Why support for traditional metal piping is leaking away

Published:  10 April, 2008

In praise of plastics for pipework — Adam Turk

The use of metal piping for water, waste and drainage applications has declined in recent years as more specifiers and contractors begin to appreciate the many benefits of modern plastic systems. Adam Turk looks at some of the reasons behind this and makes a surprising discovery.

Traditional materials such as copper have undoubtedly played an important role in piping systems for heating, drainage, waste and other applications. But today’s specifiers are increasingly driven by the need for proven, reliable and cost-effective materials. As a result, more people are turning to the modern and flexible plastic piping systems that are now available.

The reasons for this are many. Plastic pipes are light in weight, easy to handle and cut, made of non-hazardous material and can be installed faster than their metal counterparts. Plastic push-fit and solvent-weld jointing systems greatly speed installation times, and they also reduce the need for skilled labour — a definite plus when faced with the current skills shortages in the construction industry.

Hot works

Using plastic also eliminates the potentially dangerous tools and techniques needed to cut and work metal pipes. In addition to the obvious health-and safety benefits, the risk of fires caused by the hot works associated with metal pipes is eliminated.

Avoiding hot works is obviously a major advantage for any project, but it brings particular benefits to refurbishment projects on historically-significant buildings. These can contain old, flammable materials and often require hot-work permits before work commences. Hot-work issues can also affect project schedules, as work must often finish early each day to allow time for tools to cool down before the site closes.

Eliminating such drawbacks by using plastic piping obviously speeds installation times. This benefit can be increased by pre-assembling complex piping configurations off-site and delivering them ready for immediate installation. This approach meets the agenda of modern methods of construction, and, by allowing work to be done in controlled conditions, improves quality control and reduces installation time.

Once pipes are installed, attention turns to reliability, performance and maintenance. Plastic pipes provide excellent service for many years, and with rust problems being non-existent with plastic pipes there is no need for constant repainting, which generates significant savings in the building’s whole-life cost. The ease with which plastic pipes can be worked also allows damaged components to be replaced more rapidly than with metal.

EXTRA PICTURE

The physical characteristics of plastic allow manufacturers to create such niche products as acoustically damped piping systems that prevent noise travelling between rooms in multi-occupancy buildings.

The physical characteristics of plastic are also far better suited to some niche applications. For example, plastic transmits sound far less efficiently than metal, enabling plastic-pipe manufacturers to create such products as acoustically damped piping systems to prevent noise travelling between rooms in multi-occupancy buildings such as hotels.

But perhaps one of the most significant reasons for the increasing use of plastic pipes is also the most surprising — the soaring prices now being paid for scrap metal. In addition to increasing the initial cost of metal piping systems, this factor has triggered a recent boom in the theft of metal materials from building sites.

Theft

Opportunist thieves have now been joined by organised gangs who steal metal to be melted down and shipped abroad, and construction sites are a favourite target. Metal pipes waiting to be installed (or even those already installed) are seen as easy targets. Some police forces have created task forces specifically to tackle this problem, which seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Environmental issues are another key driver. In the murky waters of the sustainability issue one thing is clear –— plastic is far more sustainable than metals. It is far cleaner to produce initially and uses significantly less raw material than steel or copper.

When a plastic pipe reaches the end of its life, many recycling options exist. The oil resource originally used to produce that plastic is effectively used again, and the recycling process can often be cheaper and less polluting than the equivalent metal process.

Polyethylene plastics can be recycled into many different items from bin-liners to furniture. Recycled ABS plastic is frequently used to make such things as children’s toys. Even where plastic cannot be recycled, some types are often used as fuel for industrial process because they generate huge amounts of heat from relatively little raw material.

Looking at the drawbacks associated with metal, it is tempting to wonder why it was ever the material of choice for piping systems. But one thing is sure, when compared to the many significant advantages that plastic pipes offer, metal looks highly unlikely to be the automatic first-choice material in future.

Adam Turk is sales and marketing director of Polypipe Terrain.



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