By Cheryl Long

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Though industries like oil and gas have long considered steel the material of choice for their piping systems, there’s another option that is gaining traction. Not only is it substantially lighter than steel but its durability, longer lifespan and ease in shipping is seeing fiberglass grow in popularity across Western Canada.

Founded in 2000 in Red Deer, Alberta by Darwin Sovdi, Custom Fiberglass Contractors specializes in the fabrication and installation of fiberglass piping systems, providing companies in various industries with cost-effective solutions customized to their needs. The business that began with just a few employees now has about 20 people on staff, runs three crews and has tripled the size of their shop. And in response to market changes in 2007, Custom Fiberglass Contractors expanded into chemical and industrial sectors while increasing their marketing efforts in oil and gas with a new website and greater online exposure.

Jason Goodwill joined the company in April 2013 with a background in facilities management and business management. Determined to learn the industry from the ground up, he went out into the field and logged more than 2,000 pipefitting hours before moving into the position of vice president later that year. “It was just a tremendous learning experience,” he explained. “It was very physically demanding, lots of hours. What was particularly interesting for me was I had worked in the United States and then in Canada because there was a lot of oil booming activity going on in the U.S., but they’re a good 10 years behind what we are in Canada in terms of safety and regulations and protocols. For example, right now I don’t know how many safety tickets I have in order to just set foot on sites in Canada. In the U.S., I didn’t even need an H2S ticket; I just walked on site and went to work.”

General Manager Kevin Anderson joined the company in the mid-2000s after a long career in the home-building industry. After Sovdi’s death in 2013, Anderson left Custom Fiberglass Contractors to resume his contracting business but then returned in June 2014 to take on the GM role.

Fiberglass surpasses steel in many areas

Fiberglass as a piping product has been in use since the 1960s, Anderson said. “Some plants have fiberglass that are 30, 40, 50 yrs old.” The challenge is in the industry mindset, particularly in the engineering world where metal products are the accepted norm. It’s at the engineering level where Custom Fiberglass Contractors is convincing customers that their product is a viable alternative, highlighting the range of benefits that include lower cost, less shipping weight and ease of handling. In the chemical and industrial sectors where corrosive applications come into play, fiberglass piping is proving to be a superior and more environmentally-friendly alternative to steel.

custom finber glass 2“There’s some applications with steel where they might have to replace the steel for corrosion purposes every five to seven years,” Goodwill explained. “When fiberglass is put in, it can last 20 or 30 or more years. For some people, it’s kind of hard to find that formula. For others when they find it … I’ve talked to some of our clients that just say why would you do anything else, why would you not use fiberglass?”

Another selling point lies within the multiple certifications that Custom Fiberglass Products has earned. The company is Complyworks and ISN Compliant, and is also COR Certified, proving that they place a high priority on health and safety. One of their most noted achievements is their Alberta Boiler Safety Association (ABSA) registration — a seal of approval in the piping industry that’s recognized worldwide. In fact, Custom Fiberglass Contractors will be one of the first fiberglass installation companies to complete the process when their certification is finalized by early summer. “We’re about 90% complete on our ABSA certification. There is a meeting to set up with ABSA representatives to review our application and certify several bonding procedures,” Anderson explained.

Important advances in instrumentation

Keeping an eye on emerging trends and technologies is another key strategy. Tools are continually being upgraded and they’ve made changes in the office that help manage projects on site, including the use of mobile devices to send and receive photos and documents in remote locations. Though fiberglass piping and the process used to build it hasn’t undergone many changes, instrumentation continues to evolve. They were recently the first in their industry to switch from analogue to digital gauges, which provides for more accurate and easier tracking of conditions like flow or temperature. Those readings can then be sent to the client electronically in another location, providing nearly instant feedback on how the system is operating.
All of the hard work is paying off for Custom Fiberglass Contractors. They earned their largest contract in the company’s 15-year history recently, installing piping systems for a uranium mine and milling operation near McClean Lake in Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin. They’re working on a new joint venture with a U.S. company, hope to eventually do work in the potash industry, which is expecting to see huge growth in Saskatchewan over the next few years, and they’re also looking ahead to possible involvement in offshore projects. One of their more immediate plans is to create a unionized division in the company, which will open up additional opportunities with larger corporations.

Over 100 years of fiberglass expertise

custom finber glass 3As for the next five years, “I’d like to see it going strong, probably having a location in North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia,” Goodwill said. “In terms of expansion, we’re very proud to say that at this point, our crew collectively has over 100 years of fiberglass piping experience, which we’ve never had before and we don’t believe anybody else has that…I think it’s tremendous.”

The wealth of skill and experience that makes up the company’s team is one of the secrets behind their growing success. Finding and retaining skilled labour is always a challenge, particularly in Western Canada where trades people can move from job to job in pursuit of higher wages. Maintaining a supportive and appreciative atmosphere helps to keep everyone motivated and invested in the jobs they do each day.

“We work with integrity and transparency and invest as much as we can in our employees. When we can, we take advantage of holidays and birthdays with a little celebration to up the morale,” Goodwill said. “We know that other companies don’t enjoy themselves as much as we do.”

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