Throughout most of the last century, most greenhouses were wooden structures with small glass panes that transmitted light poorly. Crop turns were down compared to today’s standards because sunlight didn’t reflect as well, and structure rot and wear was a legitimate concern because most greenhouses had wood frames.
Such is not the case today. Greenhouses got a makeover in the early 1980s, partly because home improvement and mass merchandiser chains saw the potential in selling plants. Plant selection wasn’t superb then, but availability was good. And consumers now had more garden centers to choose their plants from.
Because of the explosion in live plant production, growers needed bigger, more efficient facilities to accommodate the needs of a market gone wild. Growers went from glass to acrylic or plastic for their coverings, and they chose steel as their infrastructures material rather than wood.
Among the first companies to realize the potential of steel in the greenhouse structures market was Allied Tube & Conduit, a company based in Harvey, Ill., that partnered with structures companies 20-plus years ago and has since developed multiple products that serve as the nuts and bolts of greenhouses today. In fact, if you’ve built a steel greenhouse in the last 20 years, the infrastructure probably derives from Allied.
“You go back 20 years, and a lot of structures were heavier wall tubes and hot-dipped galvanized,” says Dan Kuzniewski, global marketing director of Allied’s mechanical group. “Times have really changed, taking century-old processes of coating structures to different engineered looks. And that’s where we made our appearance in the industry.”
The Wheels In Motion
Allied Tube is actually broken down into four divisions: electrical conduit, fire protection, fence security and the mechanical tube business, which serves greenhouse structures companies. Ed Kurasz, vice president of the company’s mechanical group, says the company generated about $2.3 billion in revenue last year. The mechanical tube division generated about $1 billion alone in large part because of its relationship with our industry.
“Over the years, growers have been trying to design fully engineered greenhouses to handle all the environmental issues,” Kurasz says. “Each greenhouse manufacturer has a style or a few styles they build. They use standard products within their company, which become standard for us.”
As requirements and environments change, Allied works with engineers from the greenhouse structures companies it serves to meet grower needs. Typically, if growers pose structures questions to Allied, it redirects those questions to the structures companies before both engineering parties get together to search for new solutions.
“By working with our customers,” Kurasz says, “we can work diligently to strengthen a product, make it lighter or design it to a customer’s needs. We want to make greenhouse manufacturers very effective when it comes to combatting imports or standard designs that have not changed over the last 20 years.”
Twenty years ago, Kurasz says greenhouses and other structures were designed heavily around water pipe, which is inefficient because it’s made from lower-cost steels. Water pipe is also limited in shape and size, he says, but Allied gives the greenhouse structures companies it serves an assortment of options and looks. Allied also developed Gatorshield, its bread-and-butter product that prevents corrosion and extends the life of tubular steel.
In all, Allied produces more than 50 ODs (outside diameters). It manufactures parts as rounds, squares or rectangles, and if customers are interested in new designs that don’t meet their requirements, Allied can add a size to its portfolio to help them design their system.
“Everything we do in size has grown exponentially over 20 years as we’ve worked developing marketplaces,” Kuzniewski says. “We’ve added different wall thicknesses, different OD combinations and we have the willingness to expand our capabilities to match up with the demand of the market.
State Of The Market
Over the last few years, and especially late last year, raw material prices and a lack of financing has hindered market opportunity for greenhouse structures companies and their suppliers. Kurasz says he’s seen raw material prices double, and prices hit a historic high in the months of October, November and December last year.
“From a grower’s perspective, a greenhouse may double in price because of the raw material impact,” he says. “What they’ll do is delay their improvement. If they were going to add on, they’ll delay it until the raw material prices drop and financing is available again. It’s been a dramatic impact for everybody involved in the greenhouse industry.”
Because raw material prices are higher, Kurasz says growers are probably looking at lesser quality products as a temporary fix.
“Sadly those are the greenhouses that will fail,” he says. “It’s a short term thinking because the money in the crop is at risk versus the structure itself.”