For most people, it makes little difference what material a storm sewer is made up of as long as it prevents flooding by allowing rainwater to drain away.
But for Clark Wantoch, sewer lines are far from all being created equal. As head of the Wisconsin Concrete Pipe Association, Wantoch regularly finds himself having to talk up what he sees as the advantages that reinforced concrete holds over alternative materials such as corrugated metal and plastic.
With his decades of experience working both in Milwaukee city and county government, Wantoch sees the choice as one requiring little thought. Wantoch said reinforced concrete itself might be slightly more pricey than alternative materials but generally proves to be cheaper once installation costs are taken into account.
Concrete is strong enough that it can just be covered with dirt without fear of collapse. Plastic pipe, in contrast, often needs reinforcement from a sort of granular fill, which not only adds to the cost of a project but also means that dirt dug up for the installation now must be hauled away.
“I maintain that just with the difference in the volume of material you have to haul away and the new material you have to bring in, that cost can exceed the difference in the cost between reinforced concrete and plastic,” Wantoch said.
The problems with plastic – usually polyethylene or polypropylene – don’t end there, Wantoch said. Plastic pipes, for one, move differently than concrete, a fact that can cause trouble when contractors try to attach them to concrete manholes.
“It’s going to be a maintenance problem in the future,” Wantoch said. “And throughout my career, when I build something, I want it to last. I don’t want it to become a maintenance burden later on.”
Despite his arguments, Wantoch has seen plastic become more common in recent years. That’s partly because the state decided in 2016 to let contractors choose what sort of material they wanted to use when installing sewers below roads traveled by 7,000 or fewer vehicles a day on average.
Wantoch said concrete is still used for about a third of such jobs and that if plastic is displacing anything, it’s most likely corrugated metal. Still, there’s a fear on the part of Wantoch and those he represents – companies making reinforced concrete in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota – that more and more government officials will be lured in by the promise of lower costs.
To prevent that from happening, Wantoch spends a great deal of his time meeting with officials not only at the state level but also with cities, counties, villages and towns throughout Wisconsin. In Madison, he’s exhorting legislators to adopt a law that would require plastic pipes to be tested along 100 percent of their length following installation. Many of Wisconsin’s neighboring states have such a requirement, but Wisconsin calls for testing only along 10 percent of a pipe’s length.
“It’s the only way to know if it was installed properly,” Wantoch said. “And it’s the only time you can hold the contractor responsible to replace it.”
Wantoch’s familiarity with the advantages of reinforced concrete goes back decades. After securing a degree in engineering from Marquette University – and later a master’s degree in construction management and an MBA – this Milwaukee native worked for 34 years for the city he still calls home. Starting in the department of public work’s bureau of engineers, he eventually worked his way up to the position of transportation and administration manager before leaving to run the Milwaukee County Highway Division for two years.
He said his position in the public-works department gave him direct knowledge of how certain materials are best for particular uses.
The city of Milwaukee, he noted, has 1,961 miles of storm sewer made out of reinforced concrete.
Also during his years working for government, Wantoch became a member of various professional organizations, including the Institute of Transportation Engineers, American Public Works Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers. It was through those connections that he learned the Wisconsin Concrete Pipe Association had an opening for an executive director, one he was tapped to fill three and a half years ago.
Wantoch said his work can certainly keep him busy. When things start to seem overwhelming, he tries to remember he has one undeniable advantage.
“I believe in the product,” he said. “So that makes it easy.”
The Daily Reporter: What surprises you most about your job?
Wantoch: The dedication of engineers in both the private and public sectors to design and build a safe and efficient transportation system within Wisconsin’s villages, towns, cities and counties.
TDR: Which living person do you most admire?
Wantoch: Mark Gottlieb, former secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
TDR: What other jobs have you considered trying?
Wantoch: None. I found my passion within transportation.
TDR: What is your greatest fear?
Wantoch: The lack of funding to keep our transportation system safe.
TDR: What’s your greatest extravagance?
TDR: What would you never wear?
Wantoch: Not much!Follow @TDR_WLJDan