990, the company decided on a major capital investment and envisioned construction of a $17 million new distribution facility.  

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With the construction of storage silos, a blending unit and a bagging plant in 1990, it was a modernized facility that swung into production in 1991. In 1995, Lafarge Fondu International became Lafarge Aluminates.
The SewperCoat product was developed in the early 1990s and then entered the trenchless manhole rehab market. In 2000, Lafarge Aluminates was part of a leveraged buyout and purchased by the MATERIS Group, which became Kerneos’ parent company. The MATERIS Group is a worldwide leader in building construction specialty chemicals and has four divisions: aluminates, additives, mortars and paints. Kerneos is part of the aluminates division.

Kerneos Inc. is headquartered in Paris and has 20 subsidiaries throughout the world, with Kerneos Inc. being the American subsidiary. Its calcium aluminate products, such as SewperCoat and CalCoat RG, are sold in more than 100 countries. Kerneos Inc. employs more than 1,400 people throughout the world.

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“Actually the manhole industry is just a very small piece of what Kerneos does,” Talley says. But it is definitely a growing aspect of the company’s business, he notes.

And Talley should know, as he’s been a part of Kerneos’ steps into the trenchless marketplace almost from Day 1. He’s been with Kerneos since 1992, starting out as a technician in its research lab. He has ascended through the company since then and now is the market manager of pipes and wastewater for Kerneos’ wastewater division. Other key players for Kerneos based in the United States are Greg Wallace, who is based in California and is the western region manager for all markets including the wastewater division, and Mark Fitzgerald, based in Houston, who is the business development manager, with responsibilities for all development sales, including pipes and wastewater.

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The Trenchless Market

Kerneos’ entry into the wastewater market was actually a logical next step, followed by a realization that pushed it forward into the manhole rehabilitation market a few years later. The first step came in the early 1990s.

“Shortly following the first commercial offerings for calcium aluminate cements in the 1920s, it was recognized that their unique properties lent themselves very well to the aggressive environment found in wastewater applications,” Talley explains. “It was further recognized that calcium aluminate aggregates, obtained by the fusion manufacturing process that was also invented by our company, could be used to create a kind of ‘ultimate solution’ that in time became the SewperCoat product in the early 1990s. Our research and experience showed that a combination of both calcium aluminate cement and 100 percent calcium aluminate aggregate is the best performing mineral solution in this extreme environment.

“Our opinion was that all of the calcium aluminate products on the market were based on calcium aluminate cement, blended with a natural aggregate such as sand or granite,” he continues. “We were the first company to use a manufactured calcium aluminate aggregate instead of sand. We marketed our aggregate system and that is how we differentiate our product from what we refer to as blended materials.”

Calcium aluminates are also used outside of the wastewater industry and they are a popular choice for applications in the iron and steel industries, as well as aluminum foundries and those involved in petro-chemical and aerospace applications — anything that specifically needs to be temperature or abrasion resistant. These cements also became popular for those in the manhole rehabilitation market, who mixed it with their natural aggregates.

“We were supplying cement to companies that are basically our competitors today [in the early 1990s], and they were having success in developing a nice market for our cement, blending it with their natural aggregates,” Talley says. “We took a look at it and tried to see how we could make a product that worked better. The aggregate system was the next logical step to give you more calcium aluminate in the bag.”

The product that developed out of their years of observation and research was a spray-applied, cementitious mortar. The product has grown in use over the 20 years in the manhole rehabilitation market and has done well in the new construction market as well.

“We do a tremendous amount of lift station and wet well rehab projects, as well as lining large diameter trunk lines, concrete pipe, wastewater treatment plant structures and line new pipe structures,” Talley says. “In Texas, the majority of what we do is new construction vs. rehab work. That is indicative of the market maturing, as engineers are starting to understand that if we coat these structures today as they are going in the ground, we won’t have to fix them five years from now when they are corroded and falling apart. They are protected from Day 1.”

With any new product, it takes time to develop and cultivate customers. The SewperCoat product is no different and it has had to compete with a plethora of manhole products and methods since its development. Competition is fierce as customers can choose from cementitious liners, epoxies, polyeureas, polyurethanes, fiber-glass lining systems, thermoplastic sheet liners, etc.

“When we first started selling SewperCoat as a product [for manholes], we didn’t have much business,” Talley remembers. “Now we have 20 years of history with the product in the ground. Like any product, the best way to prove that the product works is to have a valid history in the field. Today, we have a very strong market in North America for manhole rehab and other types of wastewater rehab.”

But competition is what makes everyone work harder and makes the market stronger in the long run. Talley believes in this way of thought as well but notes that all that competition makes for a more fragmented market for the manufacturers. “Is the market strong? Absolutely, just look at the number of people manufacturing manhole rehab coatings today vs. five years ago,” Talley says. “There wouldn’t be this huge number of suppliers out there if there wasn’t a marketplace. It makes for a very competitive market and is also part of the reason I would consider it a fragmented market because of all the competitors. There are a lot of good systems out there and lot of good technologies for customers to choose from. Every new product has to be researched by the customer.”

The Difference

So how does a company compete within such a large and diverse marketplace, such as manhole rehab? Talley pauses when asked this question and very purposefully answered that Kerneos’ patience in letting customers learn about their product over the years has yielded the results it has been working toward.

“As I said before, it comes down to being able to show the customer the product in the ground,” he explains. “But we also believe it’s our proximity to our customers and I’m not talking about geography. It’s having a proximity to your markets in terms of understanding the issues that your customers face as well as the customers. This enables us to develop products that create value for them. This has to be supported with a strong commitment to technical support, starting with fundamental academic research into your product and follows all the way through to training end-users in its successful application, which is one thing that we really hang our hat on.”

SewperCoat customers are spread out over the United States, with its strengths being in the Southeast in Florida and Georgia and in Texas. Outside the United States, Kerneos has its CalCoat RG product, which is used as a lining product for ductile iron pipes.

An area where Talley believes is a strength for Kerneos in the market is its commitment to education, both in academic research and within the industry. “We are very education based, particularly when we give presentations,” he says. “We educate on corrosion and the wastewater environment itself. We also sponsor Ph.D. research and candidates at different universities around the world who are doing cement and concrete specific research and we oftentimes partner with external laboratories and do a lot of field evaluations and product trials.”

Looking to the Future

As the manhole rehab market continues to grow, Talley believes Kerneos will continue its steady climb in the market, noting that its sales have paralleled the market. Down-the-road plans include geographic expansion outside of North America.

“We are already pretty well situated in places like Brazil, Russia, India and China,” Talley says. “We want to continue to invest in those parts of the world, particularly in wastewater infrastructure and civil construction. The population is increasing and the population density is becoming more concentrated. The infrastructure is still the same infrastructure that was there. You are feeding more and more into an already over-taxed wastewater system. There is a need for this type of technology and the need has increased every year.”

But as the need continues to be there, that looming question of how will municipalities pay for it is always there as well. “For the wastewater industry, despite the well recognized need for substantial infrastructure investments, there is no question that funding will be extremely tight for the foreseeable future,” Talley says. “This translates into a need on the part of the wastewater infrastructure managers and engineers to demand products that offer greater longevity than ever before. We simply cannot afford to repair things every three to five years anymore.”

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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