The history of precast concrete goes back centuries due to its quality, durability, longevity and convenience. It was first used by ancient Roman builders to construct aqueducts, buildings and tunnels – many of them still in existence. Precast concrete items such as box culverts, highway barriers, retaining walls and other products are widely used worldwide, and their benefits are proudly represented by the Pennsylvania Precast Association (PPA), a not-for-profit corporation.
The PPA was created in 1996 to promote the precast concrete industry in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and elsewhere, conduct studies, supply its members with information and more. The organization was started by Hank Bonstedt, in concert with precast producers active in the transportation construction industry, explains Monica M. Schultes, P.E., who has served as executive director of the Pennsylvania Precast Association for the past two years.
The association includes nineteen producer members, four professional members – often engineering firms working closely with precasters – twenty associate members supplying products to the industry, and two cement supplier associates, which supply cement to producers.
“The prestressed concrete industry had been successful in working with owner agencies on education, standards and quality issues,” she says. “This working relationship developed trust and cooperation which precasters also wanted for their industry. The precasters recognized that a liaison with agencies like the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) would have more clout and speak for the industry as a whole, rather than fragmented voices from individual companies.”
At the time, the PPA was also working in conjunction with the Precast Concrete Association of Pennsylvania (PCAP). This later became the Central Atlantic Bridge Association (CABA) and is today part of PCI-Mid-Atlantic, a division of the Precast Concrete Institute.
As the spokesperson for both groups, Bonstedt represented the interests of both the precasters (PPA and PCAP/CABA, which are primarily pre-stressed concrete producers). The joint management of the two associations was also an affordable way to get started.
The PPA had almost all Department of Transportation-approved precasters as members from the beginning, and soon attracted supplier companies to the organization.
“The most important growth occurred in the relationships with the owner agencies. The industry, over time, earned a seat at the table when issues affecting the precast industry were considered and were able to provide input,” states Schultes. “Continued education also improved the products and the markets as new technologies enter the market.”
Precast concrete noise walls first appeared in the 1960s, and were initially modeled after wooden fences. These walls are not only affordable and durable but aesthetically pleasing. Almost half of the highway walls constructed in North America today are made of concrete, and the bulk of them are precast, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
The steady rise in the use of these walls, explains Schultes, took place around the same as the United States’ national highway system was expanding, and the precast/prestressed concrete industry was forming in the U.S. and across North America.
Many early precast producers were smaller family companies pouring manholes and catch basins. Soon, there was a need for mass production and improved quality control. Two major certification associations – PCI and The National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA) – were formed around this time and began assisting and monitoring the industry.
“While there are still many small ‘mom and pop’ shops out there making precast concrete, technology and equipment have changed production techniques, like the rest of the construction industry,” says Schultes.
Precast concrete products are a vital part of our infrastructure, making our lives easier, safer and cleaner. From curb inlets and catch basins to tanks, utility vaults, sound-dampening walls, stormwater management and more, precast concrete products are used in a wide variety of applications both below and above ground.
Precast concrete products are found in works ranging from small architectural components to massive industrial projects, and for each one, there is a custom or standard solution. The many advantages of using precast include quality control during the manufacturing process, durability, speedy construction, all-weather production and lower lifetime cost.
“It also impacts in a positive way everyone involved in the project, from the architect to the engineer, construction manager, owner and end user,” comments Schultes. “They all benefit from fast installation, overcoming site restrictions, ensuring watertight-ness and greater durability.
Like many other areas of construction, the precast concrete industry is facing a number of challenges. While the industry is growing, it is at a somewhat slower pace than other sectors, and one obstacle remains capacity. Although there is considerable demand for precast concrete products, existing plants can only produce a finite amount, and this is subject to market expansion and contraction.
Other issues affecting the entire construction sector include the recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) crane certification requirements. OSHA’s Cranes and Derricks in Construction Standard was originally slated to come into effect in November of 2014 but has been delayed until this year. It will require crane operators to be certified through means such as an accredited testing service.
The PPA members are conducting training and assisting those employees who have decades of work related experience but are not tech savvy. Other industry wide issues include increased OSHA enforcement of exposure to silica dust. Precasters will need to comply using various methods like respiratory protection, masks, dust suppression or collection, ventilation.
“That’s going to be a huge issue for places that do sandblasting or drilling. If you’re working in precast you will have to submit exposure or containment plans and provide medical surveillance for exposed employees,” explains Schultes.
Another issue is the current administration’s push to ‘Buy American,’ which has upset some in the industry because precasters use tie wire guns to reduce hand tying. Tie wire is used to tie rebar together and is not always readily available from American suppliers.
The PPA meets every other month throughout the year and invites PennDOT to all of its meetings to discuss different aspects of common issues. “It’s a great way of getting on the same page and making people aware of issues on both sides of the table. PennDOT is going through some design standard updates, and we say, ‘This might be a hardship if you put this in the specifications.’ So it’s another reason the association is good for both sides of the table.”
One initiative between PPA and PennDOT is a precast box culvert committee which works together to improve communication regarding the construction schedule and to improve design and specifications. PPA consulted on installation tips and techniques and other quality improvement items. The end result was the letting of projects over the calendar year to take advantage of winter production capabilities.
The PPA has been focusing its efforts on box culverts in Pennsylvania but has also seen growth in the transportation product market for precast across the U.S. If transportation bills, such as the proposed $1.5 trillion Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America, come to fruition, the precast concrete industry is ready. “Whether it’s precast or prestressed bridges, beams, box culverts or drainage products we support all the infrastructure work that will hopefully be coming out soon,” says Schultes.
The PPA gets the message out through direct mailing, face-to-face meetings, social media, trade shows, an electronic newsletter highlighting precast projects and through its relationship with the NPCA.
The Pennsylvania Precast Association continues to advocate for the precast industry. “It’s nice to see that a lot of times we gain consensus, both with our members trying to promote the use of it with PennDOT and other agencies.”