The skyrocketing price of steel has precast and ready-mixed producers switching to fibers

Stealing from steel: the skyrocketing price of steel has precast and ready-mixed producers switching to fibers

Tom Bagsarian

A few years ago, Lamarre Concrete Products tested a fiber reinforcement system, but the Greenville, N.H., precast producer decided not go ahead with the program. “We found it wasn’t economical to make the switch at that point,” says manager Mike Lamarre.

But that was then, and this is now. A lot has changed–namely, the price of steel rebar and mesh. With these high prices, producers and their contractor customers are giving fibers a closer look. And they like what they’re seeing. With the price of steel going up, now is an excellent time to make the switch.

In early spring, prices were so volatile, some buyers of steel were being told the quotes were only valid for one hour. Buy the steel at that price at that moment, or risk paying a higher price later the same day, they were told.

In addition to raging steel prices (see sidebar on p. 19), Lamarre suffered the double whammy of limited availability. “Prices started increasing at the end of last year,” Lamarre explains. “We were shopping around to get the best price and we found price was less of a problem than actually getting ahold of the product that you needed. Many times, it was not available.”

Lamarre is speaking of 6×6, No. 10 wire mesh for septic tanks. “Normally, lead times are a couple of weeks,” he says. “It’s in stock and you just have to line up a shipper. They were telling us about lead times of six weeks. We’ve never had to deal with that sort of lead time.”

The producer used Strux Synthetic Structural Fiber Reinforcement from Grace Construction Products as an alternative to wire mesh. They poured several septic tanks with various dosages of the fiber and performed some destructive testing. It met within 5% of the 6×6, No. 10 wire mesh and within the tolerance for replacing that portion of the reinforcement.

The fibers add to the cost of the concrete, but this is a wash, considering the steel it replaces. “Even though the Strux is slightly more expensive, the labor savings is going to offset that cost, and then some,” Lamarre adds.

Customers, probably oblivious to the switch to fibers, have been pleased with the results, Lamarre says.

Fibers for ready-mix

The phones started ringing off the hook in January at Van Der Vaart Inc., owner of four Sheboygan Concrete ready-mixed plants in Wisconsin. Steel prices have become “a real concern,” especially for small contractors who were caught off guard by the increases, says sales manager Rich Lohr.

Customers were seeking an alternative to rebar and wire mesh, particularly 6- and 10-gauge. The producer has been using steel fibers and a blend of steel and polypropylene fibers from SI Concrete, mostly for poured walls and flatwork. Both contractors and owners have been pleased.

Fibers offer other advantages, in addition to cost and supply. It’s easier to place concrete with fibers, compared to stepping or tripping over wire mesh and rebar. It’s a labor savings for customers. Concrete with fibers also is easier to handle. “From time to time, someone gets cut on the wire,” says Lamarre.

Fibers are easier to place and that makes scheduling trucks much more reliable. “If the concrete is going on multiple mats of wire mesh or on rebar, we really don’t know how scheduling is going to go until they get halfway through the pour, which can be difficult,” Lohr explains. “However, if it’s steel fiber or polypropylene, the reinforcement’s already in the concrete. If they tell me it’s going to take 20 minutes, I’m going to believe it.”

Fiber’s future

Producers and contractors will face a big question if or when steel prices fall to levels of a year ago: Will fibers lose their momentum in favor of rebar and wire mesh once again?

“Customers like using fibers better and I think they’ll continue to do so,” says Lohr. “I’d rather see them go with fibers, even if we make a little less money because I think it makes a better product, which is going to help the entire market.” Steel prices had leveled by the middle of April, he adds.

It doesn’t necessarily take a surge in steel prices to sell fiber-reinforced concrete. THE CONCRETE PRODUCER previously reported how Rinker Materials, based in West Palm Beach, Fla., sold 1 million yards of fiber-reinforced concrete in a single year. That wasn’t last year; it was 1998.

Circle the reader service number for more information from the manufacturers of these fiber products.

Mobile mixer feeder

The VM Fiber Feeder for mobile mixers is simple, easy to install, and can be placed on any truck or applications with four bolts and a 1/4-inch air-line. The device holds up to 40 pounds of material, is accurate, and very maintenance-free. The compact size–12x12x18.5 inches–is ideal for truck installation. VM Fiber Feeder. 941-342-9439. Circle 1.

Alternative secondary reinforcement

SI Concrete System’s engineered blends contain synthetic and steel fibers for maximum performance for a higher level of secondary reinforcement. Novamesh e3 steel and synthetic fiber blend offers both the crack containment capability of steel fibers and the early age benefits of synthetic fiber. New and improved Novamesh 2.0, an all-synthetic blend containing coarse macroysnthetic fibers, provides an alternative secondary reinforcement to concrete when steel can’t be used, offering equivalent performance to Novamesh e3. Both systems offer superior shrinkage and temperature reinforcement alternatives for commercial slab-on-ground applications. SI Concrete Systems. 800-635-2308. Circle 2.

Decreased vibration for greater accuracy

Intec Corp.’s Synthetic Bulk Fiber System Feeder hopper holds 50 pounds of product and is driven by a pneumatic tire to eliminate vibration and maintenance. The cast iron frame further decreases the vibration to three isolated load cells to obtain accurate delivery. The Feeder is 59 3/4 inches high and 49 inches in diameter. The system handles both multifilament and fibrillated synthetic fibers while delivering up to 9 pounds of fiber per minute. Intec Corp. 800-666-1611. Circle 3.

Fiber Improves concrete properties

STRUX 90/40 Synthetic Structural Fiber Reinforcement technology from Grace Construction Products replaces welded wire fabric, light rebar, and steel fibers in slab-on-ground flooring applications for commercial and light industrial structures, and in many precast applications. STRUX decreases time on the job, reducing related manpower costs. A high-strength, high modulus three-dimensional reinforcement, STRUX 90/40 is distributed throughout the concrete, improving its material properties. It contains more fibers than steel fibers at the same volume, allowing for tighter crock control. Grace Construction Products. 877-423-6491. Circle 4.

RELATED ARTICLE: Steel prices: how high, how long?

The price of scrap, a key raw material in manufacturing rebar and other steel products, was a key reason steel prices soared early this year. The price of No. 1 heavy melt scrap, used heavily in rebar production, jumped from $154 per ton in Jan. 2004 to $237 per ton by early April. It cost only $105 in Jan. 2003.

So it’s no surprise the price of rebar and other steel products also would rise. Rebar prices were $307 per ton in the second quarter of 2003. They rose to $360 by Jan. 2004 and continued climbing to $498 by early April.

Other parts of the world, namely China, have been buying lots of scrap, causing the price to rise in the United States. Also, scrap prices usually rise in the winter anyway because it’s harder to collect the material. Icy conditions discourage people from transporting the material to the yards and the yards are less inclined to send out their trucks for collections.

“Scrap accounts for 70% or more of minimills’ costs,” says Charles Bradford, president of Bradford Research, a New York-based steel industry analyst. “When scrap prices doubled, or more than doubled, minimills all raised their steel prices very quickly.”

By spring, people found scrap prices were high enough that it was worth scrapping objects they normally wouldn’t have considered sending to the local scrapyard. But in early April, scrap prices already had started falling, prompting Bradford to predict the price of rebar and other steel products also would fall. “We won’t stay at these levels, but rebar prices won’t go down to $307 of last year,” he says.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Hanley-Wood, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group