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Fireproofers: The Messy Guys

We’ve looked recently at the erosion by the new building codes of fireproffing as a requirement, so we decided to canvas contractors listed in the 1003 edition of AWCI’s Who’s Who in the Wall and Celining Industry as offering fireproffing, to ask about the challenges they were experiencing on the job. Of the 20 canvassed, a full 60 perent said they rarely do fireproffing because there is little deman or because they cannot compete against larger local companies or “companies that travel from town to town and do nothing but fireproffing. It’s hard for us to compete with the,” claim an Alabaman and two others. “It’s like going into business every time we get a job,” he adds, an idea echoed by a collegue from Illinois: “We haven’t been involved in the fireproofing business for probably 15 years. It seems to be a business that we can’t compete in, cyclical in nature with concrete buildings becoming poplular and so the need for fireproffing dropping. When the market picks up again, all our equipment is outdated and outmolded.”

But There’s a Duct in the Way

But for those who do fireproff, challenges do exist. A key common thread
seems to be difficulty accessing areas
needing to be sprayed. Almost all contractors
mentioned variations on the
same theme.

The most common (4) was access being
difficult because of poor scheduling
allowing other trades to install ahead of
the sprayers. According to an Indianan,
“Coordination is the main problem, to
get in before the other crafts, and on
such issues as keeping people off the roof
when we’re doing roof applications.
They should only have their brackets
and carrying-type devices attached hanging rods, wires and so forth up. But
they all want to have their pipes and
ductwork and everything else up.”
“We don’t always have a direct line of
communication with the other trades
and so coordination becomes difficult,
even though it is vital the fireproofing be
applied in the proper sequence of construction,”
agrees a Washingtonian.

Sometimes poor scheduling isn’t a general
contractor’s error but an architect’s
or building inspector’s. “Cowboy Town
in Alexandria, La., was a tough one,”
explains a Missourian, “as building
inspectors suddenly required fireproofing
after the ductwork and pipes were in
place, yet it was a fast-track project that
had to be completed within three weeks.
We worked around the clock and completed
a $500,000 project in three

“A large nine-story apartment building
in Champagne was difficult in terms of
access to hard-to-reach areas,” adds an
Illinois man. “We were not able to get
in early enough, and there was a lot of
ductwork, piping, etc., in the way. The
architect had omitted fireproofing in the
specification and so the fireproofing
contract wasn’t even let out until late in
the process. We were doing a lot of other
work on that building, so we were
able to anticipate some of the problems
and factored them into our bid. We didn’t
make much profit on that job and
were glad to get it done.”

Otherwise, access can be a challenge
because the space being work is small, as
two Michigan contractors noted. Both
dealt with this by “bidding those jobs
high,” as one states, and “We take a look
at the job, figure how much the space
issue is going to slow us up and reduce
our production, and then build that into
our costs,” the other explains.
Access can sometimes be hard because
of volume traffic, as a Floridian claims,
a point echoed by a Californian who
worked on “San Francisco International
Airport. It was a $7-million contract
with a lot of different phases over a
three-year period in a working airport
that made it difficult to move around
because of all the traffic: airplanes, cargo,
people. We managed it as best we
could, focusing on sending daily activity
instructions to our crews, what they
should do, step by step, at the beginning
of each day.”

Then there are access problems because
of location, as a Washingtonian reports
concerning “A special offenders’ jail, the
Washington State Penitentiary, on Seal
Island. The difficulty is that barge transport
is required to reach the site. Our
day starts in a parking lot at 5:30 a.m.
where we do a tool and material check
and then climb on a bus for the trip to
the barge. We stay in the bus during the
35-minute crossing and then drive 15
miles to the isolated site on the island for
an 8 a.m. arrival. Then at 3:30 p.m. we
do it all again in the reverse direction.”

Difficult access also covers jobs like fireproofing a viewing box 100 feet up with
sloped floors, massive cantilevered steel
trusses, etc. The Texan contractor had to
screen large areas of the stadium so that
the high winds at that height and
exposed position didn’t blow overspray
over half the stadium.”

Two fireproofers felt gauging the thickness
of the material consistently was the
main the challenge. “If you spray too
much, you’ve sprayed your profit away,”
notes an Alabaman. “If you spray too little,
you’re in danger of being called
down on final inspection, which would
be a disaster.”

Jumping the line

Scheduling is a recurring issue. “Currently,
we’re on the largest fireproofing
project we’ve ever undertaken,” says a
Floridian. “The Miami Performing Arts
Center, a contract that is worth a little
over $1.4 million, with more than
40,000 bags of material and a time line
of about a year. Having the manpower
available to keep up with the schedule
and not become buried when they open
up a huge area for us to work on is a
major concern. Luckily, so far, they have
been dragging their heels, letting us off
the hook.”

Echoing the complaints of other contractors
about other trades being allowed
in before sprayers, a Michigan man says
that “Nowadays, GCs are not scheduling
properly. They don’t seem to know
what they are doing: They allow duct
work to be put into place, sprinkler
heads, insulated pipes, masonry, drywall
partitions, stainless studs, etc. We either
have to cover them or clean them. That
can double the amount of work we have
to do and wipe out any profit. A lot of
times we don’t even know a job has been
started until they call us in. Wherever
possible, we drive by and see how
upcoming jobs are progressing so we can
be prepared.”

Dealing with Paperwork,
People and the Weather

For the Floridian working on the high
profile Miami job (a budget of half a billion
dollars and the size of three city
blocks), the actual challenge he is facing
“isn’t the size of the job, but the size of
the paperwork. They’re up to about
5,000 RFIs on that job, and they are not
even a third of the way through yet too many chiefs and not enough Indians,
or a lot of people with a lot of time
on their hands who sit around and read
too much [crap], to be blunt! Simple
things like four bolts tying down a base
plate to a column, and three of them
had an inch of thread showing through
the top, and the fourth had only three-eighths
of an inch of thread showing honestly, it’s stuff of that magnitude.”

Three contractors mentioned logistics
being an issue in areas where people are
in the work area. A Floridian working on
an expansion of the University of Florida
football stadium, which is on campus,
reports his company “had to work after
hours, dropping trucks on site in the
evening, unloading them, storing and
covering the materials. We also had to
make sure we didn’t spray the students
when they were walking by. All this was
done around the football schedule, too,
so the site had to be clean on Saturdays
when they had a home game.

A Missouri contractor had to “follow an
asbestos abatement team one or two stories
at a time through an occupied, 52 story project in New Orleans. Each story
was evacuated, sealed off, abated and
then sprayed. Sometimes carpet was left
in place, forcing us to do extra preps.”

“Tenant improvement areas require a lot
of masking,” reports an Arizonan, “and
a lot of coordination to do before you
can get in there and take care of them.
Probably the toughest one we did was a
law office; we had to fireproof the racks
that the law books were being supported
by, and that was challenging, as anyone
who has tried to fireproof 5/8-inch
threaded rods knows. We had to build
them up 360 degrees with a half-inch of
fireproofing plaster. That was tricky.”

Two contractors talked ofweather being
a major impediment at times. “We just
finished a $700,000 job up in Tennessee
at a big diamond turning and testing
facility within the Oakridge National
Laboratory,” states a Floridian, “which is
where they make the atomic bombs.
One challenge was the location being so
far away made it hard to control progress
at the job site-not to mention the
absolutely atrocious weather conditions
that we had to deal with this past winter.

“We had to contend with rain, snow
and ice when the building wasn’t closed
in. We created a large, Visqueen envelope by strapping down 15-mm poly and
taping everything together in each area
we were working. We were then able to
heat not only the machines, but also the
steel itself, which has to remain at 40
degrees minimum for 24 hours before
and after spraying. We also had to keep
the machines heated, because the mate-rial
is mixed with water and will freeze if
you don’t watch out.”

How long Is Your Pipe?

An Illinois contractor wins the prize for
coming up with the most unusual challenge.
“The Chicago postal facility was a
very large project, spread out over a large
footprint, including over an operating
railway line. The challenge was figuring
out what products needed to be used
where, and the logistics of spraying three
different W.R. Grace products on any
given day—low-density MK6, medium
density 106 and the high density 146 through the same 1,000-foot hose.

“We became experts at estimating how
much of each product was in the hose
and when to quit adding new mix,
when to push the next product behind
it, and when to push the third product
behind it, so we didn’t waste a lot of
material in the process. Generally, we
would start with the heavy stuff first,
because it doesn’t dry as quickly. Then
we’d go to the lighter stuff, which is easier
to work. We were aware of the potential
for dissimilar materials to set or
become hard in the hose. Pushing a
sponge or a plug of retarder to prevent
that from happening is advisable. The
potential for clogs developing in such a
long hose is always great.

“We had another situation in which we
had to figure out how much the hose
weighed with the material in the line, for
fear of overloading a piece of equipment.

So, you do need to do some calculations
that are not exactly and directly related
to the fireproofing operation itself, and
not something you learn in fireproofing

Architects Again

It seems two of the contractors interviewed
had more to say about architects
falling short. An Alabaman insists that
“One thing that would help the industry
more than anything else is for architects
to be very specific about what they
want. But because many architects don’t
know much about fireproofing, they
just say ‘fireproof the beams and
columns according to codes’ without the
hourly rating spelled out. Contractors
then have to check the codes for the various building types and figure out how
thick they’re supposed to spray in each
area and what the hourly ratings require
on bends, columns and decks. The
problem with this is that bids then vary
widely because people interpret the
drawings differently.”

A Missourian had a similar complaint:
“We have two issues with fireproofing
these days. One is the new code, which
reduces fireproofing, even eliminating it
in some cases. And the other is the
restrained and unrestrained issue. I wish
we could develop a code of conduct
among all the fireproofers so we bid on
the basis of unrestrained conditions,
which increases the bid for the fireproofing.
But a lot of people play with
the issue because they can get by with it

often, as architects and others don’t
understand exactly what they are getting.
They will ask for a two hour construction
when they really want a two hour
beam. So contractors figure it on a two hour
restraint assembly that really provides
a one-hour unrestrained beam rate.

“So if I bid against someone who figures
it this way, yet I bid it the way it should
be, obviously I’m not going to get the job
because my bid comes in higher for a
higher fire resistance rating. We have to
figure out what the other contractors are
doing. You won’t get the job if everybody
is bidding it as a restrained condition and
you’re doing the right thing. This whole
system is forcing everybody into the lowest
common denominator. It would be
to the advantage of all applicators to bid
as unrestrained, but all it takes is one
renegade to lower the standard.”

So next time you see a fireproofer, cut
him some slack. If you are another trade
or a GC, let him do his job before you
crowd him out. If you are an architect,
do him a favor and write the specs yourself don’t expect him to do your job
for you. Then maybe fireproofers won’t
have to walk around with the idea that
“We’re not always the most liked contractor
because we are messy. It takes a
certain mindset to deal with the fact that
one is not well loved,” as one Illinois
contractor remarked.

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a freelance writer based
in Clearwater, Fla.

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