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Providence Journal - Pearson family pioneers new use of fiberglass

BY PAUL GRIMALDI
Journal Staff Writer
Providence Journal

FALL RIVER -- The first family of fiberglass is breaking new ground in the marine industry as they apply their manufacturing expertise to dock building.

Newly formed Pearson Pilings LLC, of Fall River, manufactures fiberglass pilings for use in constructing docks and piers.

The company is using a production process developed by Everett Pearson, who pioneered fiberglass boatbuilding in the 1950s.

Pearson cofounded Pearson Yachts in 1957, and later Tillotson-Pearson Inc. and TPI Composites. He eventually acquired Swimex, a maker of pools used for injury rehabilitation, from TPI Composites.

Pearson's son, Mark, is president of the latest venture, which employs seven people in space at the Swimex plant on Airport Road.

The pilings are made using a three-dimensional glass fabric that helps resist shearing and cracking, according to Mark Pearson. The hollow pilings resist marine insects and are virtually free of water leaks.

"When you build a new dock or pier with our pilings, you'll never have to worry about replacing them," claims Mark Pearson.

For decades, residential boat docks have been built by driving timbers, or pilings, into the soil beneath waterways. Larger, commercial piers were built using pilings the size of telephone poles. But wood has basic problems -- it rots and is susceptible to insect damage.

Commercial dock builders turned to steel sheeting to build bulkheads that would resist these problems. But steel has its own shortcoming. It rusts.

More recently, pressure-treated lumber has been used to build docks and piers, but environmentalists have worried that the chemicals used in the lumber foul the water.

So companies have experimented with composites of steel and plastic resins to create long-lasting, environmentally friendly pilings. But Pearson may be the first to have created a solely fiberglass product capable of withstanding the pressures of pile driving and the ravages of nature.

"That is leading edge, I don't know anybody who's doing it with fiberglass," said Jim Frye, executive director of the Association of Marina Industries. "That would be a unique design."

In 1996, TPI Composites produced fiberglass pilings for the Port of San Diego as part of a test program. Those prototype pilings are still in use and were the basis for the current production system.

During production, Pearson's workers meld together fiberglass fabric, creating hollow brown tubes of varying diameters and lengths. The tubes are coated with the same plastic used in soda bottles, giving them a finish that doesn't splinter and resists breaking down under ultraviolet light.

"People that live on the waterfront . . . when they build a dock, they want it to complement their real estate," he said.

Frye, of the marina association, said state and federal regulators have debated whether to ban pressure-treated lumber from marine uses, but he knew of no rules preventing their use.

"They took a hard look at our industry," Frye said.

Pearson said the pilings resist leaching, which should allay environmental concerns.

"The environmentalists will like these pilings -- there's no harmful chemicals going into the water," Pearson said.

One drawback, Pearson concedes, is the price. While refusing to give specifics, he acknowledged that the fiberglass pilings are more expensive than the 12-inch diameter timbers typically used for residential docks and commercial piers.

"I'm sure there's going to be pushback on the price point," he said. "But eventually, it's going to be the way to go."

Pearson wants to sell 2,500 tubes this year and expects to attract the attention of utility companies looking for alternatives to the wood poles used to carry wiring.

"There are other applications," he said. "We've got so much riding on it. We've done our homework."

pgrimald@projo.com / (401)-277-7356

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