Navy takes different approach to painting vessels
By ROBERT MCCABE | The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot (MCT) | Published: October 20, 2014
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (MCT) — They call it "haze gray," the war paint of the Navy's fleet, designed to make its vessels tougher to see.
It's hard to fathom how many millions of gallons of it have been slathered on the sides of Navy ships over the years.
"If it moves, salute it; if it doesn't, paint it," was a motto of sailors in previous generations, said Rob Hogan, director of steel manufacturing at Newport News Shipbuilding and the son of one such sailor.
But what may have been viewed as a simple, if detested, chore years ago has morphed into a highly sophisticated enterprise driven by engineering.
Within the past decade or so, an increasing share of what used to be called "painting" has been pushed into the earliest stages of shipbuilding, when vessels aren't even vessels yet, just pieces in the building-block stage.
"We've moved beyond the days of bustin' rust, with a needle gun and a wire brush," Hogan said during a recent tour of the two dozen shops and open areas he manages in the sprawling Newport News yard, where between 120 and 170 people work in the "surface prep and treatment group."
The 550-acre yard — a city within a city along the James River, with more than 23,000 employees and its own police and fire departments — is the only one in the country that builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and one of two that build submarines.
After it delivers a carrier to the Navy, it's likely the yard won't see it again for 25 years, when it will be refueled and overhauled to extend its life for another 25.
In the intervening years, it may be drydocked and repainted at facilities elsewhere.
Corrosion takes a costly toll on military equipment and infrastructure: about $3.1 billion per year for the Navy, according to a 2012 consultant's report. That amounts to about a quarter of its most complex repair costs. In 2003, the Pentagon created an Office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight, charged with preventing and mitigating corrosion.
The coatings developed in recent years are designed to significantly extend a ship's life span and the time between drydockings, according to Hogan's team.
Some protect against heat and ultraviolet rays, while others have "self-healing" qualities. There also are quick-drying "ultra-high solids coatings," which allow greater thickness with fewer layers, curing in minutes instead of hours.
Putting them on might be considered the fun part.
Like paint jobs at home, the process of coating a Navy ship begins with intensive preparation.
The plates of steel delivered to a staging area on a few acres at the northeast end of the shipyard arrive by truck and rail.
The massive plates can weigh anywhere from 5 to 40 tons. They are generally 20 to 40 feet long and 6 to 8 feet wide and vary in thickness depending on where the steel will be used on the ship.
Hoisted by giant magnets on rail-mounted cranes, the plates are moved on conveyor belts through a series of facilities that cleanse them thoroughly to remove any rust, then rough them up a bit to give them what's known as a "profile" — a certain scruffiness that will enable paint to stick to it.
Each plate is tagged with a number, enabling it to be tracked individually, after which it's moved through the Wheelabrator, a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that applies an initial, preconstruction primer coat on both sides.
The primer colors — blue, green, yellow and orange, among others — identify a particular type of steel and where that piece is headed in the construction process.
Next stop is the fabrication shop where the plates — not unlike sheets of drywall in home construction — are cut to specific dimensions and "framed" to form certain types of pieces: T-bars and angle bars, channel bars and H-beams.
Those are welded together to create the 1,200 or so "puzzle pieces" — some the size of small cars or trucks — that will, in turn, be combined to form jet-fuel tanks or sections of a ship's keel.
Years ago, a majority of a carrier's component parts were prepped and painted after becoming incorporated into a ship's superstructure. Workers wearing protective gear crawled into confined spaces in the belly of a ship to paint the insides of tanks and the like.
Increasingly, the Navy requires such work to be done at the preconstruction stages, when a ship is still in pieces that can be accessed easily.
Ralph Mosely is the production foreman at the yard's hangar-size "blast and coat" facility, where most of the pieces of a carrier now are painted early in the construction process. He let a reporter try on a protective suit and an air-conditioned helmet like those his workers use.
Using nozzles that project tiny bits of steel at 100 pounds per square inch, workers create what's known as an "anchor tooth profile" on a steel surface, a microscopic series of peaks and valleys that range from 4 to 8 thousandths of an inch in depth.
That's the foundation of the coatings process, each profile carefully calibrated to match the kind of paint that will cover it.
The blasting throws off so much grit that it covers the floor like sand on a beach, creating footprints visible in all directions. The grit is eventually vacuumed and recycled.
Painting occurs next door.
A pretreated section of a jet-fuel tank, about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, was spray-painted buff and yellow, its edges taped so that welders wouldn't have to deal with paint removal when putting the parts together.
Coating the ship's parts before they're put together is not only faster, it's safer for employees and the environment and produces higher-quality work, Hogan said.
All of these factors combined keep the cost of the ship lower than it otherwise would be, he added.
If you can imagine covering about 8,000 football fields — or 360 million square feet — that's the total surface space that will be painted on an aircraft carrier, said Jim Coppa, the trade director who oversees all of the surface preparation work done at the Newport News yard.
All totaled, it takes about 4 million gallons of paint to cover a carrier.
Those parts of the carrier above the waterline will generally get three coats; those below, seven.
The changes in how new ships are painted have generated a new lexicon as well.
A half dozen or more coats on an area of a ship aren't thought of as six layers of paint anymore.
"That's a system," said Charlie Harvilicz, a former submariner and protective-coatings specialist at the shipyard. "There's a difference between a coat of paint and a coating system. In a system, every layer has a job to do."
You'll have a preconstruction primer, maybe another primer on top of that, two barrier coats of epoxy in between those layers and then a low-solar absorption coat.
If the coating is below the waterline, a ship might get three or four coats of "anti-foulant" paint, designed to inhibit the spread of barnacles, coral, algae or anything else that can attach to the bottom of a ship, increasing its drag.
Fighting drag has become a priority for the Navy in recent years, particularly as the cost of bunker fuel used by surface ships went through the roof, said John Hopewell, director of international affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based American Coatings Association, a trade group.
Just as with airplanes, a fuel-efficient ship needs "a slipstream with the least amount of drag possible," he said.
The number of units prepped and painted at the blast-and-coat facility has nearly tripled in recent years, from about 400 during construction of the carrier Ronald Reagan to 700 with the George H.W. Bush, 1,000 with the Gerald R. Ford and 1,100 that will make up the John F. Kennedy.
Around the shipyard, the coatings experts hardly can wait for
MegaRust, a yearly conference on combating corrosion. It's run by the American Society of Naval Engineers.
Next year's event is planned in Newport News.
But to folks outside the yard, Hogan said, those intricate layers of coatings and systems remain invisible. They look at a carrier and see gray paint — "just a decoration that you put on at the end."
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Signalman 3rd Class April Taylor retouches the 'haze gray' paint on the signal bridge aboard the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in 2004. Much of what is now called 'surface prep and treatment' of ships is now being done during the earliest stages of construction.
JENNIFER L. BROWN/U.S. NAVY FILE PHOTO