The Root of the Problem

There seems to be a common understanding among manufacturers of chemical root control applications, that the market for root control products really hasn?t changed much in recent years. In fact, there have probably only been about three or four types of root control products developed since the 1960s that really differ from each other, according to Mike Hogan, president of Duke?s Root Control Inc., a manufacturer of chemical root control applicators.

Nevertheless, the health of sewer pipelines continues to be a primary concern for public works officials, as thousands of miles of sewer lines are chemically treated each year to rid them of root infiltration. Early research in the development of chemical root control products showed that the inside of a sewer is the ideal growth environment for roots. Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs), structural damage and debris buildups are just some of the problems root intrusion can cause.

But that?s not to say the industry hasn?t seen proactive initiatives taken to help make the process of implementing a root control program easier. Due in large part to actions taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), municipalities are now required to run regular condition assessment programs on their sewer systems.

Municipalities have also been active in partnering with chemical root control contractors and manufacturers to implement maintenance programs and assess the impacts root intrusion is having on their systems. Duke?s for instance, started out on the manufacturing side and today, is contracted by about 1,150 municipalities nationwide to implement root control programs. So while products have remained relatively consistent, it is in this area of condition assessment where the market has seen growth. ?

Early Methods

Modern methods and applications of chemical root control have been around for 50-plus years.? Unfortunately, roots have been around a little longer, and infrastructure growth in the United States throughout the 20th century demanded a comprehensive method for dealing with roots that were damaging underground pipelines. Prior to the herbicide technology used today, early methods of root control involved using a rotating saw blade that would cut and rip the roots out.

?For a very long time, mechanical means of cutting the roots out was really the only way to deal with the problem,? Hogan said. ?That was done probably from the turn of the century until the 1960s when chemical root control was first developed, where herbicide technology was found to be able to kill the roots without the chemicals affecting the trees or affecting the environment in terms of chemicals reaching wastewater treatment plants.?

Another method even involved using caustic acids that were poured down the sewer, generating heat and a chemical reaction, burning the roots out. Eventually, those methods were found to not only be harmful to the environment, but also hazardous to workers in the field. Copper sulfate was also used, but that was eventually found to kill trees in addition to the roots.

?Another problem with all of those chemicals was a method of getting the right amount of contact with the actual root,? Hogan said. ?Roots are not aquatic ? they don?t? grow in the water, but typically in the top of the pipe. When chemicals were initially poured down the manhole, really all it was doing was going in the flow, underneath the roots. They weren?t getting the right contact to kill the roots.

?That?s when someone came up with the idea of using an herbicide combined with a foaming agent. So now, you had an herbicide injected into the sewers in a foam consistency, which got the herbicide to the top of the pipe. That technology really started the success of chemical root control.?

That someone was Fred Horne, a product innovator who elaborated on research being conducted on root control technology at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis) in 1967. Horne worked to combine herbicide metam sodium with dichlobenil in a surfactant formulation to create dense foam that could thoroughly cover the roots and pipe surfaces. Following this discovery, Vaporooter was patented and became an effective formula for eliminating roots and preventing re-growth. ?

Educating Municipalities

Vaporooter, a division of Douglas Products, is now a leading manufacturer of chemical root control applications, and works to expand its product?s presence by educating cities on the benefits and value of chemical root control. Vaporooter also offers cities the option of doing their chemical root control program in-house or hire an experienced, licensed contractor.

RootX, another manufacturer of chemical root control products, came into existence in 1994. Born out of Gelco Corp., a pipe service company based on the West Coast in the 1970s, RootX also manufactures a foaming root-killing compound that cities are able to apply without hiring a root control contractor.?? ?
In recent years, RootX has also strived to do more than just sell its product, taking on several initiatives to educate the public and municipalities on how to successfully implement a root control maintenance program that can save money in the long term.

?Municipalities are much more knowledgeable about root control today than they were even 12 years ago when RootX came into being,? said Parke Raffensperger, RootX president and general manager. ?Cities are taking a more proactive approach in taking care of their root problems ? because every city has root problems.

?Whether you use RootX or other products, as long as you do a regular maintenance program, [municipalities] are going to see a lot of their other problems in that pipeline disappear such as infiltration, breaking of pipes, etc.?

Like most chemical root control products, municipalities should begin seeing differences in the roots in about eight weeks, with a full effect taking place within about six months. The industry standard is that pipes should be re-treated every two to three years to keep the roots from returning; smaller diameter pipes should be re-treated about every 12 months. According to Mike Hogan, clay pipe is the type of pipe most affected by root intrusion, and 90 percent of the work done by Duke?s is with 6-, 8- and 10-in. diameter clay pipe. But the severity of root infiltration is an important factor for a utility to determine the best course of action. ?

Measuring the Severity of?Sewer Damage

One of the most important benefits of a root control program is that it is a preventative maintenance initiative. Making sure roots stay away from pipelines for good ? or at least for as long as possible ? is an important aspect. But implementing a chemical root control program when a city?s pipelines are already severely damaged is not an ideal solution. Instead, root control benefits a municipality most when root infiltration is less severe.

A city strapped for cash might consider a root control program as it may be more cost effective in the short-term. On the other hand, if the damage to a pipeline is more severe, replacement or sliplining may be a better option.

Hogan said it is a trend across the root control market that companies have begun to sell root control programs versus trying to sell equipment and chemicals. In particular, Duke?s works with cities to help them evaluate the condition of their sewer system, and works to design a program that will address their most severe problems, whether that assessment is to implement a root control program or suggest rehab or replacement of the pipe.

?We present this to cities as a preventive maintenance tool,? he said. ?For a long time, root control was viewed like a lot of other sewer work ? out of sight, out of mind. If you see nothing is wrong, you don?t need to fix it. With today?s mindset of the municipal agencies interested in preserving their assets, now they [municipalities] go in and look at sewer lines and think, ?let?s not wait for these cracks to get worse, let?s go ahead and repair.?

?And that?s where cities get the most bang for their buck. That?s what we try to push every day and that?s where we think we benefit municipalities the most.?

Hogan said the biggest changes over the last few decades in root control have been in regard to things like CMOM (Capacity, Management, Operation and Maintenance) programs and asset management, and not necessarily with the products themselves.

?The development of asset management regulations really changed the whole perception of root control,? Hogan said. ?That probably had the single biggest impact on the root control industry because it took cities from a reactive state of mind to a proactive state of mind.? Cities have become much more progressive in their approach to preventive maintenance.?

Andrew Farr is assistant editor of UIM. ?

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