Is Your Business Changing?
That’s a loaded word. For some people, those six letters evoke fear and dread. Others find the concept energizing. However we feel about change, it’s inevitable, in business as well as in life.
The soil erosion and hydroseeding business is undergoing rapid change, and it has been for some time. These changes require some adaptation on our parts, but if they can be fully embraced, they can make our businesses more profitable.
Change in this case consists mainly of a vast increase in the number and quality of innovative tools and materials that are either currently available or being developed. These new materials, methods and best management practices (BMPs) help you do what you do better, faster, cheaper and in more environmentally-sound ways.
So, the short answer to the question, “Is your business changing?” is a resounding “Yes!”
Better tools, more possibilities
Soil-erosion products have come a long way from the days when straw bales were the main BMP. Now we have engineered fiber mulches, biodegradable netting, articulated concrete block, permeable paving materials, geofabrics, geogrids, geoblocks and even geofoam. We have flocculating chemicals, biostimulants, and new kinds of tackifiers. Most of these things were unheard of twenty—or even ten—years ago.
Take hydromulch, for instance. In the last few years, a number of manufacturers have come up with new types of hydromulches; specifically, things like bonded fiber matrix (BFM) products and flexible growth media (FGM). These engineered mulches are becoming more popular all the time with engineers, specifiers and contractors. In many cases, they are replacing older types of erosioncontrol devices and methods.
“The traditional erosion-control blankets (ECBs), jute and coir mattings, are more a thing of the past,” said Terry Marsh, president of Fox Erosion Control and Landscape, Inc. in Clackamas, Oregon.
“They’re giving way to some of these new hydromulches.”
“We started seeing things changing about three or four years ago. In 2014 we really saw a big upswing. Then last year, 2015, it just exploded—and when I say ‘exploded,’ I mean that we went through truckloads of FGM.”
It seemed that, suddenly, FGM was being specified more by engineers, mostly through ‘change orders’ (requests to substitute a different BMP from one that was originally specified).
One reason for the demand, said Marsh, was that in his area, there had been a great deal of erosion control that had been inadequately done. His company was continually called in to repair these—and fast. In many cases, it was much faster to spray hydraulic mulch than to lay down a rolled product.
At the same time, a lot of states started prequalifying these newer FGMs for use on slopes. “They’re far more cost-competitive, and can be put down much more quickly. If you’ve got a bunch of exposed soil, and you’re anticipating a storm, we can come in, and in the course of a single day, apply these products prophylactically.”
“They’ll cure, and be ready to tackle the best that Mother Nature can dish out,” explained Marsh. “But with the rolled products, it’s often a three- or four-day process to get the same square footage protected.”
Cost competitive? FGM is quite a bit more expensive than rolled products. But what Marsh is talking about is that in the final analysis, FGM often turns out to be the more cost-effective choice.
“Laying down a rolled product takes four guys, where spraying the FGM takes just two,” said Kevin Pollock, owner of Ironton, Missouri-based Pollock Landscaping. “It’s faster to apply, and sticks to the ground better than rolled blankets.”
“Performance-wise, FGM products have a better ‘percentage of effectiveness,’” said Mark Stirnaman, a business development executive at Fenton, Missouri-based ASP Enterprises, a soil erosion contracting firm and distributor.
“That’s a number derived from a soil-loss equation. If you use a straw blanket, your percentage of effectiveness is, at best, 80 to 85 percent; if you use some of the high-end hydraulic mulches, you’re in excess of 99 percent, as long as it’s sprayed on correctly.”
The higher-end FGM and BFM products have only been around for about ten years or so. “Every year, the market for the FGM-type products grows exponentially,” said Stirnaman. “In 2015, we sold a lot more of it than we did the previous year.”
There are newer products that are even tougher than FGM. Now you can buy extended-term FGM, containing wood, coconut and man-made fibers.
But don’t count ECBs out just yet. “There’s a time and place for ECBs,” said Pollock. He says a lot of people still like them, because they provide visual evidence that erosion control is being done. However, he admits that they do have their limitations. Undercutting, or water flowing underneath the blanket and causing even more erosion, is one of them.
The heavier-duty rolled products, such as turf reinforcement mats (TRMs), are still needed in high-flow situations where harder armoring is needed. “It used to be that there were TRMs, articulated concrete block mats, and then a big gap in between,” said Stirnaman. “Now, we also have high-performance TRMs that can handle fast channel flows. They can be used to stabilize slopes as well.”
Jack Eaton, technical sales representative and project supervisor at Certified Erosion Control of New Hampshire, LLC, has seen things change radically during his career. “When I started in this marketplace 25 years ago, all we did was hydroseed. We had one product, and we’d add some tackifier to it. Now there are a whole bunch of companies that make multiple products in the hydroseeding category alone.”
“We can tackle a lot of projects that we couldn’t do before, including reinforcing some slopes that are close to vertical. The toolbox has been expanded greatly in the last five to ten years, for the entire industry.”
Living walls are also undergoing a boom, according to Eaton. He says that when he goes to project meetings at engineering offices, someone usually will ask about a living wall as a possible solution. That wasn’t the case until about two or three years ago.
He attributes their growing popularity to the fact that they’re not only aesthetically pleasing, but they also clean the air and provide buffering against high outdoor temperatures (not to mention fulfilling the need for LEED points).
There are also many new geoblock systems that incorporate pockets for growth media, specially created for living walls.
Perhaps no erosion-control product segment has seen as much change as geosynthetics. Stirnaman described an innovative way that geofabric was used on a project involving the Boone Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri.
The problem: keep water from collecting under the road to the bridge. Water in the subgrade is one of the biggest reasons roads fail. Potholes form when small areas become saturated, then freeze. The frozen water expands and pushes up the road surface. Something was needed under the surface of the road to spread out that moisture over a wide area, to avoid this heaving.
“Normally, we’d put a six-inch layer of drainable aggregate underneath the road surface, to serve as an underdrain,” said Stirnaman.
“Instead, we used ‘wicking fabric’ (the generic term for a highstrength geotextile containing yarns with capillary action). It wicked the water away horizontally, toward the roadside ditches. The geofabric eliminated the need for that aggregate layer.”
Stirnaman says this wicking fabric is one of the newest innovations in soil erosion geotextiles, only about six years old. The Alaska DOT was involved in its development, and it was first used on the Arctic Highway familiar to viewers of the show “Ice Road Truckers.”
One recent product launch by a major soil erosion BMP manufacturer is an engineered soil replacement material derived from recycled bark and other sustainable sources. It was invented because the topsoil on many post-construction, post-mining or other industrial use sites is severely depleted of the nutrients, microbes and mychorrizae needed for vegetation growth.
Before these areas can be hydroseeded, a large amount of healthy topsoil needs to be trucked in. That’s usually a very expensive process. While the engineered soil replacement material doesn’t completely replace topsoil, it drastically reduces the amount needed for site reclamation. The company claims that just two truckloads of this product can take the place of 36 truckloads of topsoil.
“That’s the way the industry’s going,” said Adam Dibble, CESS-WI, senior marketing and erosion control brand manager at Profile Products, LLC in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. “It’s moving towards replacing products that are costly to install.”
“Instead, we’re developing these alternative materials that can perform as well, if not better and more consistently, time after time, than the old, tried-and-true technology, and do it more cost-effectively.”
Regulation and enforcement
Over the last decade or so, environmental regulations have increased, along with enforcement of them. One contractor has seen this in action. “Our state’s Department of Natural Resources is cracking down more on runoff,” said Nick McDaniel, owner of Seeding Solutions in Fredericktown, Missouri.
“I live in a small town, where people can still get by with some things, but when you get closer to big cities, the restrictions are definitely enforced. That’s stimulating some of the work we’ve been getting.”
McDaniel gives an example of how stricter oversight has brought him business. He happens to live in a part of Missouri that lies in the so-called ‘Lead Belt,’ due to the abundance of galena ore that’s found there. Not surprisingly, there’s lots of mining activity.
A lot of the soil is contaminated with lead, including residential yards. The EPA hires people to come in and remove as much of the toxic element as they can. Afterwards, someone has to come in and hydroseed these yards back to life. That’s where McDaniel’s company comes in. “Those EPA contracts have been really good to us,” he said.
Eaton thinks that the increasingly stringent regulatory climate has spurred a great deal of the innovation we’re seeing. It’s goaded manufacturers into developing more and better BMPs, allowing companies like his to do things not possible ten or fifteen years ago.
“It used to be, when there was a huge event—like a big storm that caused a of lot erosion—people would just say, ‘Well, we couldn’t really do anything to prevent that outcome.’ Now, we can.”
Sarah Haggard, CPESC, owns Deluge Consulting, Inc. Her Bakersfield, California-based company provides NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) and SWPPP (Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan) compliance assistance for utility companies and commercial and residential construction projects. She says, “The digital age is changing the entire environment of the industry.”
For example, she’s currently doing a free trial of a software program specifically designed for stormwater compliance professionals. It cuts down the daunting amount of paperwork involved in the SWPPP inspection process.
The software manages all the documentation in one place, a far cry from when she first started in the business, just a few years ago. “Back then, we would fill out all the inspection forms by hand, using pen and paper.”
The program asks questions to which you click ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If you forget to fill out something, prompts built into the program detect it and remind you. Forms are automatically populated with the current date and weather information.
It’s paid for via a monthly subscription that isn’t exactly inexpensive, but Haggard says it’ll be worth it. “It’s going to save us so many hours of work at the end of a project, when we have to go through all of our reports, making sure they’re all there, and complete, and that all the corrective actions that were taken have been documented properly. We won’t have to ask, ‘Okay, which file did we put that report in?’ and waste time hunting for it.” Emerging digital technology has transformed practically every industry, ours included. Remember when cell phones were a novel ty, and all they did was make and receive calls?
Take a contractor’s cell phone away today, and it’d be like cutting off his arms and legs. That’s his portable office. As a reflection of the way people work today, one major BMP manufacturer recently relaunched its website, making it more mobile web-friendly. Haggard recently considered buying a drone; she would have used it to speed up inspections of very large jobsites.
The next generation
Another change is that a whole new group of people has come into the industry, in just the past few years. This new blood is replacing the previous generation of contractors, engineers and project managers who dominated the industry for the past 30 years.
These people were Circle beginning their careers at the time when environmental regulations were just starting to be enacted and enforced.
Some of these veterans can be a bit resistant to fulfilling compliance requirements.
By contrast, the new professionals entering the field “are already familiar with environmental regulations, and are coming out of school expecting to comply with them,” said Haggard. As a result, she’s seeing “a lot more clients and construction staff getting on board with staying in compliance.”
Change is good when it improves the way we’ve been doing things. Just because, “We’ve always done it that way,” isn’t a good enough reason to keep on true, we’d all still be in line at the doing it that way. If that were grocery store, waiting for the clerk to key in each individual item, and writing checks to pay for them.
The soil erosion business will continue to change, improve and evolve. It seems obvious that the contractor who keeps up with these changes, and indeed, welcomes them, can only reap rewards from it.