When the paint alone cost $400 a gallon, you know that repainting the old water tower isn't a job for the kids.
High above cornfields beside Routes 5 and 20, a tiny human head peers down a six-story wall of plastic swathed, cocoon like, around a municipal water tower being prepped for a paint job.
“It's about $400,000 for our portion,” said Pierce Law of Rockwood Corp. in Syracuse.
The enormous airtight plastic exoskin hangs around the East Bloomfield town tank from outboard scaffolding and is designed to contain lead particles. The tower is not thought to have much of this toxic material on board, but crews are taking no chances.
“It's not unlike asbestos removal,” said Law.
Even with the airtight plastic shield in place around the tank, weather is still a limiting factor. Workers leave the tower immediately in thunderstorms. After all, lightning has struck the nearby East Bloomfield highway scales and Bloomfield’s sewer plant in recent months.
Crews on the job work under strict Environmental Protection Agency standards. Third-party inspectors oversee safety on the job and in the environment around the tank.
After sandblasting, the old paint is sucked into an airtight holding tank at 40,000 cubic feet per minute. The filters in the dust collection system are HEPA filters, which can remove at least 99.97 percent of particles 0.3 micrometers in diameter. In other words, a fraction of a micron, which is pretty small to start with — a micron is one millionth of a meter.
Then it will be trucked to disposal sites that accept the material. Negative pressure inside the giant plastic cocoon keeps dust inside while sensors around the job site constantly monitor air and soil quality.
East Bloomfield’s tank, sitting as it does in an unpopulated area, is not as tough as some.
“We recently finished one 100 feet from a school playground in York, Pa.,” said Law. He runs the 10-man outfit that paints just one thing: water tanks.
“We're a small, family organization," he said. "This is what we do. We're specialists.”
Rockwood’s 32-year-old foreman for the East Bloomfield tank, Ben Law, is Pierce’s younger brother. He is the old man on the paint crew. Working on safety tethers high in the air and breathing through filters is mostly a young man’s game. Ben Law’s Syracuse-based crew has an average age in the mid-20s.
Half the painters have families they leave behind during the week to do the job.
“We try to stick within five hours of Syracuse,” said Ben Law.
Directly below the big tank, two layers of plastic, plus plywood, sit in the shade of a latticework of scaffolding and access ladders. Once all the sandblasted paint residue falls to the ground here, it is sucked into the airtight roll-off unit for removal.
Painters follow quickly behind the sandblasters.
“You have to paint, right away, the same day,” said Ben Law.
That keeps rust from forming. Workers apply primer, at $75 a gallon, then an intermediate primer coat, at $70 a gallon and, finally, the sky blue topcoat with a sky-high price tag: $400 per gallon.
East Bloomfield opted for a pricey high-tech top coat of floro-polymer made by Kansas-based Tnemec Co.
"Our reserve accounts do have sufficient funds to cover the entire project," said Supervisor Dodie Huber.
The paint comes with a conservative 10-year guarantee. It might stretch East Bloomfield’s next paint job out a decade or more beyond the lifetime of a cheaper $70-a-gallon top coat. This particular tank soaks up 80 to 100 gallons of paint or primer per coat.
“It's in good shape, really,” said Ben Law, gazing at East Bloomfield’s 40-something-year-old tank. “If you keep it painted up, it’ll last indefinitely.”
Contact Morgan Wesson at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 256, or at email@example.com.