Last Word: Drop the Demo in Favor of a Pilot Project

Murray Heywood Sherwin Williams


Another day, another municipality product demo. Most readers have likely participated in many of these events. Contractors take part with the hope of being named as preferred providers. Suppliers participate to secure a potential spot in repair specifications. And public works officials attend to evaluate options and inform their specification writing. Contractors and suppliers typically donate their time and materials for such demos, hoping their investments will lead to future contracts.

But is anyone getting the best value from these demos?

Product demos are certainly worthwhile, as they can help municipalities identify suitable products and contractors, eliminate others and create better specifications. However, demos also have their limitations, especially if a municipality restricts a demo to a single asset when other similar assets may have drastically different operating environments. In this column we’ll cover municipal sewer manholes, which often have a wide range of deterioration throughout a sewer system. This variability creates inefficiencies for traditional one-off product demos, as the municipality will only learn which repair products address the conditions of one particular manhole.

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To expand its knowledge base – and more accurately reflect its full range of sewer system conditions – the municipality could instead switch from a one-off demo to a full pilot project that would cover more manholes. Addressing a minimum of 10 manholes, for example, would ensure a variety of operating conditions, giving the municipality greater exposure to repair options. Then, the municipality would be able to create more precise specifications for addressing specific conditions; this way it doesn’t specify the most robust – and most expensive – repair option when a more economical one will do. A full pilot project also gives contractors and suppliers more incentive to shine.

More Precise Repair Options

When evaluating manhole restoration products via a one-off demo, a municipality may choose to address its most deteriorated manhole. In doing so, the demo team will be able to confirm which restorative coating and lining systems will appropriately address those extreme conditions, and the municipality can then create its specification. However, the municipality won’t know if less robust systems may work on manholes that are in better condition.

In this case, the municipality has only confirmed specifications for one specific type of repair, and that repair may be overkill for many manholes. If the municipality wants to know what other products will work for other manhole conditions, it will need to schedule yet another demo. Engaging in a full pilot project instead will help to improve efficiencies by allowing the municipality to evaluate more materials at one time and make determinations on which products can handle which environments. For more severe environments, the municipality will likely need to specify epoxy liners. For other environments, it may be able to specify less expensive cementitious liners. This process helps municipalities create more accurate specifications for future projects and, therefore, helps them reduce costs by specifying the appropriate levels of repairs in bids.

Better Work, Better Results

Product demos are also job interviews, as municipalities often measure both the products being demoed and the applicators doing the work. Applicators should give their all. The contractor is already working at a loss, so he may be inclined to rush and skip steps, which may result in a failed demo. Every party loses in this case. The contractor can forget about winning future bids. The supplier likely won’t be selected. And the municipality may miss out on specifying a perfectly viable – if not ideal – repair product. Furthermore, the municipality may also face the potential added cost of repairing the repair.

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With a full pilot project, the contractor will be on an extended job interview and be more engaged. Since he’s being paid, he’ll have an incentive to do better work and will now be inclined to properly stage the job and complete the repair. In addition, the municipality can evaluate how the contractor performs when using various repair materials, which may come in handy for future bid reviews.

Create a Win-Win-Win

Shifting from the traditional practice of holding one-off product demos to completing full pilot projects would give every party involved a greater stake in the game. The municipality would pay a discounted, break-even rate to the contractor and coatings supplier, reducing its overall repair costs per asset. Both the contractor and coatings supplier would be paid something instead of donating their goods and services, giving the contractor more incentive to perform, as well as the supplier added enticement to participate.
Following the full pilot project, the municipality would have more precise repair specifications for specific asset conditions, the potential for better repair outcomes, and the opportunity to reduce life cycle costs due to those improved repairs. In addition, the contractor could be added to the municipality’s preferred vendor list, and the supplier’s products could be included in repair specifications.
Murray Heywood is water and wastewater product development manager Eastern North America for Sherwin-Williams Protective & Marine Coatings.
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