When Alexander Zuran III says his company “has your back,” it’s not an overstatement.
In a sense, Phoenix National Laboratories also is watching to ensure that your arms, legs, children, pets, vehicles and much more remain safe.
The company tests the steel and other materials that go into bridges, buildings, factories, power plants, mining installations, pipes, street lights, stadium roofs and more. Many are high-profile construction projects across the country.
Using X-rays, ultrasound, radar and other diagnostic tools, including some borrowed from the medical industry, the company’s technicians look for fractures, corrosion and other problems that could cause fatal accidents if not corrected.
“Welds and joints are the main things that drive our industry,” Zuran said, adding that corrosion can be a problem even in dry desert climates like that of Arizona.
Alexander Zuran III
CARLY BOWLING/THE REPUBLIC
Tests on giant California bridge
For example, Phoenix National Laboratories has been testing and inspecting much of the steel being used to construct the Gerald Desmond replacement bridge at the port of Long Beach, California. The structure, with a 200-foot-high clearance over the water to accommodate larger cargo ships, will be the nation’s second-tallest cable “stayed” or supported bridge. The $1.3 billion project is set to open in mid-2020.
Many of the bridge’s components were built at a Stinger Bridge & Iron factory in Coolidge in central Arizona, where technicians and engineers from Phoenix National Laboratories inspected and tested parts for the past two years, prior to their shipment to California
“Most or nearly all testing and Inspection is done on the bridge sections fabricated at the shop, before each component is shipped to the site,” said Rick Viduka, business development manager for Phoenix National Laboratories. “Erection crews do not want to make any repairs at the site — too expensive.”
Focus on welding
As another example, Phoenix National Laboratories staff spent 18 months testing tubing and other apparatus at the massive Solana solar plant constructed near Gila Bend about a decade ago. Testing focused on storage tanks, pipes, generators and more.
“We X-rayed a percentage of 100,000 welds there,” Zuran said.
Other company projects have included testing on the light-rail connection to Sky Harbor International Airport, a concourse expansion at Los Angeles International Airport, the retractable roof of the Brewers baseball stadium in Milwaukee, the new steel dam at Tempe Towne Lake and bridges above the new South Mountain Loop 202 freeway.
So too for work on the Phoenix Convention Center, State Farm Stadium in Glendale (home of the Arizona Cardinals) and the expansion of Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Paul Sullivan, a product evaluation engineer with the Arizona Department of Transportation, said the agency has used Phoenix National Laboratories on various projects including testing pads for bridge bearings, which provide support between a bridge’s surface and its supporting pillars. The company helped correct a problem with the pads, Sullivan said.
In an email, he praised Zuran’s staff for helping to “find the solution for whatever testing challenge we were having.”
So much happens behind the scenes that the public rarely thinks much about testing — as long as nothing goes wrong.
“The average person does not realize the large amount of testing and inspection that is required during construction, to accomplish this safety goal,” said Viduka.
Around 10% of the items that Phoenix National Laboratories tests aren’t in compliance and would be at risk of failing if not corrected, Zuran said.
Relatively recent innovations include more digital and electronic testing, which have largely replaced filmed X rays of the past
“We’re making sure this stuff is made correctly,” Zuran said. “And we’re out there testing to make sure things are safe for public use.”
Potential bridge issues
As an example of the amount of testing that is needed, a2018 analysisof federal transportation data estimated that nearly 54,300 of the nation’s 612,700 bridges were structurally deficient, largely due to advanced age. Americans drive over a potentially hazardous bridge on the federal highway system every 27 miles on average, according to the report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
(Arizona, however, had some of the nation’s safest bridges, with a moderate 1.8% deemed deficient, according to the report. Rhode Island, West Virginia and Iowa had the highest percentages of unsound bridges.)
Phoenix National Laboratories, a privately held company, has about 32 engineers, technicians and other employees, sometimes pushing that to around 50 when temporary help is needed. Other testing entities operating in the Valley include Team Industrial Services and Western Technologies — both part of larger companies.
Besides testing, Phoenix National Laboratories also performs after-thefact failure analysis when structures collapse, fall over, break, crack or whatever. It also oversees a certification program for welders. When it comes to corrosion, for example, most problems occur at welds.
“We literally run 500 welding tests,” Zuran said, depending on the material, its size, thickness, position, the welding process used and other factors.
Inspections in lab or field
At the company’s Phoenix laboratory south of Sky Harbor International Airport, many of the tests involve samples of pipes, tubing or other material shipped in from projects around the nation.
Phoenix National Laboratories, which generates around $6 million in annual revenue, works with businesses as well as government agencies such as ADOT. About one quarter of the work is conducted at its laboratory, with rest in the field at construction sites, bridges, buildings or elsewhere.
Testing services are constantly in demand, regardless of how the economy is faring.
“When the economy is slow, we do more maintenance and repairs,” said Zuran. “But I never remember not being busy.”