New technologies such as multi-layer push or press-fit connections and their associated piping herald a new era in installation practice, says Simon Spridgeon.
With the increasing price of raw materials and the vast array of different piping systems now available, it can be daunting to know which pipework product to specify, especially in terms of sustainabilty.
Traditionally, light commercial and industrial installations have employed steel and copper piping systems using welded, screwed or soldered connections.
These jointing methods, however, are now seen as more cumbersome and difficult to implement on site due to tightening health and safety regulations and the reduction in base line skills due to the lack of apprentice uptake in the industry.
The advent of newer technologies such as multi-layer push or press-fit piping connections and their associated piping sound a new era of installation practices.
Indeed, our own research into commercial pipework and its usage bears this out. In the commercial market, copper is by far the most used pipework system.
Multilayer piping systems
Steel also has a small market share, but alongside that there is growth in the use of multilayer piping systems. The residential market for pipework systems is twice the size of the commercial market, but here there is a much higher penetration of push fit plastic piping systems.
Plastic piping systems offer a lightweight and flexible option for pipework installations, but their implementation has often been limited to smaller service pipework where operating temperatures and pressures are reduced. There have also always been the problems with the flexibility of the pipes as they are often hard to 'plumb straight'.
The main uncertainty in the commercial sector of plastic piping systems has been perceived to be the overall range of pipe dimensions available in the upper size ranges above 100mm which means that there was often a need for a combination of materials to be mixed to achieve the overall design.
Specifiers of larger commercial projects have recognised that plastic isn't really suitable for bigger projects, largely because of the integrity of plastic pushfit connections. which can prove problematic. Snaking and expansion of the pipework is another key limitation with this type of piping system.
Our research has shown categorically that the UK's installers are still stalwart copper fans and the majority of copper installations are still fitted with soldered joints.
There are good reasons why contractors stick with copper, not least because it has proven, long-term durability in non-acidic installations and is a versatile material (it can be used for potable water supply, drain/waste/vent, natural gas supply, high-pressure steam and other applications).
So we aren't seeing a wholesale move towards different piping materials; copper is likely to remain popular, at least for the near future. We are, however, seeing a gradual shift in the UK in the connection methods employed. On a practical level, traditional soldered joints require a high level of expertise and expertise is expensive.
Also, on large building sites, soldering metal fittings can mean a risk of damage to existing fittings or fixtures, particularly on refurbishment projects.
With all of this in mind, press-fit technology has grown in popularity where copper and other metal piping systems have been specified. With this form of jointing you get a secure joint in next to no time and a reduced insurance premium since there is no requirement for a hot works certificate. What's more, the pressed fittings create a visually attractive connection; no unsightly excess solder, only neat shapes on the outside. Together with the stability of the joint, this system is particularly beneficial in refurbishment projects or whenever pipes are installed visibly on the wall.
Putting some numbers to this phenomenon, in the period from 2005-2009 the use of copper pressing doubled in the UK.
There are a few disadvantages with copper, however. Copper is an extremely expensive raw material and can attract thieves to sites. The police have recently confirmed that thefts of copper have risen significantly in the last year; building sites have become a target if they have copper piping stored.
There is, however, a piping system that can offer the best of both worlds - the lightweight and ease of use of plastic with the durability of metal - and with a perceived low intrinsic value that keeps the thieves at bay.
Multilayer piping systems such as Geberit Mepla use press-fit technology and are therefore easy to install. The Geberit Mepla system is made up of a combination of plastic and aluminium alloy.