FOLSOM — American Galvanizing Co. already has the capacity in its tank of 1.4 million pounds of molten zinc to dip the largest and heaviest pieces of steel east of the Mississippi River.

The company on Route 54 here already has expanded its plant to handle bigger jobs with a speed and quality that win it awards every year.

But as nearly every successful business person knows, the need for improvement, for tapping new markets and becoming even more competitive, never ends.

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So John Gregor, president of American Galvanizing, has spent two years adding a 5½ acre storage facility — buying 40 acres in adjacent Buena Vista Township and clearing 13 acres for possible use.

To get the most out of the big zinc kettle — called the Double Nickel for its 55-foot length — the company needs space to handle large jobs such as the replacement decking it is currently galvanizing for the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Gregor said the steel supports for all seven lanes of the bridge are being replaced and each lane requires 20 truckloads of steel protected from corrosion by the 840-degree zinc in the Double Nickel.

When the new facility is operational, expected by Nov. 1, American Galvanizing will be able to smoothly handle the work flow of even larger jobs. Gregor hopes that will keep the plant busy if the economy remains sluggish and position it to benefit when the recovery strengthens.

“It’s all being done with an eye to the future and the belief this recession will correct itself, and there will be another run up at some point of business activity,” said Gregor, 59, of Vineland.

Bigger is better

Gregor has guided American Galvanizing through a series of changes since becoming president in 1987, about five years after the company’s founding with the purchase of what was then Delaware Valley Galvanizing.

If the current expansion succeeds as well as the other changes, American Galvanizing will return to its path of growth after a two-year detour forced by the severe U.S. recession.

In the 1980s, Gregor focused the company on the quick turnaround of jobs, a service protocol it has maintained ever since. In 1999, the company added 40 percent more floor space in preparation for the big change the following year.

The Double Nickel, which went online in June 2010, was the company’s third kettle, boosting the length from 35 to 55 feet. By the following year, all 10 tanks for processing metal before dipping in the kettle were also changed to accommodate the new length.

As the biggest kettle in the East, the Double Nickel increased business from about 35 million pounds of steel processed a year to a high of 54 million pounds, Gregor said.

Weight of steel processed is a better measure of a galvanizer’s business, he said, because annual revenue figures — such as the current $8 million or so for American Galvanizing — are strongly influenced by the price of zinc, much of which is passed on to customers.

“For almost 15 years the cost of zinc was around 50 cents a pound, and then in one year it ran up to almost $2. It later came down but never to 50 cents, and today is about $1 a pound,” he said.

After another 20 percent floor expansion in 2008, the company added 18 inches to the depth of its zinc kettle, bringing it to 10 feet.

With its capacity enlarged further, the Double Nickel handled jobs considered to be records for the eastern U.S.:

n At 93 feet six inches, the longest beams galvanized, for the Hamburg-Paterson Bridge in Sussex County, New Jersey;

n At 50,000 pounds each, the heaviest beams galvanized, for the Sullivan County Bridge in New York.

The wonder of zinc

Hot-dip galvanizing with zinc has been around for 150 years and is still the preferred method for protecting steel from corrosion.

Walk down Bay Avenue in Somers Point — or any marina district along the shore — and virtually every boat trailer you see is made of galvanized steel.

At the American Galvanizing plant, the wishbones of such trailers are relatively small jobs that regularly run through the kettle between the big beams and panels for transportation architecture.

At the plant last week, large rectangular raw steel grids for use on the Walt Whitman Bridge were stacked up ready to enter the production line.

The first stop inside the cavernous plant is the attachment of raw steel pieces to 50-foot-long racks. These are hoisted by electric cranes running on tracks atop both walls.

Raw steel is soaked first in a degreasing tank to remove anything that might interfere in the chemical process.

After rinses in water tanks, the rack of steel is pickled in up to four tanks of hydrochloric acid, each a bit stronger than the last. That removes surface rust and scale.

After more rinsing, the final bath is in flux — a zinc salt solution — to remove oxides and prevent oxidation before the metal is dipped in molten zinc.

Plant workers then open the tall double doors on the Double Nickel and, using remote controls for another set of hoists that run on a loop through the kettle, move the prepared steel in and lower it into the molten zinc.

Workers skim the surface of the liquid metal to gauge the progress of the chemical reaction that produces the zinc bond.

When done, the now shiny zinc plated pieces are lifted out, cooled in a drench tank (unless it would distort them), and then finished — smoothed in places, coated where touched by the rack mounts — before large lift trucks move them to storage.

The great thing about zinc, Gregor said, is that it clings tightly to the metal it’s protecting. So even if there is a small gap in the galvanizing, corrosion can’t spread under the zinc the way it does with paint and other protective coatings.

Staying successful

American Galvanizing Co. is owned by Virginia American Industries, a private holding company based in Richmond, Va.

With revenues of about $8 million a year, American Galvanizing accounts for a little less than half of Virginia American’s annual business, which Dun & Bradstreet estimates at $19.9 million a year.

American Galvanizing’s competition comes from another independent operator, New Jersey Galvanizing in Newark, and a large conglomerate whose six hot-dip galvanizing facilities include ones in Perth Amboy, Monmouth County; New Castle, Del.; and Lebanon, Pa.

Besides being able to dip bigger and heavier pieces of steel in its Double Nickel kettle, American Galvanizing has been able to compete on a quality basis.

The American Galvanizing Association, the U.S. trade group of hot-dip galvanizers, has given a Galvanizing Excellence Award to at least one of the company’s projects in each of the past seven years.

“That speaks to the complexity of some of the jobs we do, the quality we do, and highly to being an independent galvanizer,” Gregor said. “We’re going against many conglomerates, some with as many as 30 plants that can enter projects, and we might enter one or two projects a year.”

Examples of American Galvanizing winners include its 2009 work on material for the Tappen Zee Bridge across the Hudson River in New York, and its 2006 galvanizing of canopies for Wawa gas stations on the East Coast.

One winner, the 2010 galvanized framework for the “Out on a Limb” treetop adventure at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, was special enough that the association entered it in the global competition for galvanizers, where it took honorable mention.

Gregor said he hopes the combination of large dipping capacity, quick turnaround on even large projects, and consistent quality will ensure American Galvanizing gets the large contracts it needs to stay busy until the economy recovers.

“We’re not always the least expensive, but we are the best,” he said.

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