Hailed as an engineering and construction miracle when completed in 1914, the historic Panama Canal operated largely unchanged for almost a hundred years. But when recent upgrades were undertaken there, a Birmingham company even older than the venerable canal was called on to supply more than 15 miles of needed water pipe and related products.
The annual volume of ships at the Panama Canal has increased from 1, 000 to 14, 000 since its opening. But it became more than obvious that changes were needed, as the world’s trading vessels got increasingly larger and became too big to pass through the canal’s existing locks.
To correct that shortcoming and ensure the canal’s important role in ocean trade, the Panama Canal Authority began a mammoth $5.25 billion expansion in 2009, and completion is scheduled for June 2016.
The construction centers on massive new locks running parallel to the existing locks on both the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean sides. The new locks, along with other improvements along the 50-mile canal route, will accommodate longer, taller and wider ships and will double the waterway’s cargo capacity.
The scope of the expansion is immense. Each set of new locks contains three chambers where ships are raised or lowered 85 feet during the canal crossing. Each of those three chambers is 110 feet high, 180 feet wide and 1, 400 feet long — longer than the Empire State Building is tall. Lying next to the locks are huge water basins that regulate the amount of water added to or removed from the lock chambers.
The amount of concrete required to build the locks is enough to pave a road from St. Louis to New York, and the amount of steel needed would build 26 Eiffel Towers. Sixteen massive steel gates for the locks are as tall as 11 stories.
Less noticed in the project’s big picture but essential to its success is 80, 000 feet of water pipe, fittings, valves and fire hydrants supplied by Birmingham-based AMERICAN Cast Iron Pipe Co. Long known by the acronym ACIPCO, the firm now prefers to call itself AMERICAN.
The pipe and accessories — installed under, near and within the new locks — will provide drinking water and fire protection at the locks and for nearby communities impacted by the expansion. They also are part of the dewatering process at the locks.
Founded in 1905, when Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States, AMERICAN is one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of ductile iron pipe for the waterworks industry. Just as the Panama Canal facilitates ship transportation, AMERICAN’s products facilitate the flow and transport of water.
The company has long done business in domestic and overseas markets. It first exported pipe in 1915, to Chile. Its headquarters facility includes the largest manufacturing facility of ductile iron pipe in the United States, and the AMERICAN Flow Control division makes water valves and fire hydrants in Texas and Minnesota. Other divisions make steel pipe for the water, oil and natural gas industries.
The Panama Canal Authority contracted with a consortium of builders and designers, Grupo Unidos por el Canal, to carry out the expansion. The multinational consortium includes contractors from Panama, Spain, Italy and Belgium and subcontractors from the United States and Holland.
AMERICAN pursued its Panama Canal contract for two years, communicating with MWH Global, the lead designer of the new locks. “MWH decided to use ductile iron pipe because of its longevity and to continue using material that the Canal Authority has in its system, ” says Gabe Restrepo, AMERICAN’s sales manager for Latin America.
“We also were invited to quote on a valve package for the customer, and one of the components for that was a fire hydrant. Ours was a good fit. And we got AMERICAN gate valves approved. They liked the fact that all these products were coming from the same company, and they liked our reliability and reputation. What we sold them was a small part of the overall project, but it was still an important part of it.”
Roughly half of the pipe AMERICAN supplied was in diameters ranging from 16 to 30 inches, and most of that will provide drinking water and fire protection for communities near the canal impacted by the expansion.
On the Pacific side of the canal, 30- and 24-inch pipe for water mains was installed in a “cross-under” beneath the towering new locks. A 16-inch water main was installed in a cross-under on the Atlantic side, too, and a 20-inch fire protection main also was installed in the cross-under at both locations.
One of the more stringent requirements for AMERICAN was a strenuous pressure test of the 30-inch water line in the Pacific cross-under. “The deeper you go, the higher the pressure, ” Restrepo says. “At ground level, the 30-inch line would run at 250 psi (pounds per square inch), but the line dips down 125 feet to where the operating pressure is 300 psi.
“The owner required a hydro-test after installation 50 percent higher than that, at 450 psi. That was a special caveat to the application for our product, but the pipe tested fine.”
Much of the pipe that AMERICAN supplied — ranging in diameter from 8 to 12 inches — was a sub-component of the dewatering system, which in turn is associated with the massive amounts of water sent into and diverted from the lock chambers. A good deal of 6-inch pipe was installed to provide water and fire protection for the lock facilities.
Roughly 90 percent of the contract, about 6.6 million pounds of material, was shipped to the Panama Canal through the Port of Mobile. That included the ductile iron pipe — roughly 4, 000 lengths of 20-foot pipe, with some pieces weighing as much as 3, 500 pounds — as well as hundreds of fittings and other auxiliary products.
In addition, AMERICAN was responsible for procuring some items that the company doesn’t even make, and pulling it all together was an ongoing logistical challenge. “This project had a lot of pieces and components that were procured from other suppliers, ” Restrepo says. “Between that and what we manufactured ourselves, there was a lot of coordination between our people in production, purchasing and traffic.
“We staged everything that was sent to the job site in Birmingham, so our people had to coordinate supplies ranging from fittings, pipe fabrication and valves — coordinating all production and procurement, shipment to Birmingham, pre-shipment inspection and approvals here and then all the logistics to get it shipped and delivered to the project site.”
According to an earlier press release, “AMERICAN’s products, technical and sales support and fabrication capacity make it stand out among the competition, ” said Sergi Ametller, electromechanical project manager with Grupo Unidos por el Canal. “They fulfilled our technical specifications and had the production capacity for our stringent delivery schedule.”
Says Restrepo: “It was a lot of work, and it took a lot of time. But that’s what we do.”
Charlie Ingram and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Text by Charlie Ingram • Photos by Cary Norton