Podcast Transcript: 2021 Outlook for Cathodic Protection and Beyond

Troy Rankin, president of Farwest Corrosion Control Co. (Downey, California, USA), discusses his company’s latest advances in cathodic protection (CP) technology and shares feedback that he’s heard from clients in the field. 

Other topics on this recent podcast include what business in the corrosion industry is likely to look like in 2021, especially in the context of a new U.S. administration and the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. See below for a complete transcript.

Source: Farwest Corrosion Control Co., www.farwestcorrosion.com

[introductory comments]

Ben DuBose: Troy, good morning. How are you?

Troy Rankin: Good morning, Ben. Thank you very much. Doing well, thank you. Appreciate joining the podcast.

BD: Thanks for coming back. Some may remember that we had Troy on last summer. On today’s show, what we’re going to be talking about is recent developments within the cathodic protection market, or CP market we should say. Within that space, Farwest recently introduced the Ref-Check VPR test instrument for voltage potential restoration. We published that in the news section over at www.materialsperformance.com. If you want to call that up, it was posted January 6 with the headline, “New Test Instrument for Voltage Potential Restoration.” You should also be able to find the link in the summary description wherever it is that you're listening to this podcast.

Anyway, I think a good place to start is by looking at some of the problems, historically. Troy, what are some of the usual limitations that make it hard for CP technicians to get accurate voltage potential or structure or soil readings when they’re out in the field? What type of feedback do you all get?

TR: This started from our own experiences and that of our customers in that, when using a — we used to call — a permanent or stationary reference electrode, we never knew if that reference electrode was providing an accurate number, an accurate reading. Ourselves or our customers never exactly knew, was this really an accurate reading? We base a lot of our decisions on cathodic protection from these readings, so getting an accurate potential reading is very critical. That’s what started this and our lead engineer, John Bollinger, this was his idea. He started the Ref-Check line, and he started early on. This is a new version of that same instrument that makes it a lot simpler for the operators to use. Yes, that’s how it all started.


BD: What is it, specifically, that makes it — or at least in the past has made it — so difficult to get those readings? What are some of the stumbling blocks when these people are out in the field that they run into that makes it so challenging?

TR: Obtaining a reading is simple. We’re using a voltmeter, a reference electrode. But when we’re using a buried or stationary reference electrode, they tend to dry out or they deteriorate over time. We don’t have a really good way of knowing if the number that they’re giving us is going to be accurate. In some cases, there’s just poor contact to earth caused by that drying. We see that a lot here on the West [Coast] because [of] the arid conditions that we typically live with. Basically, the deterioration over time or the drying out of these reference electrodes is what causes these issues. When we take that reading, if we’re using a compromised reference electrode, we don’t know that, and then the reading is incorrect. It’s not accurate. Unfortunately, we’re taking bad information and making those decisions based on that information.

BD: How frequently do you need to be doing this? I’m sure it varies based on environment. But when you talk about the drying out phenomenon, what’s the frequency in this process?

TR: Well, it depends. There are regulations about that, so it depends on the customer. Sometimes they may take monthly readings or more or less frequent, depending the conditions, the structure, that sort of thing. Water companies will take readings less frequently than oil and gas companies because regulations in the oil and gas field tell them that they have to. But it is on regular intervals that they’re taking these voltage readings.


BD: You mentioned a little bit about the redesigned Ref-Check VPR. Tell us about some of the environments where that can be used. I think you did a good job of explaining generally how it works and what it seeks to do. What are some of the applications, and how can it be used out in the field?

TR: The application — what it was designed for was mostly for pipeline operators when they’re taking base potential readings along the pipeline on regular intervals. That’s where it was designed to be used. In conjunction with the digital multimeter that they’re already using, they are plugging this Ref-Check VPR into this multimeter, to the reference electrode and the structure, in this case a pipe. What it does is increases meter sensitivity to where we can now obtain an accurate reading, even from a compromised or unhealthy reference electrode.


BD: You’ve referenced being out on the West Coast. You are based in California, correct?

TR: We are, yes, and most of our work is done on the west harbor. We have, as you said, locations around the country, so we see those other locations as well. But we’re in a very dry, arid condition out here.

BD: What are the differences from region to region when you're using — I guess not just this tool, but generally taking measurements on pipelines? What’s different in California than it is somewhere else? Obviously, there’s the dryness factor that you referenced, but when we’re looking at these different environments across the U.S., what are some of the factors that you should be taking into consideration?

TR: Dry is the main consideration. If I’m in Pennsylvania, where we get a lot of rain, then I don’t worry so much about the drying of the earth. We need good contact between our reference electrode and the pipe to obtain that good reading. When it dries out in a very dry condition, we don’t have that. We have a very high-resistance electrical connection. That creates some difficulties. When that happens, we add water to our reference electrodes, to our portable reference electrode, so we can get a very good contact to earth. But when we have that stationary or permanent reference electrode that’s buried in the earth, we may not get water to it, and we don’t know the health or condition of that reference electrode. Hence the use of the Ref-Check.


BD: You've been in the business a long time. I mentioned Farwest has now been 56 years, I believe. What’s changed now relative to 10, 20 years ago? What are some of the new technologies with this tool that are reshaping the market, if you will? What’s different in 2021 that couldn't be done a few years ago?

TR: That’s a good question. If we look way back at the history, the folks at M.C. Miller had an instrument. It was called I think — I’m going to date myself here, but it was a B3. That instrument allowed the technicians of the time to collect accurate data, but as time went on, less people understood how that worked. So that became an issue over time. Seeing that, and most people not owning that very expensive instrument — and if they did, not understanding the ways to use it — it became sort of a lost art. John Bollinger, as I mentioned, saw all this. He said, “We need to make this simple for the operators to use, our customers or even our own technicians to use so they can deal with this problem but on a simplified basis.”


BD: Let’s talk specifically about 2021 now, shifting gears a little bit to the very current dynamics, if you will, with the pandemic and everything else going on in modern times. What’s business been like for you guys the last few months? I know when we talked in, I believe it was June, we talked about there being a little bit of a slowdown in the spring of last year, given the uncertainty of COVID and then expecting business to pick back up. What has it been like the last few months, and what’s your expectations for 2021?

TR: Well, 2020 for everybody has been very difficult. In the cathodic protection and corrosion industry, it’s the same, but certainly not to any level that we’ve seen in other industries. In that regard, we’ve been fortunate. 2021, we’re expecting, hopefully, a better year, certainly. We’re hoping for improvement, but we believe it will be slow. When COVID happened, it was a quick decline. I think coming back is just going to be over the long term. We won’t see it in a week or a month. It’s going to be over months where we would see sort of a return to normalcy.

There are concerns with inflation for 2021. We’re already seeing some of that now in some of our commodities, copper, platinum, even something called iridium in some of our anodes has gone up very quickly. Magnesium prices have started to increase due to market pressures, but then it’s shipping pressures from China, where most of them come. So that has taken its toll, and I don't know when that will reverse. Then, of course, COVID we’re coming out of very slowly. We’re still seeing delivery issues because of the supply chain. Our supply industry is not able to respond as quickly because of some of these pressures. I think that will change; it’s just going to take a longer period of time than we would prefer.


BD: Do you see some variance from state to state? When I’ve talked to people out in the industry, so much of the outlook, at least in recent months, has depended on where you are. For example, I’m in Texas, where the regulations are not especially strict or have not been since about May or so. You’re out in California, where that’s been a very different story in recent months. How much variance is there from one place or the other?

To add a little bit to it, one of the factors that I heard people speculating about in 2020 was that some of these places where the regulations were especially cumbersome, you might see some deferred maintenance based on the difficulty of getting people out and about to take these readings and do these inspections. Whereas, of course, a lot of places, the restrictions have not been very enforced or in place since about May or so. How much difference do you see from one place to the next, and how much is that potentially going to change in your view in the coming months?

TR: Well, we do see a difference. For instance, in California, their very regulatory environment. It did slow the industry down. Less so in other places, but still, there was an effect. I don't know — it’s hard to say by a percentage, Ben, that this was 10% worse than another part of the country. But yes, even as a company, even though we’re an essential business, we still enforced many of the regulations that we have to deal with in California. Only for safety reasons. We wanted to keep our workers as safe as possible, even though they were different laws in different states. It was still difficult, and so we did struggle with that. We have seen, especially since Thanksgiving, an uptick in the virus, even in our own company, that we have to take measures to deal with that. It’s been very difficult.

BD: What do you do as a company? I’m just curious. When you see that type of uptick, I’m sure it’s pretty frightening. Given that it happened around the holidays, I’m sure you're not an outlier in any stretch, but what are some of the things you do when that crops up in your business?

TR: We follow the CDC guidelines for most everything that we deal with, so if somebody is ill and then tests positive, there are strict measures that we take, and they are off work for a long period of time, 10–14 days. I can’t tell you that I’m up on the latest CDC protocols, but we follow them, and they are enforced. That is difficult on the remaining workforce. That creates some amount of uneasiness — I won’t say panic — but uneasiness if somebody’s sick, that the rest of the team’s worried, “Was I exposed?” We take great measures to keep each other from being exposed. That hasn’t really changed, and we’ve been very strict about it. I think it is helping us, but still, over the Thanksgiving holidays and even Christmas, where people were around family members or even people outside of their own family, that caused a great upheaval in the illness, and we saw a much greater impact in health and then our business as a result.


BD: Speaking of the government, there’s a new U.S. administration in 2021. Speaking of the pandemic, you're also looking at more people getting vaccinated in the weeks and months ahead. What types of changes are you expecting? This is the end of January when we’re talking. If we’re talking again in six months, in the summer, how do you expect these broad changes on a nationwide level to affect your business and others within the corrosion control and cathodic protection industries?

TR: Gosh, if I could predict six months out, I’d be really a whiz. I think six months will be a different conversation. I hope that we’re seeing a subsiding of the pandemic, that the vaccines are helping. But I think it’s going to be slow. I don't think it’s going to happen overnight, for sure. Then with a new administration, I think we’re going to see different regulations come around or come back, especially in oil and gas, which may be good for the people like Farwest as far as work but not great for the industry as a whole if you talk to the customer.

Then I think, when we started the pandemic, we were told in business that cash is king. You’d better hoard cash because you're going to need it, and that’s what has happened. I think that will lessen as our confidence in the economy [increases] and the reduction of the pandemic, so we’ll start to spend money again. I think those are certainly some of the ways. Technology, of course, has helped us a great deal, and I think that will continue, seeing technology evolve and change. Who knew 10 months ago that we would be where we are today as far as how we meet or how we talk to each other? It’s been quite a change. I don't think that will go away completely. I see that as a change.


BD: You mentioned investment. Moving forward in the months and, I suppose we should say years ahead, what’s in the pipeline for you all in terms of your development? What types of technologies are you looking to potentially make further advances in these next few years based on the demand you're seeing from the industry?

TR: I don't know that it’s changed a great deal, Ben. Those are slower to develop. We have a couple things in our pipeline that I would hesitate to even talk about. I’m sure that’s true for many other companies like Farwest in the industry. But development in technology is going to be I think where we’re headed, whether it’s remote monitoring or a new technique. I see that. We’re not hearing a lot that is different from our suppliers currently. I think everybody’s sort of hunkered down. I can see things will change and evolve. Businesses change and evolve because we have to. At the outset of the pandemic, we changed a lot. The economy changed a lot, so everybody had to adapt. Businesses will do that, will continue to evolve and adapt, no matter what happens in the U.S. We just have to. It’s hard to say, and I don’t have the crystal ball to help us with that, Ben. But I know we will evolve, and we will change as we always have.


BD: How many practices that you adopted in recent months based on the pandemic — you mentioned, for example, your suppliers, the feedback you get from them. I’m sure there’s a lot less on-site visits, a lot more Zoom and phone calls. How many of those types of new practices do you expect to remain in place to some degree even after the pandemic and once we get back to whatever normal is?

TR: That’s a good question. I think some will remain. While it’s great to see our customers and see our suppliers and we miss that, that’s not going to change for a while. Even when the pandemic subsides and we can go back, there’s a cost to being everywhere. So maybe the Zoom or the Teams environment will continue. I know that, as we said earlier, cash was king. Well, we had to cut certain spending, and travel of course was one of them because we weren’t going anywhere, and the conventions, and some of those we certainly didn’t get to go anywhere. We saw a cost savings, which helped offset some of the losses in sales. We recognize it’s certainly cheaper to do it that way as long as the customer is on board with that. I see that changing slowly but it has helped us to stay in touch even in such a very difficult time.


BD: Makes sense. Folks, that’s great insight from Troy Rankin, president of Farwest Corrosion Control Co. Troy, before we let you go, for anyone who wants more information from Farwest or wants to get in touch with you all, how can they do it? Basically, plug whatever you would like to plug from a Farwest perspective to help people get in touch with you.

TR: Thank you, Ben. I don't know that we have to do too much plugging. Farwest has been around for so long. But of course, we have our website at www.farwestcorrosion.com. Even our toll-free number, at (888) 5FARWEST. In there you can see we have an Ask the Expert Program, where we’re happy to help customers or anybody in the industry with questions that they might have if they don’t have the resources. Then of course on social media, LinkedIn and all the others that we’re involved with there as well. It’s easy to find Farwest. But thank you for that, Ben.

[closing statements]