National Gypsum’s Shippingport plant turning trash to treasure

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At one end of National Gypsum‘‍s Shippingport plant‘‍s 1,800-foot production line, three streams of a slurry made from pollutants produced at FirstEnergy’‍s coal-fired plant next door spew onto a wide piece of paper. It’‍s the start of making drywall, the ubiquitous material used for walls and ceilings in residential and commercial construction.

Most consumers think if you‘‍ve seen one piece of wallboard, you’‍ve seen them all. National Gypsum wants to change that perception.

Pittsburgh is one of three cities where the privately held Charlotte, N.C., company is using TV advertising to tout its Purple products — all of which are sheathed in distinctive purple paper. Different versions of the purple wallboard are mold, moisture and mildew resistant; resist scratches and scrapes better; are more immune to sharp blows; or reduce sound from adjoining rooms.

Commercial builders are already using purple products in schools, in high-end condos where owners don‘‍t want to hear their neighbors, and in other buildings where owners want added protection. Over 1 million square feet were used in the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza, the Wood Street skyscraper where the final steel beam was set in place last week.

Jay Watt, National Gypsum‘‍s marketing director, said the rule of thumb is that for every piece of drywall the industry sells to commercial builders, it sells two pieces to residential builders.

That’‍s why convincing homeowners they deserve the same benefits that commercial users get from the purple board is so important to National Gypsum. Like other wallboard producers, it‘‍s still recovering from a housing market decimated by the recession.

“The industry went from selling 38 billion square feet a year to about 17 billion,” Mr. Watt said.

The recession has affected the Shippingport plant, which opened in October 1999. It was the first National Gypsum plant to rely on synthetic gypsum rather than natural gypsum that is dug out of the ground. The synthetic version is made from waste produced at coal-fired power plants.

National Gypsum’‍s long-term contracts with utilities require power plants to deliver a prescribed amount of the waste. They also require National Gypsum to take it.

Towers that spray a mixture of limestone and water onto power plant emissions produce calcium sulfate, which has the same composition as mined gypsum. Instead of sending the material to a landfill as in the past, FirstEnergy now loads it on a 5,040-foot conveyor belt that moves it under Route 18 to National Gypsum’‍s plant.

There, it is dried, ground and baked, then mixed with water and additives to form the slurry that is shot onto the paper. The outside steams are denser to make the outside edges of the wallboard harder. The center stream is the consistency of a thin pancake batter and cascades onto the paper at about 200 gallons per minute.

The slurry starts to harden as it moves down the line at rates of 400 feet per minute or faster. The paper that becomes the backside of the drywall is added, and the edge of the bottom paper is folded over to seal the edges. The finished wallboard, with its hardened core, is then cut and sent through a series of four ovens to be dried.

The finished product is shipped by truck or rail to Lowe‘‍s, Home Depot and other distributors located as far west as Minnesota and to East Cost markets.

Running full throttle, the plant can produce enough wall board to build 75,000 average-sized homes a year.

At its peak, Shippingport and National Gypsum‘‍s 16 other wall board plants operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Trey Jackson, manager of the Shippingport plant, said it currently operates three shifts five or six days a week, depending on demand.

The plant employs 85, down from peak employment of about 100. Mr. Jackson said about 80 percent of the current workforce has been there since the plant opened.

When it came to naming its new line of drywall, National Gypsum found much of the rainbow already was claimed by other industry products where color was used to either brand the product or identify what applications it should be used for. Available color options included purple and orange, Mr. Watt said.

“We colored it purple,” he said, adding that the term was trademarked more than two years ago.

The company’‍s ability to color more of the residential market purple hinges on convincing consumers they need to use moisture-, mold- and mildew-resistant wallboard in kitchens, bathrooms and basements; that the sound reducing drywall should be used in their bedrooms and home entertainment centers; and that its high-impact board will keep their garages in better shape.

Mr. Watt wants homebuyers and remodelers to put as much thought into choosing wallboard as they do into selecting appliances, cabinets and other accessories.

He said using mold-, moisture- and mildew-resistant board for the average 12-foot-by-16-foot room costs less than $100 more than using conventional wall board. Using high-impact board in the average room would cost less than $200 more, he said.

That‘‍s peanuts compared to the cost of upgrading to a high-end refrigerator or countertop, he said.

Len Boselovic: 412-263-1941 or

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