Industry News

Transcript: Bridge Coatings Inspector, Contractor Shares His Outlook

Tony Serdenes, National Coatings Director at Gannett Fleming, has been in the bridge coatings industry since the ‘80s. Now working as an inspector on bridge and water/wastewater projects, he brings words of wisdom that can help with communication from all project stakeholders—from inspectors to contractors, of which he used to be one. See below for a complete transcript of this recent CoatingsPro Magazine podcast.

For more information, contact: Tony Serdenes, (410) 371-7056,

[introductory comments]

Stephanie Chizik: Tony, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tony Serdenes: Thanks for having me, Stephanie. Appreciate it.

SC: You obviously have a very wide spectrum of background. Can you give us a little bit of an overview of what that entails for the coatings and contracting industry, that is?

TS: Sure. I feel like I’ve touched all the different aspects of this industry. Again, mostly in the bridge industry, but I’ve touched all the aspects of it and a little bit of water tanks as well. I was a contractor in a family business back in the ’80s, where we painted bridges and tanks. Then I left the company, started out as an inspector for the Maryland State Highway Administration, inspecting bridge painting projects, and then moved my way up to project manager, director, and now I’m the national director. Again, as you stated, for Gannett Fleming. I’ve been on several committees. I’m a NACE Level 3 Certified Coatings Inspector. I’m a protective coatings specialist. I have training through SSPC C3 with lead removal projects. And just a lot of experience throughout this industry in all different aspects of a project.

SC: A varied background. I think that’s great. What does your current role look like that Gannett Fleming?

TS: Right now, what I’m tasked to do for the company is looking a design contracts, inspection contracts, focusing mostly on the bridge market, bridge industry. But we also do a lot of work in water/wastewater as well from a corrosion standpoint. Basically, looking at design projects. I’m also doing some expert witness testimony, that type of thing. Expert advice to a few DOTs. But basically, it’s inspection contracts and design contracts for various agencies.


SC: I think that if we combine your current role with your background, you probably have a really unique take on the industry. I’m wondering, what does it mean to you to be an inspector and how inspectors work with other stakeholders on a coatings project?

TS: I’ll tell you what, it’s come a long way. I remember when I was an inspector in the early ’90s, when you checked humidity, you just wiped the square foot area on the side of the steel, and if it dried within 15 minutes, then you knew you had good humidity, which is not a good way to go.

SC: You’re good to go. [laughter]

TS: With my personal background, I’m able to see a lot of different aspects of how contractors and owners and inspectors look at things. Things have definitely changed, and I think they’ve changed, of course, for the better with modern technology and efficiency that’s out there and the specifications are so much better written out by various agencies. They’re easier to follow and enforces. The contractors over the years as well have gotten just as educated as the owners and the inspection firms that provide those services. I think the industry has grown, and everybody has gotten smarter, more educated. Are there still interesting things that go on sometimes? Of course, but you know what? I really believe that everybody really does try to work hard together to accomplish and finish a job successfully.

SC: That’s great. And a very positive outlook. I like that.

TS: That’s the way I’ve always been.


SC: You mentioned, I think, some things are still changing, obviously. Can you think of any of those memorable projects that you’ve worked on in the past? Anything that comes to mind that maybe someone’s not in the industry and you get to tell them something that you’ve been a part of? What do you think about?

TS: I think of three projects were memorable. I don't know if they were memorable, but they were exciting to work on. One of them was in the state of Maryland for the Maryland Transportation Authority, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that goes over the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland. They painted the westbound Bay Bridge in four different phases, and there were a lot of challenges with unique steel structures on that bridge and how the contractor contained it, painted it, and kept traffic moving.

Another project was in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That was a very cool structure. It was about a two-mile-long bridge structure in downtown Milwaukee. That was just literally on the lake there. Again, that was a structure that had total removal requirements. It had an arch bridge, arch span in the middle that they had to contain properly, again allowing traffic to move.

Also, the other one, in Indiana, for the Indiana DOT. It was an Ohio River crossing bridge, the Cannelton bridge in Cannelton, Indiana. It crossed over into Kentucky. Again, another truss structure that had a lot of old structural elements to it and the challenges of cleaning the interior of those boxes and the lattice on that structure, to get it cleaned properly.

They all had their different challenges, in a sense, but they were large structures, one being right downtown in Milwaukee. They were very cool structures. The key to those were that they were very good contractors, but the specifications were well written in all three cases. That’s what made them memorable. Large strictures like that, knowing that they had to do all this work in and around traveling public, vehicular, people.

In Milwaukee they had a concert venue underneath the bridge with a lot of different things. With the Bay Bridge in Maryland, you're dealing with vacationers throughout the summer, so you had to deal with massive backups once in a while, so you had to handle those things and keep traffic moving and keep the project moving.

Memorable, yes. Just exciting, I think, more so, of the challenges faced on all three of those types of projects.

SC: The more challenges there are, obviously the less room for error, but it probably makes it so much more rewarding at the end of the project or the end of however long it’s taken to complete those, that you've done it successfully. That you’ve been able to overcome those — and challenges doesn’t have to mean hiccups. It could just mean the parameters of the actual project, like you just mentioned. You’re over water. You’re in the air. There’s traffic. There’s fall hazards that could come. It’s so interesting to see the entire team together overcomes those challenges. I can only imagine.

TS: And those projects, because they’re so complex and massive, a lot of times you’re dealing with other contractors that are working on there, doing non-coating things, like structural repairs or paving. There’s a lot of coordination that’s involved in those type of projects. And dealing with the environmental conditions, like humidity and dew, especially when you're over a large body of water. You have to deal with that, and how do you address those and what coating system that’s going to best those requirements. It’s pretty cool to be able to work together. Again, I am an optimistic person, I always go and think things are positive. But for the most part, if you have communication, no matter what kind of communication it is, working toward that, it usually ends up being a successful project.


SC: I think communication is probably one of the key trends that you're seeing in the field as far as it’s not just pen and paper anymore. What are those trends that you're seeing in the field as far as techniques or tools or how safety is changing? Obviously, you’d already mentioned the tool for relative humidity. Anything else going on?

TS: Nowadays, we’re so app oriented. There’s so many apps out there. I can’t name you the exact type of app, but there are apps out there that you can check the local weather, the humidity, the dew point, air temperature for that specific area. A lot of inspectors are using that now along with physically checking the steel surfaces to see what the temperatures are on those because they do vary from the exterior surfaces to the interior surfaces, and you really want to make sure that those areas are checked before you do any painting.

But there’s new technology and gages now, a lot of companies out there. It used to be where you had to take dry film thickness readings and carefully touch the beam without dragging it or scratching the probe end because they’re like a diamond point and it could scratch and damage it. Where now they’ve developed gages that you can actually drag across a surface and it will continually take readings. It’s still new technology.

Right now, SSPC has PA-2, which tells you how to take measurements of various square footages of steel, how many measurements per their square footage areas. They’re actually now starting to think about incorporating that technology into that as an addendum or an add-on to it. It’s new technology. It’s going to make things quicker. They’re even talking about drone technology and taking dry film thicknesses with the use of drones when you're doing design services — pre-contract services that determine what those structures need. Instead of having to climb a structure, closing lanes, or getting scaffolding to get to the top of a tank, now you can send a drone up and possibly take dry film thicknesses without impeding any traffic on roadways. A lot of cool stuff out there.


SC: The drone one reminds me of — I think most people probably in our industry and beyond are very familiar now with what’s going on with the bridge in Memphis and the crack on the steel. I bet a drone would have been at least partially helpful. It couldn't have hurt to help give a better view about what the status of the bridge looks like.

TS: I think, personally, drones are here to stay, and I think they’re actually advantageous with respect to what you just said. You can send out a drone without — again, if you’re focusing on bridges — without having to close lanes or do anything. Send a drone out, go underneath the structure, go above the structure. They’re so sophisticated in their photography and video taking that it can give you a lot of good information. You’re right, maybe for that structure, it could have been helpful if they would have done that, been proactive, with respect to that type of technology.


SC: As far as other inspectors in the industry, do you have any words of wisdom? You’ve obviously been in the industry for a while and on the contractor side of the house, too, so you have that knowledge base to come from. Anyone new coming into the industry as an inspector, any words of wisdom you’d want to share?

TS: First, let me preface that with the industry has changed when it comes to the coating inspector. Back in the day, a coating inspector was what he was: a coatings inspector. Now, they have to — not that they have to do it — but they have to keep their eye on, god forbid there’s a safety issue. Not that they’re safety officers, but they need to be aware of it to tell the proper people if something’s going on that they’re not comfortable with. Again, with technology and just communication. Now they also have to be aware of maintenance of traffic — again, when you’re focusing on the bridge industry. With the tank industry, the same type of thing.

The biggest thing to me, what I try to tell any inspector, young men and women that are coming into the industry or people that have been around, is communication. It truly is the key. If you come across calmly and you come across willing to work with the contractor. There’s three parts to the success of a contract. That’s the owner, the contractor, and the inspector, and they all have to work well together. You always tell everybody that’s going to get into this field: Always be professional. Always keep yourself above the brim there. Keep yourself professional. If you see that a contractor or somebody’s getting a little excited about a situation, excuse yourself, and then when things calm down, then talk. But it’s always just about communication, being proactive. I think a lot of times what happens is contractors — if you’re proactive and you see things before a contractor does or an owner does, you can kind of deal with that before it happens. So everybody looks at it constructively, not emotionally. That’s part, I think.

But communication is really it. If there’s an issue, talk about it objectively. Just, “Hey, this is what it is. This is what’s going on and what do you need to do about it? And how are we going to address this before it becomes an issue?” Really, an inspector is — it’s always been like this — they’ve been the eyes and ears of the owners, industry. It’s really in their hands to make sure that that work is being done. Of course, the contractor’s actually doing the work, but to make sure that the agency’s getting, the owner’s getting what they are supposed to get out of the contract, out of the life of that coating. They play a pivotal role. They are the key to success.

Again, it’s just about handling yourself professionally, keeping a professional way about you when dealing with anybody, be it the contractor, even the owner-agency or people that may be driving by and want to know something and you happen to be there. But just keeping it professional and always talking, always communicating.


SC: Then on the flip side, what would you give as words of advice to the contractor when dealing with an inspector? I think communication has to flow both ways.

TS: Absolutely. They used to call it partnering. That was the key word back in the ’90s and early 2000s. I think they still use it. But partnering is just a fancier word of saying communication. Absolutely. As a contractor, when I was with the family business in the ’80s, if the contractor has an issue or a concern, talk about it. Put it on the table and try to discuss it with the inspector and the project manager who’s out on the jobsite. Then if it doesn’t work there, take it to the next level, but always be professional and always be objective. “Why are you upset or concerned?” Give specific reasons so they can be addressed.

Because if you aren’t — I’ve given this philosophy to many contractors over the years. If you ever have a problem, people are people. Humans. We’re all going to make mistakes. We’re not all going to see the same thing the same way. If you’ve got an issue, be objective. “This is why I have this concern or this issue.” And spell it out. If somebody makes a mistake or doesn’t view it or understand it the way you see it, that’s where a good discussion comes into play, and it keeps the job moving and it keeps it going forward instead of having it stall out or stop or shut down because of a misunderstanding.

SC: I think what you're saying, and I don't want to put words in your mouth, so I want to make sure this is fair to say. It sounds like what you're saying — two things. One is: Be proactive, instead of reactive. And also, if you can, obvious people are passionate about their work, but to try to remove the emotion if they can.

TS: Absolutely. That’s really what it comes down to. I’ve had, over the years as an inspector and as a project manager, I’ve had excitable contractors wanting to tell me different things. I’ve actually called owners who I’ve known from contractors and asked them to come out and I said, “Just come out and look at the job. Tell me what you think. If I’m not seeing what I’m not seeing or the inspector that’s working for our firm is not seeing, then we’ll talk it out.” Usually, nine out of 10 times they’ve come out and they’ve said, “Yes, we agree.” And they would move forward.

But that’s what it is. It’s got to be — anything. What you do in your industry, what I do, what lawyers, whatever, doctors. It’s about being professional. There’s always going to be problems. That’s understood. It’s how you deal with them. Like I said, I tell people that work for our company, people that are coming into the industry, is: Always be professional. Keep a level head. Try to talk it out. If you can’t talk it out, let’s take it to the next level, be it the owner-agency representative, and try to work it out. But be objective. You have to be clear in what your concerns are. If you’re not clear, they will not get resolved.

SC: I think those are great. Great words of wisdom, Tony. Thank you.

TS: Sure.


SC: I know none of us know the true answer to this, necessarily, but do you have any idea about what you’re seeing coming down the pike as far as the future for the industry, whether that’s safety, the coatings themselves, just workload in general? What is it that you're hearing and seeing as far as what the next six to 12 months could look like?

TS: Well, I don't know about the next six to 12 months but maybe the next 24 to 48 months. When you come to the shows that SSPC and NACE had, and not to plug but AMPP next year, you see a lot of new technology and coatings. There are a lot of sophisticated coatings that are out there that are maybe a one-coat application or two-coat application. You see technologies in mechanical, where instead of people abrasive blasting, having humans blasting, now you see robotics out there. I still think they’re far away because there’s so much complexity in a structure that they have equipment that’s mounted on the scaffolding that it’s still a ways away.

I’ve seen — talking earlier about drones — I saw an article, I forget what magazine it was, it talked about, they showed a drone pressure washing and another drone spray painting. I think that the concept is there, it’s going to be there, but I think, just like anything, automation is going to change this industry. One day you may not need an inspector. You may just have — again, a drone flying around, taking film thicknesses. Maybe they’ll come out with equipment technology that can measure surface profiles without having somebody physically go up there. I think you hear about it, and just like anything else, it’s going to be that type of technology.

I don't think a spray painter or abrasive blaster’s ever going to be fully removed. The human element. But I think you're going to see more and more of that type of technology coming in. You're seeing it with, like I said, with coatings that are out there. So many different coatings that are being developed right now that are really, hopefully — I mean, look at the metallizing that just came out over the last many years. You went from a possible 20- to 25-year life to a 30- to 60-year life. Of course, everything has to be perfect with that, but that’s going to grow. People that are out there, there’s geniuses that will come up with those technologies. Eventually, I foresee equipment that’s going to be easy to use and also being more modernized with respect to robotics. They’ve got a ways to go, but I think that’s on the cusp.

SC: Yes, you do see it a little bit already in the water/wastewater industry, especially what you just mentioned with — it’s not a drone equipment, but the machines themselves are doing the surface prep. Someone is still on the end of it. There’s still a person controlling it. But yes, you're starting to see that. Or even in the maritime industry, same idea. I can see that coming down the pike.

TS: You’re right. They’ve been doing that for a while. There’s many self-contained where they put them on the side of tanks or, like you said, the ship hulls. They’ll abrasive blast, going down the side where it’s not a human anymore. Those young men and women that play those games now could be those controllers down the road.

SC: I know. I got to go to the IUPAT location here in Maryland, and they were doing a virtual reality training with scissor lifts. I got to do it. It was really interesting. People still have to be there, but I think the story is that people can now be safer because you can take a step back from maybe trying a scissor lift from the first go in the middle of a jobsite. You can do it — just for that one example. I’m excited to see how it evolves.

TS: Just 10, 12, 15 years ago, everything was paper written and handwritten and all that for daily inspection reports. Now everything’s done computerized. There are organizations out there, companies out there that you can fill it out, you have your iPads, your pads that you can just fill out there, take pictures with the same pad, everything’s downloaded, makes it so much easier, so much more efficient. You can get information out to people quicker, especially if there’s an issue going on, like a cracked beam after abrasive blasting or something going on with a bearing. Even in a tank, you might have some welding that’s bad or an interior. You can take that picture and get it out to the people quickly.

SC: Almost instantly.

TS: Yes. Technology’s there, and we have to embrace it, but I think it’s a good thing. Like you just said, it’s going to make it much safer for everybody.


SC: I hope so. Well, I have a few rapid-fire questions to ask you, just to get to know you a little bit more. Who is your hero or mentor?

TS: Wow, my hero or mentor. Well, I would say it’s a hero/mentor combination for my father. I started in the business with him in the ’80s — actually, in the late ’70s and stayed with him through ’91. I learned really everything from him. All the certifications that I have, they’re great, but really it was everything I did on the job from shoveling abrasives to brush and rolling, a little bit of spraying, a little bit of abrasive blasting. And my mentor was — he’s retired now — Dr. Lloyd Smith. He taught me everything I needed to know. I worked with him side by side on several projects, and I learned a lot from him. Both of those men in my life were very important and guided me to where I am today.

SC: That’s awesome. I like that a lot. What is your biggest pet peeve?

TS: Wow. My biggest pet peeve, just in general, sometimes, is when I send out an email or something or I call and I don’t get a return, especially if I have a question. Or I get a return and they didn’t really read the whole email. I guess that would be a pet peeve of mine.

SC: Or they don’t answer all the questions you have in the email. They only answer one.

TS: Exactly. Or even with staffing sometimes out in the field is, if we’ve talked about something and somebody continually does something a little differently. So those little things like that. But again, usually you work through those things.

SC: Yes. If you had any choice, any place in the world, what place would you like to be most right now?

TS: That’s a loaded question.

SC: Is it?

TS: I’m a beach bum at heart. So anywhere with a beautiful beach. That works for me.


SC: The place for you. Awesome. Well, thanks so much for chatting with us. Tony, is there anything else you wanted to mention before we hang up?

TS: If anybody wants to reach out to me, I’m on LinkedIn or they can reach me on my email. LinkedIn, email, or my cell phone number: (410) 371-7056. Anyway, I’m here to help and here to learn as well.

SC: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today, Tony. I really appreciate it.

[closing statements]