Highlights from the Public Works Expo 2023

PWX 2023 took place on the sunny west coast city of San Diego, CA, and drew crowds of city public works officials from every corner of the country.

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Brandon Noel

The 2023 Public Works Expo (PWX) was held August 27 - 30 in downtown San Diego, CA, and featured hundreds of products and offerings from a wide variety of manufacturers and software vendors, as well as daily educational sessions featuring experts from across the country. This was my first time attending PWX, and I walked away with a whole different perspective added to my perception of the pavement maintenance industry.

The Big Sweeper PartyImg 2555

Without a doubt, sweeping plays a large part in the road and parking-lot maintenance world. We include updates from its two biggest associations in every issue, and NAPSA signed early on as a partner for the PAVE/X show (Jan. 30 - Feb1, 2024). However, despite attending CONEXPO/CON-AGG this year, as well as NPE in Charlotte, where there were seemingly more sweepers than any other type of pavement maintenance machines; PWX 2023 felt like the place where sweepers were center stage.

Machines of every shape and size were on display, from large mechanical sweepers meant for heavy debris pickup on roadways, to smaller sized mini-sweepers designed to manage bike lanes, walking paths, and other types of non-vehicle specified paved areas.

A public works employee from Florida said, "It's a big right now. They play a more important role than people realize." We spoke briefly about hurricane Idalia, which was approaching his home state during our time at the show. "This is a critical time, before a storm like this, to try and do everything you can to prepare your infrastructure."

His sentiment was echoed by Nick Bruhn, project manager at Schwarze. "Just from a general day-to-day, sweepers keep catch basins and things clean," He said. "Everything from the little tiny microscopic particles on the road from tire wear and things like that, but, also, dust, sand, and all the way up to big litter, construction or accident debris. It keeps them out of our stormwater system which means we're not putting pollutants into the waterways, but we're also keeping them clean so that they can be functional when a natural disaster does hi."

Electrifying Shifts in the MarketImg 2554

The biggest change from other trade shows this year, when it comes to sweepers, is that the market has gone all-in on electrification. You can read my coverage of NPE here and see that there was only one electric sweeper there. The eSwingo 200⁺ the first fully electric compact sweeper from aebi Schmidt. Then at CONEXPO, Elgin had their electric Broom Bear on display. I caught back up with Darryl Beard, the Associate Project Manager for Elgin, and asked what the response has been in the months since I interviewed him in Las Vegas.

"Things are going really good, the response has been very positive," Beard said. "We've already had some orders come in for both Los Angeles County and LAX (Los Angeles International Airport)." I asked him if he thinks there's been a larger move towards electrification across the industry since the last PWX conference. "Oh most definitely," he replied. "It's driven by the demand, really, and the industry is responding."

In addition to Elgin and Schmidt's electric sweepers, I also saw an electric version of the Nighthawk Raptor, as well as several others from a wide range of companies. But the EVs weren't just showing up as sweepers. Vovlo was on the show floor with their "carbon free zone", something that is becoming somewhat of a trademark of their booth displays. Just as they did at the 2023 Celebration of Construction at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., all the machines were non-traditionally fueled versions, including their Beam field charging system that creates an overhead shade for workers and machines while they can charge using nothing but solar power.

The Asphalt Industry RepresentedKM International's PWX booth, featuring their asphalt recycler and asphalt hotbox trailer.KM International's PWX booth, featuring their asphalt recycler and asphalt hotbox trailer.

While there weren't any true-blue pavers on display, it didn't mean that the topic of asphalt-pavements and repair weren't a significant topic. The primary discussions, however, were mostly about pothole repair and regular road maintenance, as well as some sessions on multi-modal traffic engineering, asset resiliency strategies, and a very well attended session on implementing AI tools for pavement maintenance surveying. 

During a session on repairing potholes in cold and wet conditions, there was a live demonstration of a product called "Aquaphalt" which you might already be familiar with, but to see it in action was pretty attention-grabbing. While the material does cost almost three times what a bag of traditional cold patch goes for, it boasts some fairly impressive credentials. The water-activated substance can be set down in sub-zero temperatures, compacted with a vibration plate or a hand tamper, and is a drivable surface almost immediately. 

The presentation showed multiple real-world case studies at varying depths, but is best utilized in lifts of around two inches in depth. It bonds to concrete or existing asphalt, contains no petroleum or VOCs, and fully cures in-place within twenty-four hours. When I posted a picture of the product from the magazine social media accounts, it quickly received multiple comments from contractors who use it. 

Connie Lorenz, president Asphalt Restoration Technology Systems, said, "This is by far one of my favorite cold patch mixes."

Is "Sustainability" Still A BuzzwordBrandon Milar, Director of Technical Services, CalAPABrandon Milar, Director of Technical Services, CalAPA

Sometimes the topic of sustainability is thrown around so frequently and in so many different contexts that it almost loses its meaning. If you ask five different people what it means, you'll likely get five different answers. While walking out of a session on "Improving The Resilience of Asphalt Pavements" conducted by Brandon Milar, Director of Technical Services at the California Asphalt Pavement Association (CalAPA), I asked another attendee what it means to them.

Since they are a city works employee, they asked not to be named, so we will call them Chuck. "It's a lot like the word 'natural' on a box of cereal," Chuck said. "I know it's an important topic, but everything you see coming out markets itself as sustainable, and at some point you start to wonder: sustainable compared to what? Sustainable for who?" 

They were valuable questions to consider after that particular session, which highlighted four ways that municipalities can adapt asphalt pavements to severe environmental events like flooding, fires, extreme temperatures, landslides, earthquakes, and other disasters:

  1. Maximize Hardness and Protection
  2. Modify Assets
  3. Accept Asset Failure & Plan Accordingly
  4. Abandon Assets

It was a sobering presentation, especially as it concerned the last option, where the frequency of climate-related damage to infrastructure assets reaches a point that repairing and/or replacing those assets (roads) is no longer an economic feasible option. Some of the examples Milar presented were of coastal areas, like those in the state of Florida, where even just two feet of sea-level rise could have devastating impacts. 

While many contractors in the maintenance industry may not have to weight these types of issues when it comes to commercial asset management, the basic principles apply either way. Property managers in the private sector have to factor in the benefits of maintenance, repairs, and replacement, against the long-term possibilities of asset failure. A contractor's ability to explain resilience as a value-added concept to a property manager, and taking an overall pavement resilient design approach, could prove beneficial.Scott Bergkamp, president of Bergkamp Inc., and Editor Brandon Noel talking about their all-in-one pothole repair truck.Scott Bergkamp, president of Bergkamp Inc., and Editor Brandon Noel talking about their all-in-one pothole repair truck.

Milar said during his presentation, "Not all sustainable solutions are resilient in design, but all resilient designs should be sustainable."

For those contractors that do get involved with the public sector or are interested in the possibility, one of the biggest takeaways from PWX is that city officials are looking for solutions that can do both things well. Additionally, city management officials are keen to build strong relationships with businesses within the community itself. Those partnerships are important to them, and might be worth exploring, if you haven't already.