The Red Bucket - Episode 6. The Complexities of Painting Elevated Water Tanks


Elevated water tank painters face several unique challenges every day when working on the job site. The intricacies of a coatings project become exponential, and safety becomes even more paramount when crews are several hundred feet in the air. During this episode, we will talk with Steve Birchmeier, owner of Semper Fi Industrial Coatings, about the success of such projects. All of that and more coming up next on The Red Bucket.


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Jack Walker: All right, Paul. I'm very competitive. You know this.

Paul Atzemis: Yes. Oh yeah. We've known each other for a long time.

Jack: Around Christmas, we did a holiday decorating contest at Carboline.

Paul: Yeah. I thought this is where this was going.

Jack: Yeah. So anyway, for the prize, because we won, Marketing won, and I'm being very vague.

Paul: Yep. Congratulations.

Jack: But the prize for Marketing winning this is a photograph of me that's going to live forever. When I retire from this place, that's going to be like the highlight of the slideshow. The theme was Christmas Vacation. I dressed up like Cousin Eddie in a bathrobe, taking care of some sanitary business. I didn't think it was going to go anywhere, and it's been everywhere. Everybody's seen it.

Paul: There's a lot of thigh in that picture.

Jack: So much thigh. But anyway…

Introduction to Steve Birchmeier and Semper Fi Industrial Coatings

Jack: Joining us on The Red Bucket is Steve Birchmeier. He is with Semper Fi Industrial. Steve, welcome to the show.

Steve Birchmeier: Thank you very much.

Jack: So, Steve, why don't you tell us a little bit about Semper Fi Industrial and what it is that you guys do?

Steve: Semper Fi Industrial. We are an industrial coatings contractor who really specializes in water towers, elevated structures of any kind. We do stadiums. We also dabble in water treatment and wastewater treatment, fuel storage, and pretty much anything that you want to be painted with steel.

Paul: So, Steve, why don't you tell us a little bit about how did you get into the industry? How long have you been in it?

Steve: Well, it's kind of interesting because I tell people I was cursed. That's how I got into this market.

Paul: Yeah. That's how most of us think about it. Nobody grew up saying, "I want to be in paint."

Steve: I served nine years in the Marine Corps, and when I got out, I went into an office job. But it seems I was not fit to work in an office. I became a manager straight out of the Marine Corps, and at the first staff meeting, I made them all cry.

Jack: Wow. Bringing the Marines to the business.

Steve: Yeah. And one of my employees actually, she said, "You know, my husband has this job, and it's really dirty, and he works a lot of hours, and it's really hard work." And I'm like, "You know what, you should give me his number." So, actually, I went to work sandblasting and painting bridges. So, my background is actually bridge painting. And I was a union employee, I think, for like four years. I just started deciding that I wanted to do something else besides being an employee. And I started doing some piecework for some contractors and getting paid by the job. And I guess water tower, water tank painting is the easiest market to get into.

Jack: Really?

Steve: Yeah. Believe it or not, I believe that's true. It's a niche market, but I think it's so starved for talented employees that I think it's easy to get into industrial painting by getting into a water tower company. And I think the company just kind of happened, really. I got tired of doing piecework. And I pretty much started my own company.

The First Step in the Elevated Water Tank Coating Process

Jack: So, you get approached by an owner, a specifier with a water tank. What's the first step in the process?

Steve: Normally, I mean, we take a look at all jobs, and we basically have to look at the specification. What is specified as far as the coatings? And then the very first thing we look at is probably in reference to the exterior. Are we stripping it, or are we overcoating it? That's the biggest difference between water tower painters. There's a lot of them who go around and just do overcoats. Actually stripping the exterior of a water tower takes a lot of skill—a lot of knowledge. I'm going to tell you, probably, I've been painting the exteriors over 20 years, and still, I learn loads every year. It's not easy. We have a lot of specialized rigging, a lot of the containment requirements for elevated water towers. And if you can imagine, water towers average 150 to 200 feet in the air. Having to enclose an entire structure that tall in windy conditions takes a lot of nerve for the employees—a lot of education, training, and talent to be able to do that. So, that's one thing we look at when it comes to water towers and then the specification for the interiors. And we just kind of move on from there, through a spec, and decide whether or not we want to bid the work.

Surface Preparation Considerations for Elevated Water Tanks

Jack: And so, I think let's talk with that surface prep, and you said the rigging that you have to put up. A lot of the times, if you're going to remove, you're abrasive blasting. And a lot of people have abrasive blasted. But not a lot of people have abrasive blasted 150, 250 feet up in the air. What special considerations have to go into that? You obviously said safety, so I'm assuming there's safety training, but what special considerations do you have to do now that you're doing what a lot of us do at ground level, but you're now 150 feet up in the air?

Steve: Well, a lot of it has to do with the weight of the equipment. Carrying a sandblasting hose up there 150 feet is, we do it every day, so it seems fairly basic to us, but when we have a new employee, we realize how many little techniques that we use to be able to do that. Sandblasting at 150 feet, you have, besides the hundreds of environmental factors you have to take into consideration, you have weight, you're hanging by a 5/16 cable.

Jack: I'm sorry, I have to go cry in a corner now.

Steve: So, yeah, when you're up there, you're sandblasting, and you're like, okay, this is an SP10 blast, and you're thinking about the profile and the angle you're blasting at and how far away you're blasting. And then you look over, and you see this little, tiny 5/16-inch cable that's basically holding onto your life.

Jack: That you're hopefully not hitting with your sandblasting media.

Steve: That's correct. So, yeah, there's a lot to think about.

Containment for Elevated Water Tank Exteriors

Jack: How does an owner or an engineer make the determination as to whether or not that steel tank exterior should be contained?

Steve: Well, in my opinion, it should always be contained. It's not always done that way. But I think it probably goes back to the state's EPA requirements or the local requirements, whether or not you can open abrasive blast. I know it's still legal in some areas to open abrasive blast.

Jack: How much does that containment add to the overall cost of the project?

Steve: It's substantial in some cases, depending on the size of the tank. Of course, the smaller the tank, the less square footage of the steel, the more of a percentage of the containment adds to the cost overall. So, let's say you're doing a smaller structure that has… I just looked at one last night. It was like 8,000 square feet, right? 8,000 square feet, but it may be like $60,000 just to put the containment up. That's a substantial percentage of the cost of stripping a tank.

Spray Applications vs. Brush and Roll

Paul: So, when you're doing these exteriors, and we had mentioned not all the time are they abrasive blasted, the surface prep, sometimes it's an overcoat project. Are you more likely to be doing spray apply of your coating if you had to put up containment because you were doing a removal? And then let's say you weren't using containment because you didn't have to do a removal. You're not going to look at spray applying for your topcoat. You're going to go to a brush and roll style application. Is that something you see a lot of? If I didn't have to put in containment, I am not spraying a topcoat.

Steve: We see a mixture of everything, to be honest. Spraying a topcoat is very interesting with water towers because, like I said, I came from bridgework where we sprayed everything. Water towers, we stray away from painting the finished coat by spray. We typically brush and roll the final coat even though we have a containment. Just because, I'll be honest, we haven't really found that many products that look that great painting a water tower because, unfortunately, the way you paint a water tower, one with legs specifically, you do it vertically versus horizontally, which means you start at the top and you go straight down, and then you move to the left or to the right and you start at the top, and you paint straight down. And what that creates is dry lines.

Jack: Tiger striping.

Steve: Exactly. So, it's very difficult to spray apply the finish coat and make it look really good because of all the dry lines. So, it typically gets rolled. We do use some acrylics when we do an overcoat, mostly that we can spray apply, and we have pretty good luck with that. Just, you know, the longevity is an issue there.

Creative Designs on Elevated Water Tank Exteriors

Jack: We talked about what containment ads cost-wise, but as we're talking about exteriors, we know there are certain places that like to get really fancy with what they put on the outside. We see different designs, different logos, different…

Paul: Truly artistic…

Jack: Truly artistic things. How much does that change the factor of the bid when you're looking at, "Okay, now we're not just going all in one color. We're following a design?"

Steve: It adds some cost, of course. You know what I mean? The more complicated the design, the higher the cost. But water tower painters are proud. So, we like to see that stuff on our tanks. We specifically chase that work. Our company, in particular, like to have complicated designs in the exterior of tanks.

Primers and Intermediate Coats

Jack: So, you, you specifically said that you don't spray the topcoat, so that gets me wondering. A lot of exterior water tanks, due to AWWA D102, they'll follow those different systems, and most of those are multi-coat systems. So, does that mean we're spraying primers and intermediate coats when we do this, or we brush and roll most of the time?

Steve: We try not to brush and roll, especially if it's the primer. There are cases where we've had to brush and roll the primer. But it's very difficult because if you can imagine a 200-foot structure completely enclosed in tarps, but if it gets windy and you have just blasted 3,000, 4,000 square feet of steel. You want to paint it back. So, a lot of times, what I particularly like to see is a dry-fall zinc primer that can be spray applied without damaging the surrounding properties once we get everything prepped if we have to drop the containment due to wind.

Jack: But I think that's interesting. Let's talk a little bit about that. When we start getting into markets where the structure that you're painting is higher up in the air, dry fall becomes more important, especially if you don't have containment because when you're spraying up high, how far can it travel? Do you know?

Steve: Oh, miles.

Jack: And you usually find that out the hard way.

Paul: There’s usually a car dealership nearby.

Adjustments for Elevated Water Tank Applications

Jack: So, then the other natural question, because when I was back in Tech Service, we got this one all the time. And you have to take a lot into consideration now when you're pumping material 200 feet in the air to spray it. Do you want to talk a little bit about the adjustments that you have to use, the size rig that you have to use just to get that paint up in the air?

Steve: Yeah. Well, it was a huge learning curve coming from bridge painting to water tower painting in that aspect. When you have to pump that much volume straight up, it requires a lot more flow to get up that high. So, typically, our hoses are 1/2-inch, 3/8-inch, and we're using 60 or 71 pumps just to get the proper pressure and paint flow in the atomization coming out. It can be difficult, right? If you don't have the right setup, then you're going to have some issues when it comes to painting that material.

Jack: Sure, for bridge work, you can run multiple guns off of a setup like that. When you're going 200 feet up in the air with a 60 to 71, are you able to run multiple guns?

Steve: Not as many as you would with coating bridge work. But with the 60 or 71, you can normally run two or three lines successfully. It depends on the volume solids of the paint, of course. The higher the volume of the paint, the less guns you can run. Some of the higher solids paint, maybe you only run one gun per pump. Unfortunately, that was one of the learning curves I had to adjust when I came from bridge painting to water tower painting.

Jack: Yeah, one of the ways I try to equate it, there's a lot there, and the big hoses is huge—the pressure. But one of the reasons why you go to big hoses is because even though the liquid is moving through the hose, there's a certain amount of the liquid that is stationary, basically, at the outside of the hose.

Paul: It sticks to the hose.

Jack: So, you need it to be bigger to have more volume going through it. Otherwise, you starve your gun. But the way I always equate this is to like a milkshake. So, if you have a straw, and it's a tiny straw, and you have a thick milkshake, you're really working hard to get that milkshake through that tiny straw. But if you get a bigger straw, and I think Hardee's, a little shameless plug for them, they actually give you like a big straw, and you can drink and get the thicker material through it. So, it's the same kind of principle as using a bigger hose there.

Paul: Yeah, that's a good analogy, Jack.

Coating Applications for Elevated Water Tank Interiors

Jack: So, we've talked about the outside of something like that, that's way up in the air. Let's talk about coating the inside of the tank. And it can become tricky depending on what material is actually specified. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Steve: It's almost the same principle. You have a higher volume solids, you need larger equipment. I like the analogy. I'm actually going to use that in my training sessions. With the new specifications—the NSF 600—there's a large array of different types of materials that are hitting the market that are making it challenging to apply coatings inside of a water tower. I think a lot of the engineers are confused—the specifiers are confused about what they need to incorporate with the NSF 600.

Jack: And with that NSF 600, we've seen a little bit more of a push towards almost, you said higher solids, but no solvent, and you start to get into plural type applications. You know, elastomeric polyurethanes are used a lot in these water towers. So, how does the complexity change when you go to a plural sprayed equipment, and you're 200 feet up in the air?

Steve: That's a whole different ballgame right there. The biggest difference is the weight of the hose. I think our hose is 200 feet, and I think it weighs about 300 pounds. So, you have to run that all the way up inside the tank.

Paul: And so, in those kinds of conditions, the complexity so much increases because not only are you running a hose bundle 200 feet in the air, that hose bundle has to include heat, you have to include where's your mixing manifold at and what's your return line's going to be. That's part of where all that weight comes from, is that complexity of keeping it uniform all the way up so that when you get to the top, I mean, we're in Louisville right now, and it was in the thirties, so, it's a lot of heat that you have to maintain in something like that and requires a lot more preparation/planning.

Steve: It requires a lot of planning from the very beginning. So, you have to plan from the very beginning the surface prep, the conditions that you maintain inside the tank—the cleanliness—because one of the hardest parts of a water tower—the interior—is removing the contaminants. Removing the abrasive, removing the dust is not easy. And then, you have to do all that. And then on top of that, now you have to have a very skilled applicator—a very skilled helper—a very skilled pump operator in order to accomplish applying these coatings. And, you have to have certain conditions you have to maintain. There's a lot that goes into it. And then, there's a lot that can go wrong with it as well. So, if you don't have the skill and you don't have a good plan, your success rate is probably a little low if you don't have those things already planned out.

What Can Go Wrong When Painting Elevated Water Tanks?

Jack: You said that a lot of things could go wrong. Could you maybe give us a couple examples?

Steve: I mean, even skilled operators and skilled personnel can make a mistake. There's a lot of things that have to happen—a lot of levers that have to be pulled. A lot of things that have to happen on top of the stress of being elevated in the air while you're applying your coatings. So, I think our biggest problem would be incorporation of contaminants: dust, moisture, solvent, whatever the case might be. If you can imagine painting a water tower in the summer. And it's probably 120° in there. Now you're on an elevated scaffolding. Now you're sweating, right? You have moisture coming off your body, salty moisture coming off your body, and you're surrounded 180° by a fresh steel. You have all those things going on, and the stress level increases as you are fighting the environmental conditions inside. And so, it's easy to make a mistake.

Holding Conditions Inside Water Tanks

Jack: Yeah. You brought up the environmental conditions, and you said something earlier about holding the conditions of the tank, and I think that's an important thing to circle back around to. So, you have a time between when you blast, and you get the coating on, and God forbid you lose that blast. So, talk a little bit about what you do to hold the conditions in the tank so that you can keep that blast profile so that when you go to apply your coating, you're not seeing flash rust and things like that.

Steve: That's a whole nother ballgame as well because, with elevated towers, you have a limited ingress and egress, and you have very limited access to the interior. So, you're trying to run a dust collector, and you're trying to incorporate dehumidification equipment. Now you have to have blast hoses that have to go through these openings. And it's not uncommon to have only two or three openings in a water tower, 2- inches in diameter. And now the guys have to have ways in and out of the tanks so they can do their work.

Jack: You also got to get power in there because you've got to run your tools and lighting. You know, if there's only a couple 24-inch openings on some of these things, I imagine it's kind of dark in there.

Steve: Yeah, it can be. It can be pitch black in there. Yeah. So, even in the middle of daytime, sometimes we have to illuminate.

Safety Considerations for Painting Elevated Water Tanks

Jack: When you are doing this work, safety has to take a huge part of what you guys do as a company. So, can you explain a little bit about the safety measures, trainings that you go through in order to be a water tank painter?

Steve: I constantly stress to my foremen and to my employees safety is number one. Right? This is an extremely dangerous job. It's more important than anything else we do. It's more important than the paint itself. Without safety, we can't do our job properly. So, we spend a lot of time training. We train all year long. There are so many things that have to go into the training and the equipment, and the total package when it comes to safety. You are elevated, so you have fall protection is a big deal. You have respiratory protection. We do welding. Most water tower painters do structural steel repair on top of the coating processes. So, we have hot work. Then you have confined space. You throw that in there. Now you're in a confined space, and you're painting. So, as you see this, you see all these things building up to the interior of the tank. And you realize how hazardous the job is. I think we've done some research on it. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more hazardous job than what we do. So, we spend a lot of time training. We spend probably, two weeks out of every year isolated in just training only. And honestly, to be fully trained in safety takes years. Starting out from the employee, the very first thing they're told Day One is they're taught fall protection from the moment they walk in our door. And that's the biggest risk. Right?

Paul: And, we had mentioned the barrier to entry is fairly low from an equipment and a training thing, but the understanding of how to use your equipment, what your safety training is, I mean, I'm a sailor at heart and knots, ropes, how integral tying off was and what kind of knots you had to use and what kind of ropes you had to use. It's a constant.

Steve: That's a good point. Actually, rope training is number one. On the very first day out in the field, you tie a bowline, and you tie a clove hitch, right?

Paul: Yes. The two most important knots everybody should know.

Steve: Yeah, that's like one of the very first things you learn when you come to work for us is how to tie the correct knot. It's very important in everything we do. All of our lifelines are ropes. So, you have a 5/16-inch cable, then you have a 5/8-inch rope, and that's your lifeline. Those are the two things that you have to protect and monitor, they say daily, but honestly, it's a constant thing. It's like not just daily. It's all day long.

Paul: Yeah, because I mean, the last thing you want is for something rubbing on the rope, fraying the rope, your abrasive media hitting it. I mean, honestly, even a spray tip, when you're spray applying paint, it comes out at 3, 4, 5, 6,000 psi. You can cut a rope with that kind of pressure if it hits it in the right spot. So, it is truly a constant monitor.

Steve: Yes, that's correct. Yeah. All day long. Every day.

Mechanical Repairs and Welding on Elevated Water Tank Projects

Jack: I kind of want to circle back to one of the things you said there that I picked up on was that you guys get to do mechanical repairs of this steel while you're up there. Is that basically because we're like, well, these guys are willing to climb up the thing and do some work? Because I mean, in most other places, you would have a welder come in, and then the painter would come in afterwards. So, is it kind of like, well, we got these suckers up there already. They can do it?

Steve: I think a lot of that stuff goes in the specifications. There are mostly OSHA standards that are being upgraded on water towers, and the containment systems that we erect—that we build—they're all custom. Every single job is custom. So, that's where it takes the skill, and those things are welded onto the tower. So, painters almost have to employ welders. We actually have, our painters actually don't weld, we actually have a crew of welders. But in order to build these structures, these containments, it's almost mandatory that we have welders that work along with us.

Jack: That makes a whole lot of sense.

Specifications for Elevated Water Tank Projects

Jack: And you brought up specifications, so I kind of want to go there now. There's a lot of different agencies and organizations that determine the different types of coatings and things like that. But you get to see these specifications all day long. It's what you decide whether or not to do a job on. So, if there's something that you would want a specifier to know from a tank painter's point of view, what would that be?

Steve: What I wish is that engineers or specifiers would go out and get someone who's an expert in the field of water tower painting to help them build the spec. We see a lot of specs that are written, and these are the ones I pass on. When they're poorly written, I don't want any part of that. I really question when I start seeing weird things in the spec. Where the paint manufacturer's recommendations don't line up with the specified surface preparation. And believe it or not, that happens a lot. Maybe get ahold of a paint rep, get ahold of a contractor, get ahold of an inspector, get ahold of someone who actually has experience in applying coatings because, to be honest with you, probably 50% of the ones that we actually see, I could help an owner or an engineer say, "Hey, if you want a quality system, this is what you need to do," right? "This is the spec you need to build, or this is the advantage of this coating over this coating. Do you want the coating to last five years? Do you want the coating to last 50 years? How long do you want your coatings to last for? How much money are you willing to invest in the coating? What are your financial requirements for the city?" I've seen specs, I saw one the other day, the spec was literally one page.

Jack: One? One whole page.

Steve: One page.

Jack: Man, wordy, that guy. What do you see that is missed the most in these specifications?

Steve: I think what's missed the most is the proper coatings for the purpose. I think in the surface preparation, I see really well-written specs by third-party inspection firms. And then I see overwritten specs. And then I see the other end of it. The one thing they miss the most is matching the proper paint or the proper system with what their expectations should be.

Paul: So, Jack, if you were to have asked me that same question, my answer would've been very different. If you would've said, "What do I wish they would do?" I wish they would build them closer to the ground.

Travel Requirements for Elevated Water Tank Painters

Jack: How many days would you say you're on the road working?

Steve: Me personally, I don't spend a lot of time on the road anymore. But up until this past year, I was on the road probably, on average, 300 days out of the year.

Jack: That's a lot.

Steve: Yeah. It was pretty common. Me and my wife used to add it up. It was over 300 days a year. We cover like half the United States.

Jack: So, not only does it take a lot of courage, guts, safety training. But willingness to travel, it sounds like?

Steve: Yeah. That's actually what makes it hard to keep employees sometimes. The length of time they have to be away from their families. My employees probably spend more than that away from their families. It's not uncommon to spend two or three months out and then go home for a week and then spend two or three months out and go home for a week.

Jack: As you can tell, Steve here is a wealth of knowledge about coating water tanks. Semper Fi Industrial is who should be hitting up. If you have a water tank that you need help with your specification, you need help with painting it, this is the guy you want to talk to.

"The Four Questions" [Non-Technical]

Jack: But with that being said, with The Red Bucket, we want to get to know Steve. So, like we do on every episode, we ask our guests four questions. They're the same four questions, and it's just literally a way that everybody gets to know each other a little bit. So, the first question would be, do you have a hobby? And what is it? What do you like to do when you're not climbing up the side of a water tower?

Steve: I have two hobbies. I like to grill. Grilling is like my happy place. And then my second is, actually, believe it or not, is epoxy pouring.

Jack: Oh. Okay. Like doing like the tables and stuff?

Steve: So, I do this with my children. We actually have an art studio where we do epoxy pouring. We do tables, and my daughters actually pour little figurines and things like that. And it kind of goes into flooring. We're taking a stab at doing some floorings, and that's like the creative side of me coming out.

Jack: I do something similar, but with acrylics. Acrylic flow painting and you spin it, you do all kinds of things, and just, I love to watch how the paint just moves.

Steve: Right. Cool.

Paul: So, I guess on the other side of that is, is there a sport, sports team, sports ball? Do you follow anything? You have a team or a level of league?

Steve: Oh, yeah. I'm a football fan. And my team is Michigan Wolverines. Go blue. And Detroit Lions.

Jack: This Notre Dame fan will just stay quiet over here.

Paul: Yeah. And this Ohio native will.

Steve: Oh, man.

Jack: They're like the two bigger rivals, right? Anyway, so, okay, if you were a baseball player or a WWE superstar, what would your walk-up song be?

Steve: I listen to a lot of metal. So, I guess it would be A Day to Remember, this song called "Miracle." It's about seizing the day, seizing the moment, and just taking advantage of what you're given for every day.

Jack: And with the metal aspect, I guess that that gets you jazzed up, ready to get your WWE on.

Steve: That's right.

Paul: So, the last one we have is TV show? Movie? Got a favorite quote? A line? Or a show that you like to watch or a movie?

Steve: "To die with honor is better than to live with shame." And that comes from The Vikings, which, actually, I'm watching right now. I don't watch a lot of TV. So, I'm like years and years behind. But, right now, that's my favorite show I'm watching right now.

Jack: That's awesome.

"Tech Tips"

Jack: Up next is our "Tech Tips" segment.

Jamie Valdez: You have questions. They have answers. This is "Tech Tips."

Steve: I'm Steve Birchmeier from Semper Fi Industrial. Tying the right knots for the circumstances is highly important. If you're hoisting something up or lowering something down, they both require different types of knots. And, if you tie the wrong knot, you may be spending half an hour trying to cut that knot off with a knife. If you tie the correct knot, it comes off relatively easy. But knots are important in our job because you're literally, your life depends on the correct knot being tied, whether it's hoisting something up or whether it's what you're tied off to.

Closing Remarks

Jack: Thanks again for listening. For Paul, I'm Jack. We'll see you again next time. Again, Semper Fi Coatings, Steve Birchmeier, he's your guy for elevated water tanks.

Paul: And we want to thank you for your service, Steve.

Steve: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Jack: And we'll see you guys next time.