Northwest Pipe Company’s acquisition of two companies—ParkUSA and Geneva Pipe and Precast— expands its range of product offerings for municipal systems. In this interview, Mike Wray, a Northwest Pipe senior vice president and the general manager of the company’s precast and engineered water technology group, speaks with Municipal Water Leader about the company’s solutions for water, sewer, and storm drainage.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Mike Wray: Prior to coming to Northwest Pipe, I was working for Continental Pipe Company, a steel pipe manufacturer owned by a civil contractor. Northwest Pipe purchased the company’s assets in 2007, and I came onboard through that acquisition. Subsequently, I’ve held various positions within the company, including plant and operations management and general manager. I also had some mergers-and-acquisitions responsibilities as the director of business development. My current role is senior vice president and general manager of our precast and engineered water technology group.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us more about those acquisitions.
Mike Wray: Geneva Pipe joined the Northwest Pipe family in early 2020 and is now part of our precast and engineered water technology group. We added ParkUSA to that group in October 2021. Geneva Pipe makes infrastructural and traditional precast products, such as reinforced concrete pipe (RCP), box culverts, manholes, and catch basins. In cooperation with European partners, over the past couple of years we have started manufacturing a few new products at Geneva, some of which we have developed ourselves: lined concrete pipes and lined manholes, mainly for sanitary sewer applications.
ParkUSA manufactures water-related products that include potable water service products designed to process and deliver water for storage and distribution, such as water meter assemblies, break tank systems, and backflow-prevention systems. We also manufacture treatment products for storm water, pretreatment products for public sewers, and products for industrial applications. ParkUSA has a long history and strong technical competency in the manufacture of traditional precast products and the installation of various water management components inside precast concrete. For example, we will preassemble a complete pump lift station inside our concrete well and then ship the entire unit to our customer, ready for connection. The customer can simply install the lift station in the field, avoiding the complex coordination usually involved with these types of projects. Preassembling the unit in our controlled shop environment enhances product quality while also increasing installation speed for the contractor and owner.
Municipal Water Leader: How do your precast products compare to your more conventional steel products?
Mike Wray: Concrete pipe is typically rated for lower pressures than steel pipe. On the concrete side, we’re largely conveying storm water drainage and sanitary sewer with products produced at our Geneva facilities in Utah. Geneva Pipe makes RCP in diameters of 12 to 96 inches. At our Tracy, California, plant, which is mainly a steel pipe plant, we can produce concrete pipe up to 144 inches in diameter. These typically handle pressures in the 10- to 30-pound-per-square-inch range, depending on the product and joint connection system we use. On the steel pipe side, we typically start at diameters of 24 inches and produce cylinders with outer diameters up to 156 inches. These pipes can handle pressures of several hundred pounds per square inch.
Municipal Water Leader: Is corrosion a concern with the precast pipe and RCP?
Mike Wray: One of the advantages of using concrete is that it’s not typically corrosive in a normal storm water environment. Corrosion can be a concern when you get into applications such as sanitary sewer, where hydrogen sulfide gas from the sewer corrodes the concrete. The solution to this naturally occurring corrosion is our lined concrete product, which, being concrete, can take much of the installation load but has a high-density polyethylene liner that will protect the pipe against corrosion and maintain the longevity of the product.
Municipal Water Leader: What’s the general service life cycle of these products?
Mike Wray: Our products are produced with a design life of 50 years or more. History has shown both steel pipe and concrete pipe and precast typically last much longer, with lifespans depending on the application.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you talk about concrete pipe’s ability to support weight?
Mike Wray: One of the advantages of installing a concrete pipe is that it is the strongest pipe available today and can be designed to meet severe loading conditions. Because of the structural nature of concrete pipe, its performance is much less dependent on the installation. For example, native soils can usually be used for backfill, and less compaction is required than with other pipe materials. Flexible pipe materials such as plastic, fiberglass, and even steel to a certain degree require better-compacting soils and more attentive installation practices. When you have less-compactable soils, you may even have to import some backfill. Concrete pipe can be advantageous in those situations because the pipe can handle so much more of the load.
Municipal Water Leader: How should a contractor select a pipe material for typical water and wastewater applications?
Mike Wray: The ideal pipe selection depends on the specific application and jobsite conditions. Each product has its strength. Concrete pipe is best in storm drain applications; lined RCP is best for sanitary sewers. Other products can function fairly well in these environments, but don’t offer the same structural qualities as concrete pipe. Concrete pipe is much better in lower-pressure applications, such as drainage, whereas steel pipe can operate at much higher pressures, such as in a penstock.
Municipal Water Leader: Please describe your quality control and testing activities.
Mike Wray: We have a robust quality control program at our Geneva Pipe facilities, where we make the bulk of the RCP that is produced by Northwest Pipe. We are a part of the National Precast Concrete Association quality program and have been certified through that organization for a long time. Our plant in St. George, Utah, completed an unannounced audit recently and achieved a 99 percent quality rating, which is almost unheard of in the industry.
Municipal Water Leader: Have you had to deal with supply chain issues when it comes to the materials you use to create your products?
Mike Wray: Yes, we’ve experienced our share of supply chain challenges this year, as I think most companies have. Cement has been a big issue, particularly at our Geneva facilities, where one of our major cement producers struggled with equipment earlier this year, and we’ve experienced limited availability of some products at both our Geneva and our ParkUSA plants. Thanks to strong partnerships with our suppliers, we’ve worked through the majority of those limited supply issues. We continue to experience pockets of shortages across the whole company, but again, we’re fortunate to have great supply partners to help us.
Municipal Water Leader: How have the acquisitions of Geneva and ParkUSA helped Northwest Pipe expand its market?
Mike Wray: As we researched adjacent industries and considered where we wanted to grow next, the precast industry appealed to us for many reasons. One of the biggest advantages of the precast market is its sheer size. By our estimation, it is a several-billion-dollar market, whereas the steel market is significantly smaller. Plus, the steady precast market helps offset some of the variability in the steel pipe market while offering a shorter cash cycle than what we experience with our steel pipe group. Another big advantage for Northwest Pipe is that we’re largely dealing with the same or a similar customer base. General contractors and subcontractors purchase both steel pipe and precast products, so we can leverage our experience and relationships on the steel pipe side to help us out on the precast side.
Municipal Water Leader: What are your next areas for research, and what other new products do you aim to bring to the market?
Mike Wray: We’re always looking for new and innovative products to bring to market. We work closely with our customers to understand their needs and how we can best fulfill them. At ParkUSA in particular, we have a robust research, development, and engineering group that looks at opportunities, either based on customer needs or on gaps we see in the marketplace. For instance, one of the products we sell is our aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) containment solution, which is used extensively in fire suppression systems for aviation facilities and fire training facilities. Our AFFF system includes a diverter valve that allows us to direct the foam and any contaminated water to a separate holding tank, where it can be treated and handled separately.
Municipal Water Leader: What should every pipeline project planner or engineer know about Northwest Pipe’s precast and RCP product lines?
Mike Wray: Our customers are extremely important to us. We work with engineers and owners to ensure we have the right solution for their projects at the right time and at the right value. We have innovative products and processes for challenging applications, and we’re always ready to tackle a difficult problem and come up with a suitable solution.
Northwest Pipe will continue to find opportunities to bring value to our customers. That may be through making our products more readily available and maybe even producing them in local markets. We continue to be innovative and look forward to continued growth and success.