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What drives choice over pipe materials?

Cost still reigns supreme as the main determining factor in the specification of piping systems. However, it isn't just the cost of the material itself, but the cost of the overall installation that needs to be calculated. Chris Ricketts explains how value engineering is shaping trends in piping sales and how money is being saved onsite
Value engineering has traditionally been a tool reserved for larger scale commercial projects, but the struggling economy means that cost cutting is now an integral part of any construction plan. Rather than a post pricing activity as historically been implemented, value engineering is being employed up front pre-submission of pricing to clients

Whilst other areas of a build are easily value engineered to introduce more cost effective suppliers and an alternative product, the piping systems industry has seen more complex changes which take the overall cost of an installation into consideration, rather than just the initial cost of purchasing the material itself. That said, there are still a number of instances where a simple change in material can aid a cash strapped building project.

Material of choice

Cost stability - For many years, habitual specification has meant that copper was often the material of choice for hot and cold water systems, but this is changing. The volatile price of metal can now cause major discrepancies in quantity surveying, with price fluctuation changing the cost between the time of specification and purchasing. This uncontrollable price increase has made piping systems a key area of consideration for those in charge of value engineering. It also means that finding an alternative material that can deliver savings can be imperative to a successful project.

As the cost of metal remains unpredictable, there is a visible trend in material substitution in order to bring cost stability to the specification process. Copper is a 'one material fits all' product and is suitable for a wide variety of building services piping applications, so the process of value engineering this particular aspect of a build isn't straight forward.

More often than not, the copper in a specification will need to be replaced with a number of different substitutes to suit the variety of piping systems in the project. Although this sounds time consuming, it is a worthwhile task and extensive cost savings can be made by switching to alternative, piping and jointing systems such as press fit and grooved jointing solutions.

Initial outlay vs. overall cost - Switching to a cheaper material might seem like the obvious solution, but value engineering managers are looking at the bigger picture to ensure that savings are maximised.

Other considerations for the installation include fittings and joints, labour costs, onsite insurance, health and safety implications, flushing and cleaning cost and completion times, which can all result in substantial cost savings which outweigh the initial outlay cost of a more expensive material.

Fitting and installation - Traditionally, a copper system would be soldered together onsite, requiring 'hot works' insurance and specialist skilled labour which both come at an additional cost. Adding to this is the need for an end of working day cooling period after any hot works before a site can be vacated resulting in lost available working time. Complete 'flushing and cleaning' of the system is required to rid it of any surplus solder and flux. Both of these factors take time and as with any aspect of construction, more time means more expense.

Whilst copper is, in many cases, still considered the ideal material for some applications such as hot and cold water services, heating and gas, value engineering is introducing the use of press fit joints which eliminate the need for hot works such as soldering. A press fit copper or plastic system, does not require specialist or chemical flushing and cleaning and could even allow for a change in labour force, as specialist skills may not be needed. The installation of a piping system using press fittings is quicker and cleaner, meaning work can continue at optimum speed.

Prefabrication - A popular construction method across many trades, prefabrication is a trend that has gripped the industry as a whole and the piping systems arena is no different. Prefabricated piping systems use lighter materials such as plastics rather than metals which can be heavy to manoeuvre into place once combined into larger 'modules'.

Piecing together these systems off-site means that other trades can continue working on the build without any restriction. The prefabrication of chilled, heating, hot or cold water system is often combined with the installation of electrical services, which can all be integrated into a modular riser system or corridor module and assembled together onsite. This is a popular method of construction for larger buildings and particularly prevalent in heavily service orientated situations such as hospital corridors and riser shafts.

The future of piping materials

The process of value engineering may become more prevalent in times of financial hardship, but the lessons that are being learnt from it will undoubtedly continue for many decades to come. As a process, it has challenged preconceptions about piping materials and the habitual specification of conventional methods of construction to reveal cost, time and energy savings that will remain valuable as the economy continues to recover.

Value engineering has opened the eyes of many who would have otherwise continued to use traditional pipe materials. The result has been the development of modern, market leading solutions which are now proving to be a popular choice for achieving a project that is delivered on time and on budget.

// The author is BSS Industrial category director//
3 January 2013

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