CTSP Episode 197 - Specifications Pt. 1: A Manufacturer's Perspective


Jeremy Sukola is back to cover the basics of specification writing with Jack and Paul. They discuss the three primary parts of a specification and the benefits of including manufacturers in the writing process.


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Jack Walker: Welcome to another edition of the Carboline Tech Service Podcast. I'm Jack Walker. With me, as always, is the director himself. Mr. Paul, wait for it, Atzemis. Hey Paul, how's it going?

Paul Atzemis: Going really well, Jack. It's been a busy couple of weeks. We've gotten to do some traveling.

Jack: Paul and I just got back from the last ever SSPC or AMPP now, Coatings+ show. It was an interesting time to go out to Phoenix and do Coatings+ one more time.

Paul: That's right. It was great to really see everybody out in public again. We had CTW "work week" happened a couple of months ago. That's a lower crowd, to begin with. So, it was nice seeing vendors out and having booths set up. It was a great conference for a last hurrah for this one. Like you said, this was their last one. So, it was really great getting to see all the people again.

Jack: Absolutely. And so, with that, now we move on, and we look forward to our one-a-year Corrosion Conference. And that this year will be in March in San Antonio. And Bob Chalker, I look forward to the check that I'm getting in the mail for that. Anyway, we're going to start a series on writing specifications. We thought that this is something that a lot of our listeners do. There's a lot of information out there. There's a lot of misconceptions out there, and we thought we'd look at it from a couple of different angles. We're going to start with an introduction to specification writing, and then we're going to get the view of what's important to a specification, to an owner, and then what's important in a specification for a specification writer. This week, we're going to start with Jeremy Sukola. We just had him on a couple of weeks ago. He's one of our Engineering Sales Managers. Hey Jeremy, how's it going?

Jeremy Sukola: Good, Jack. How are you guys? Good to see you. I didn't get to join you out there in Phoenix at Coatings+ for this the last hoorah. I understand that Paul was taking up his duty as eye candy for the booth out there.

Paul: That's right. That is my primary role. When we get to the booth, I am the treat that everybody gets to come and see.

Jack: Do we have like a lot of tigers or something? Because that's about the only thing that I can think that would think you were appetizing looking. My apologies to Dr. Atzemis. I mean Mrs. Atzemis.

Paul: It's not always the physical appearance. It is the intellectual that I bring to the booth.

Jeremy: Oh, I appreciate you guys having me back on. It took 190-something episodes to reach the first one. And at this rate, I'll be on two of the three.

Jack: At this rate, you'll replace me.

Jeremy: Not a chance.

Paul: Keep up comments like that, and that may be what happens.

The main authority for specification writing

Jack: So, anyway, we wanted to talk to Jeremy about the basics of specification writing: where you get started, what information you use, who's an authority. So, Jeremy, let's start there. Who would be a good resource and is the main authority when you're looking at writing specifications?

Jeremy: Well, when you're putting together a specification, it really depends on what the outcome of the specification is. What's the project that you're working on? Some specifications are super simple. They might just be a very short spec for one very particular asset in a facility. So, a specification could be as simple as maybe three or four pages long. Sometimes on larger projects, specifications can be volumes. I've been on projects where specifications can be three and four volumes long, depending on the trade and what structures are being coated. Is it done in the field? Is it done in a shop? Things like that. So, it really depends. So, if we're looking at something as simple as a small structure, SSPC has got some really good information out there on things that you should really keep in mind when you're building a specification. Really, the organization that's looked to when it comes to writing specifications is CSI, who puts together this master format, this three-part specification. That's kind of what's known out there in the industry is the three-part specification.

The three parts of a specification

Paul: Let's jump right into it. Why don't we start right off and telling us what are those three parts to that specification from CSI?

Jeremy: Sure. So, first is general, second is products, and third is execution. And when you break it down, if you look at something like general, you could have a dozen, 15, 20 different sections to speak about. If your project doesn't require to have all of them, you can kind of cut out as you need. Same with products, same with execution. So, you can take that master formatting, and you can edit it down to the parts of the specification that you need that are relevant to your project.

Specification Part 1: General & scope of work

Jeremy: If we look at the general part of the specification, the biggest part of the general is the scope. What are we talking about doing? That's the opportunity for the owner to outlay what their expectations are of the contracting party for this project.

Jack: Seems pretty basic, right? You would think that that would be in every specification, but as you two know, I've seen many a specification without a scope of work, and it breaks my brain every time. Because it's like, "What are we even talking about here, anyway?"

Jeremy: Absolutely. And the scope of the work does not have to be a novel. It's really just a real quick way to, again, just express what the owner's exact need is for that project. It gives the contracting party a chance to very briefly look over the scope of this work that's in the bidding phase to decide if it's something that they want to invest the time in and look further into. So, the scope is the first thing that you want to look at when you're looking at a specification because it's going to tell you what we're doing, right?

Paul: I really enjoy when I get sent a specification, and it has a good well-defined scope. It makes it easy to relate to the customers what it is that we're going to be working at. And it has all the details. It's going to include stuff like, "You have food grade areas," or "You need potable water," or "You have a general chemical tank lining," or atmospheric structures, whatever it is, fireproofing, it'll all be laid out. And you can really get a handle on it right away, what's going to be involved in this project.

Jack: Well, and a lot of times, these are legal documents. So, the fact that somebody would leave this section out is kind of scary, really, because this is your agreement with the person who is executing your work. Sure, there are more details in the execution section, and we'll get there, but if you don't lay out what's expected from the beginning, that could get you in trouble when it comes time to deciding whether the job's finished in the first place.

Jeremy: That's a great point you bring up, Jack.

How improper specifications impact coatings

Jeremy: One of the largest issues that we see out in the field is everybody talks about coating failures due to surface preparation, or incorrect mixing, or things like that. The reality is an improper specification is also a large factor in coating failures because we've all heard the term copy and paste. And that's what you see in coating specifications all the time on projects. And as just noted, becoming a part of the contract, when that specification is written, and the bids go out, and a contract is signed, that specification now is part of it. In execution, the standards that go along with the project that's another important part of the general portion of the specification, those standards that are going to be used are in there. So, if there ever is discrepancy about surface preparation or anything like that, those standards that are listed at the beginning in the general portion, they're part of that specification, which is part of the contract.

The 4 C's of writing a specification

Jeremy: So, there's four C's that they talk about when you're writing a specification. Right? Being clear. Being correct. Being complete. And being concise. So, a specification really needs to have all four of those things to be a good specification. The perfect specification? I've never seen the perfect specification yet. There's been a lot that have been really close. But it is really difficult to craft a specification that has all of the pertinent information in it but isn't overly restrictive or isn't overly burdensome because you are really trying to balance the needs of the owner with the realities of the contractor. This all comes down to money eventually. So, we can write a specification that's super, super, super, clear, correct, concise, and complete. Nobody may be able to afford it, though.

Specification Part 2: Products

Jack: Absolutely. And then another thing that we talked about, you talked about the missed specification, and so that brings us to the next portion of the specification would be the products, and this is a lot more than just "Use this paint." Let's talk a little bit about what's in the product section of a specification.

Jeremy: So, depending on how the specification is written, again, if we're using a more informal specification or if we're using a CSI three format specification, there's a few different ways that we can put product information in there. Now, remember, a specification can be written by a consulting engineer. It can be written by a coating consultant. Or it can be written by a coating manufacturer. So, depending on who's writing the specifications or depending on what the ultimate outcome of that specification is, we kind of word the product section differently. They can be based specifically on formulation. We can say, "We want a polyamide epoxy for this area." Or we can base it more on performance. We can have a performance-based product portion of the specification where we're saying, "You can use any material as long as it meets this performance criteria A, B, and C." Now, sometimes the materials can be overly prescribed for a given environment, right? So, if we have 20 materials that are going to work for a service environment, but we're only saying this one can do it, and we set these very, very hard performance criteria, which excludes the other 19 products that could work, we run into another area there. So, there's a lot of different ways to put products into a specification.

Jack: Sure. I was going to say that the company that likes to use the DWI checkpoint method of spelling likes to create tests that are irrelevant to a set-in performance and make them one of the performance-related requirements on a specification. It's their Marketing 101.

Jeremy: Right. Again, it's a balance. When we build specifications and we put products into a specification, we want to make sure that we're giving the owner a durable coating that gives them what they ultimately need to provide performance. Now, if we're giving them a durable material that will provide performance in that environment, as well as environments that it will never, ever, ever see in actuality, we're over-prescribing in that specification, and we're really doing a disservice to the owner by doing that because we're locking the door as it were. And since that specification is part of a contract, we want to make sure that the owner is giving those who are using that specification as a way to bid a project, we want to make sure that the contractors who are bidding that have all available options. Because submittals and changing materials, those are part of the specification also. Those are written in there to be able to provide alternates. So, it's always a balance with the specification.

Paul: And we see it a lot when we have, let's call it, a poorly written one or a not specific enough written specification. And they end up turning over design parameters, not actual operating conditions, not what they're going to be doing in this industry. And you see it a lot, especially in high-temperature services or in tank lining services. And somebody will turn in, "Well, here's the design parameters for the tank." And it may have a temperature two or three times higher than that commodity will ever be exposed to. And that becomes the limiting factor right away if somebody can't give a better description as to what's going on. So, they're going to way overbid the lining material that's required, or maybe the insulation factor that's going to be required. And if you're looking at something with insulation, you could be bidding the exact wrong product. If you bid something that requires a high temperature to cure, and it's a service that's never going to see that high a temperature, you may be installing a product that'll never fully cure and won't ever meet its optimal characteristics. So, it really is important to have these zeroed in on exactly what you're doing to make sure that the products fit what it is the scope of the work is going to be.

The value of including manufacturers in the specification writing process

Jeremy: The best thing an owner, an engineer, or a consultant can do really is involve their manufacturers when they're writing a specification. What you'll see frequently is you'll see products in a specification where other manufacturers will do an apples-to-apples comparison. And you'll get these coatings matrixes that are kind of all over the place. Whereas if they would involve the manufacturers and say, "Here's our structures," or “Here's our facility. Here's what we're looking to do. Let me have options from Manufacturer A, B, C, and D." Now, they may be different technologies. They may be different materials, but if the manufacturers are given a heads up as, "This is our expectation of the material and what it should do," it really shouldn't matter. When we're in the product portion of the specification, if you're not involving your manufacturers, you're really handcuffing yourself.

Specification Part 3: Execution

Jack: Absolutely. The execution part of the specification could be helped out drastically by working with your suppliers because they're going to tell you exactly how to use their product, and that's what's going to be in this next part of the specification. Let's talk about the scope of the execution part of a specification, Jeremy.

Jeremy: Yeah. So, in the execution part, some of the biggest items to really pay attention to are obviously how we're going to put these materials on. But even before that, the surface preparation that's required for these coatings and linings. Everybody has different requirements for whether it's an atmospheric coating or a lining system that's going to be put in immersion. So, this is the part where the manufacturers can really help dial down on those specific items that are needed during surface preparation in order for the coatings to succeed. We run into issues here when we talk about that copy and paste, where you get somebody that's inserted information from a project that was maybe done 10 or 12 years ago, maybe even with different products, and the surface preparation part has not changed. I guess referring to the product data sheet is an easy way to kind of alleviate some of the risk in that specification. But again, you're handcuffing yourself if you're not involving your manufacturer to really help you line out how you should discuss surface preparation in this part. And then, when we start talking about the materials themselves, we start talking about how many mils should go on. I see specifications all the time where it'll say, "Apply material X at five mils." Not giving a range is a big issue sometimes. Arbitrarily deciding what that range is is also something that I see a lot. With materials that are only made to go on 6, 8, 10 mils, where we're, asking for 15, 20 mils in a single coat. The types of solvents that are used, how materials are mixed. A lot of that stuff is included in the product data sheet, but in the general part of the specification, we also give some relevance as to if there are discrepancies between the data sheets and the specification, which takes precedence. So, those are things that are lined out in the general part of the specification that rolls into the execution part. Another big key in the execution part of the specification is quality control. This is where we start talking about maybe having inspection as part of this project as well. So, we talk about what the expectation is for the contractor as far as their QC goes, if the owner's going to have some quality assurance, whether it be internally, their consulting engineer, or a third-party independent inspector out there doing inspection. So, the execution part is where we get to the nitty gritty and then finally get to the quality control part, where we start looking at acceptable finishes or an acceptable end to the project.

Wrap up

Jack: Yeah. As you can see, and as you've heard, there's lots of things that are going on in specifications. It covers everything from why we do it, how we're going to do it, what we're going to do it with. So, Jeremy, thank you for coming on today and talking about specifications and what is within it. This is just the very beginning. So, thanks, Jeremy.

Jeremy: Thank you.

Jack: If you happen to be under the age of 40, you're new at writing specifications, and you'd like to connect yourself with a community of coatings professionals, Carboline has a program for you. It's called CarboNext. You can find it just by going to www.carboline.com. And there is a CarboNext LinkedIn page. But if you're looking at connecting with more like-minded individuals who are looking at doing this type of work every day, CarboNext might just be for you. With that being said, I'm Jack. For Paul and Jeremy, we'll see you guys in a couple of weeks.