Manhole Chimney Specialists

Manhole Chimney SpecialistsThirty-three years ago, there was no process or product to seal the chimney of a manhole that did not involve excavation. That all changed when Cretex Specialty Products developed the first no-dig mechanical seal in 1981 to stop extraneous flow from entering the manhole and thereby creating a new niche in the then fledgling trenchless technology industry.

“We were one of the first trenchless technologies for rehab to enter the marketplace,” says Cretex Specialty Products general manager Lee Haessig. “Trenchless was pretty new back then, especially on the rehab side. There was the insitu method and chemical grouting but as far as mechanical sealing… Ours was really the first product that entered the market that didn’t require excavation to seal the manhole. Before, you had to dig it up.”

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Haessig wasn’t there when the company was formed but he has been a part of its evolution in the manhole market for more than 20 years or approximately 60 percent of its lifetime. The company has grown into the chimney seal leader for the manhole market, creating a product that initially had a 20-year lifespan but through development and engineering, now has a 50-year materials warranty.

Based in Waukesha, Wis., since opening its doors in 1983, Cretex Specialty Products reflects the strong Midwestern character of its employees — resilient, strong and proud. The company — a subsidiary of multi-million dollar parent company Cretex Companies — boasts a respected network of independent manufacturing representatives in the United States and Canada and has emerged from the dark economic period of the last few years in good shape for its future.

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The condition of our manholes is not getting better on their own and many are in immediate need of attention, particular at their chimneys. “The chimney area continues to be one of the significant sources of excess flow into the collection system,” Haessig notes. “And that is for many reasons, including the manholes are in the roadway and are impacted by traffic and poor and antiquated construction methods that were used for the top part of the manholes when they were built many years ago.”

Manhole Chimney SpecialistsCompany History
Cretex Specialty Products is owned by Cretex Companies Inc., located in Elk River, Minn. The Cretex Companies was founded in 1917 by L.D. Bailey and D.W. Longfellow during a time when the infrastructure of the United States was starting to grow at an explosive rate. The specialty of Cretex Companies at the time was building concrete pipe for highway projects.

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“The interstate was being built and there were a lot of storm sewers being constructed,” Haessig says of the company’s beginnings. “The infrastructure was growing exponentially. Over the years, [Cretex Companies] formed and acquired concrete pipe and manhole manufacturing plants throughout the upper Midwest.”
One of those companies Haessig was referring to was Waukesha Concrete Products, known before joining the Cretex family companies as Waukesha Cement Tile in 1973. Cretex Specialty Products was officially established as a Division of Waukesha Concrete Products in September 1983. Today, Cretex Companies has four divisions — infrastructure, industrial, medical and aerospace/defense — that generates more than $400 million in annual revenue.

Manhole Chimney SpecialistsCretex Specialty Products’ entrance into the trenchless industry was gained in February 1981 after a call for solutions was made by an engineering firm trying to stop extraneous flows from entering the collection system in the City of Milwaukee, Wis. The Internal Manhole Chimney Seal was the product of that project and from that time forward, Cretex Specialty Products became an innovator in the trenchless manhole market.
“How the need for our product was found was through CH2M Hill’s Sewer System Evaluation Survey (SSES) that was done for the Milwaukee Pollution Abatement program,” Haessig explains. “Through the SSES, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) was trying to determine where all the extraneous flows were coming from the collection system. The result was that [CH2M Hill] identified the chimney area of the manhole as being one of the single-largest sources of inflow into the collection system.”

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CH2M Hill had put out a request for proposals, resulting in 28 different companies and methods being pitched to it and MMSD, including Cretex’s chimney seal, which was eventually selected for the project. The Internal Manhole Chimney Seal was created through the collaborative efforts of Frank Odill, then an engineer at Waukesha Concrete Products, and Dave Anderson, who worked in the Cretex Test Lab at the time. Odill retired in 1999 as vice president of Waukesha operations for Cretex Specialty Products and Anderson is now director of Cretex Technical Services.

“Those are the two who developed the chimney seal,” Haessig says. “Approximately eight different methods were approved [for the project] initially and our seal is the only one still in place and performing to date…If it wasn’t for Milwaukee and CH2M Hill putting out the RFP for a solution, we may never have been in the trenchless industry. Our company was born as a result of that project and it got us into the trenchless market. They wanted a product that could be installed in existing manholes without excavation.”

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At the time of this project, the trenchless market was in its infancy and there were few if no options for the manholes that didn’t involve some kind of excavation. Cretex’s solution broke that mold and started the company on its way. In the years since that first project, Cretex Specialty Products has continued to develop chimney seals for the manholes, with its two key products being the Internal Manhole Chimney Seal and the External Manhole Chimney, which was brought to market two years after the internal seal.

Over the years, the company has broadened its manhole product lineup to include non-trenchless solutions but its primary products remain trenchless. Over the last few years, new products have been launched. At the 2012 WEFTEC show, Cretex’s Easy Seal SG was introduced — a spray-applied, urethane manhole frame-chimney sealant that prevents inflow like the Internal/External Manhole Seals. This product was developed to address those manholes in which rubber seals do not fit into (i.e. non-circular manholes). At the recent 2013 Pumper Show, Cretex unveiled its LLS Internal Chimney Seals, which make the installation of the product easier and more versatile with fewer components.

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“There is a lot of competition in our market, a lot of different processes and methods that go into sealing up that part of the manhole,” Haessig says. “Ours is the one that been around the longest.”
Haessig says the competitiveness of the market shows just how important and needed manhole rehabilitation is when it comes to maintaining underground infrastructure — and will continue to be as these structures continue to work long past their lifecycles, many in dire shape. “There are probably 20 different producers of materials that can be used to just seal manhole chimneys,” he notes.

It has been the vibrancy of the rehab market that helped to stabilize Cretex Specialty Products during the recent Great Recession when the new construction market collapsed. “[The recession] really affected our sales quite a bit and if it wasn’t for the rehab market — from which its new construction market evolved — we may not even exist today.”

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Experience Is the Difference
Cretex Specialty Products views itself as being the pioneer when comes to trenchless chimney manhole rehab and carries that mantle with pride. “We view ourselves as the innovator of this technology and we’ve always taken the approach that we are the leader in the industry,” Haessig says. “That means we have the confidence in our products and that they serve a distinct purpose in the collection system that can help save the client and community money in the long term. We are very dedicated to offering high-quality products and solutions to allow the communities to do a better job at maintaining their systems tight and free from extraneous flows of water.

Now with many choices for owners to choose from, how does Cretex Specialty Products set itself apart from other manhole seal companies? Haessig says what makes the company different and successful is its long-tenured staff and experience with chimney seals. He points to office manager Kim Anderson, warehouse manager Kevin Linder, shipping/receiving clerk Ian Lindner and regional sales manager Pete Tortorici as just a few of  the key assets who contribute to the success of the company. Since its inception, the company has operated from what was then a 3,200-sq ft warehouse and office facility but has expanded over the years to a 12,000-sq ft facility with a lean operation of six full-time employees, including Haessig. Its product is sold and distributed through its extensive network of independent manufacturer’s representatives and distributors in the United States and Canada.

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“We have staff that have been in the marketplace for a long time,” Haessig says. “We know our products well and we know what their purpose is. And we feel, frankly, that we have the best products on the market.”

Manhole Attention
Haessig has been with Cretex Specialty Products for 21 years and has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of North American manholes. He has seen this aspect of the aging infrastructure go virtually ignored by municipalities while others are addressed, such as the mainlines and laterals. As he sees it, the manholes need to be just as much of a priority, maybe even more so —and not just because his company sells a product for manholes but because of how it affects an overall underground infrastructure.

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“There is not enough focus on the manholes,” Haessig says matter-of-factly. “How many times do I see projects for CIPP where they are not including the manholes in the scope of the project? The manholes are being overlooked or ignored when really they are one of the largest contributors of extraneous flows and one of the easiest to get to and rehabilitate. People don’t think twice about doing 10,000 ft of CIPP but they won’t line 1,000 vf of manholes.”

Haessig is a vocal advocate of manholes, noting that many of the manholes are years past their expected lifecycle and are in immediate need of rehabilitation. There are more than 20 million manholes in the United States with a quarter of them deemed to be in severe, deteriorated condition, according the U.S. EPA. One of the key issues the trenchless manhole market faces is simply convincing collection system owners that the manholes are in trouble.

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“That’s probably the biggest issue,” Haessig says. “Seems like a lot of operators and owners who maintain the collections systems when it comes to manholes, they don’t want to admit there’s a problem or potential problems with their manholes. [Cretex Specialty Products] has been around for 30 years and even with advertising, tradeshows, demonstrations this company has done over the years, there is still a significantly large number of people who don’t know what a chimney seal is and, to me, that is amazing.”

Haessig knows that Cretex and other manhole rehab companies have their work cut out for them in swaying the owners to commit more dollars toward rehabbing their manhole structures. Cretex Specialty Products has been a member of NASTT and NASSCO and its MACP Committee to continue to network and work with public works officials regarding manhole rehabilitation.

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“One of the goals of our company is education,” Haessig says. “We do a lot of industry seminars, such as the Trenchless Technology Road Shows and NASTT Chapter events, as a way to give back and support our industry.”

Haessig says the current status of our manholes is not going away and for that reason he sees a strong and vibrant future ahead for Cretex Specialty Products. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away, he says.
“If you found something wrong in a manhole today, it’s not going to be better two years from now,” he says. “These things don’t fix themselves and they usually get worse. The sooner you can fix it, the easier and less expensive it will be to fix it.

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Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of  Trenchless Technology.

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