Exploring the role of volumetric concrete in the future of U.S. infrastructure
by Mark Rinehart
January 15, 2019

Earning an infrastructure report card rating of D+ should be a wake-up call for the United States. At this point, everyone knows that our nation’s infrastructure is failing, and for those of us who work every day in markets like roads and bridges, water systems and airports, it’s becoming even more obvious.

Many workers involved in industry associations are out banging on representatives’ doors in attempts to get help with putting together and enacting a plan to correct these problems. And it seems like things have been slow-moving, but it’s time to push forward and get a comprehensive infrastructure bill approved.

Every moment that infrastructure projects sit stalled and unfunded creates a larger backlog of work, and the longer we wait, the bigger the task will be. Although one would think this would be a completely bipartisan issue, a real reach across the aisle remains to be seen. People don’t seem to realize that our infrastructure systems need maintenance just like a car, house or a piece of construction equipment. It seems obvious, but you can’t just let something go for 10 to 20 years and think that it’s going to remain problem free.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has never had an official long-term funding program in place for infrastructure, deciding instead to look the other way. But now that the inventory of repairs is enormous, it must be addressed before more major accidents happen. It’s important that we do something while the economy is booming. The country does have more money coming in, so the time to focus on infrastructure is now.

Over 200,000 U.S. bridges are more than 50 years old. Knowing that a typical paving mix has an average lifespan of about 30 years—and many of these bridges have been out in the elements for 50 or more years with minimal maintenance—should be enough to worry anyone.

This is especially true in the Midwest and other regions where salt, sand and fluctuating temperatures factor into the problem, creating more damage to already struggling structures. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what’s actually happening to these ailing roads and bridges.

Things Fall Apart

One of the many upsides to concrete is that it does have a lower maintenance cost over its lifetime than other materials. However, it tends to cost a bit more in the beginning due to higher installation fees. This can lead to slightly higher bids, which can be bad news for government contracts. And, given enough time, concrete will crack, but it’s important to know that there are a number of factors that cause it to do so.

Corroding reinforcement materials, subgrade settling/erosion, the type of mix, the way it was poured, quality of finish work—all of these factors affect the durability and life span of any concrete project. Concrete that has been around for 100 years exists all across the built world, but from an infrastructure perspective, the material decision ultimately comes down to a cost-benefit analysis.

If you want 100-year concrete, 100-year concrete can be made, but then come the questions you may not be ready to face, such as, “Are you willing to pay for it and do the necessary maintenance to make it last?" and "Are you willing to pay a higher price for longevity?” This becomes a challenge, especially in the public arena where, the majority of the time, the lowest bid wins.

Volumetric Technology

A recent study showed that up to 22.3 million cubic yards of ready mix concrete poured today in the U.S. goes back to the plant as wasted—a tremendous and ultimately unsustainable—amount of wasted time and money, all due to outmoded methods of concrete placement. Leaders in the volumetric concrete space are now in the process of working with departments of transportation (DOTs) across the country to educate them on the value of volumetric technology; how it can speed up projects; and how it can save them money by using technology for different types of infrastructure repairs.

Volumetric equipment offers the ability to limit the amount of time a road or bridge must be shut down because of how quickly you can get in, pour and get out. This allows the general public to utilize that repaired structure in hours instead of days. The key advantage of volumetric concrete is that it allows the exact type of concrete that is needed to be poured directly on-site in the exact quantity needed for that particular repair.

Typical repair projects, such as overlays and hinge repairs, usually require smaller pours that can be hard to estimate when working with traditional concrete placement. Volumetric technology allows contractors to pour the exact amount of concrete and the exact mix design with zero waste, saving time and money. As opposed to rotary drum mixers, mobile volumetric concrete mixers allow for an efficient and more environmentally friendly method of producing and pouring concrete. Volumetric solutions produce the exact amount of concrete needed at the precise time, eliminating the possibility of under or over ordering concrete that will ultimately be wasted.

And, as a result of mixing on-site, volumetric solutions generate less waste and consume fewer fossil fuels. Volumetric provides a way for contractors to use the minimal amount of water needed to achieve the acquired strength for project requirements. When working with concrete, the more water you add to a mix, the less strength it will have when it finally hardens. So, the goal is to use as little water as possible.

Volumetric mixing has been around for 50 years, and it’s evolved exponentially in the past 5 to 10 years. Extremely high-quality concrete can be produced, placed, tracked and monitored, which allows contractors to get their projects done faster and have full control over the concrete production process. Ultimately, that means DOTs can get a higher volume of repairs completed faster, at a lower cost and with less impact on the U.S. public.

Coming Soon

To rebuild a stronger future, it’s important to understand how our roads and bridges got to this point and how we can prevent those problems next time. With the nation watching, volumetric concrete technology could play a large role in meeting the demand for infrastructure repairs and help the U.S. pour the foundation for a better future.

For more on volumetric solutions, check out "Grow Your Business with Volumetric Concrete" by Mark Rinehart here.