Time is Running Out on Sandblasting

There are Many Benefits of Robotic Waterblasting for Surface Cleaning Applications

By Roger Simonsson 

Traditionally, sandblasting has been the method of choice for rust and paint removal, as well as concrete surface preparation applications in a number of markets. However, changing standards in safety and environmental protection are causing many to question whether it’s still the best option. Compared to other methods, such as robotic waterblasting, the answer is often no. 

Over the last 30 years, advances in hydrodemolition technology have led to waterblasting equipment that produces safer and more efficient results than sandblasting, and with less environmental impact. These benefits have encouraged entities such as harbors, municipalities, water and waste treatment facilities, and transportation departments – as well as a number of contractors – to make the switch to robotic waterblasting. Here’s why:

Increased Safety

Across the demolition industry, safety-conscious employers looking to decrease the physical demand on workers have been quick to embrace mechanization. Applications such as sandblasting require a lot of physical exertion, since operators must constantly resist back thrust. And, while intended to keep workers safe, personal protection equipment (PPE), such as the breathing equipment and protective clothing required for sandblasting, can also increase fatigue and strain during prolonged operations. 

Fatigue and other safety factors might not be quite as much of a concern for smaller sandblasting applications, such as removing graffiti from a building. But for larger operations, such as rust or paint removal on a bridge or from a tanker’s hull, the toll on workers can be significant. Repeated over days, weeks, or years, this type of prolonged physical exertion can lead to a number of injuries, which, in turn, decreases productivity and drives up costs for insurance and workers’ compensation. 

With robotic waterblasting, or hydroblasting, on the other hand, the heavy lifting is left to the machines while crew members stand safely out of the way. These cutting-edge machines are available with a number of attachments that enable operation over large areas – vertical, horizontal, and overhead – while allowing workers to remain safely on the ground. Depending on the system and the area to be covered, robotic waterblasting might include a basic scaffolding system, but it is one for the machine, not employees. In other cases, the robots reach can be extended with additional tower sections or attachments, eliminating the need for scaffolding altogether and increasing productivity.   

With robotic waterblasting, the heavy lifting is left to the machines while crew members stand safely out of the way. 

Additionally, robotic waterblasting is ideal for confined space operations. In all applications, the use of water, rather than sand, eliminates the risk of silica dust exposure. But in confined spaces,  robotic operation limits the number of workers in hazardous areas. In some cases, the robot can even be operated from a location completely outside the confined space. 

Quality Results

In addition to safer operation, robotic waterblasting offers a level of precision and productivity far above traditional sandblasting. Reapplication of paint or other material is not the final goal of all sandblasting and waterblasting applications. But in cases where it is, ensuring uniform abrasion across the entire surface provides a superior bonding surface for longer lasting, high-quality results.

This is thanks in part to the incredibly high pressure available from industry-leading waterblasting equipment. These systems operate at up to 40,000 psi and can easily obtain International Concrete Repair Institute (ICRI) concrete surface profiles (CSP) from CSP 5 to 10, with results below CSP 5 achievable with certain equipment. Using robotic waterblasting, contractors can see production rates at CSP 5 ranging from 500.5 to 1,799.7 square feet per hour depending on equipment configurations. 

Environmental Advantages

No conversation about robotic waterblasting would be complete without discussing the environmental benefits this method provides over sandblasting. The last few decades, government agencies have drastically increased regulations on waste materials from removal and cleaning applications. This is especially true for jobs that take place near bodies of water – such as bridge or harbor maintenance applications – where even a small amount of waste escaping can cause significant environmental damage and jeopardize the contactor’s future employment. 

While robotic waterblasting byproducts still require containment, collection, and cleaning, the process is much easier and more cost-effective than that used for sand. This is mainly due to the fact that waterblasting’s primary byproduct is water. During the process, a small portion of the water is lost due to evaporation and surface absorption in certain applications. The rest can be easily collected using gravity and a system of dams. Like the used sand, this wastewater will contain small bits of removed material that must be properly handled. 

Here is where the processes begin to differ. Sand can be reused many times, but there is no effective way to remove particles, so it has to be stored between jobs and disposed of when it is no longer usable. Unlike used sand, debris can be easily removed from wastewater with the right equipment, allowing operators to reuse the water or safely release it. Working with an on-site water treatment system from a reputable OEM can eliminate the need for storage and costly third-party removal services – as well as help contractors meet ever-increasing environmental standards.

For operations near bodies of water – such as bridge or harbor maintenance applications – robotic waterblasting offers a number of advantages that make waste collection and treatment easier and more efficient than sandblasting.

Time for a Change

As contractors and project managers look for safer, more efficient surface removal and cleaning methods to meet changing demands, it’s clear time has run out for sandblasting. Innovative operations are taking advantage of the benefits presented by robotic waterblasting to increase efficiency and provide better protection for their workers and the environment. 

Making the switch to robotic waterblasting might seem daunting at first, but an operation employing the right system will find quick success. For best results, work with a reputable OEM for system tailored to fit your specific needs. But hurry, before the last few grains of sand fall through the hourglass and you’re left in the dust. 

This material appears in the March 2021 issues of the ACP Magazines:

California Builder & EngineerConstructionConstruction DigestConstruction NewsConstructioneer,Dixie ContractorMichigan Contractor & BuilderMidwest ContractorNew England ConstructionPacific Builder & EngineerRocky Mountain ConstructionTexas ContractorWestern Builder