Out of sight, not out of mind

Although piped services are the life blood of some people’s business, when it comes to aesthetics, no one wants to see the pipes in an installation. Here Mike Darvill, Managing Director of Climate Pipework Systems Ltd, distributors of Roth Industries products in the UK, looks at the fact that pipework has a critical and developing role to play in building performance and that there are also some key decisions to be made when selecting your piped services supplier.
Pipework is often the unsung hero of new buildings or developments. Topping out ceremonies are a prime example of this. Events marking the successful completion of a project invariably place the spotlight on design aesthetics, leaving piped services suppliers in the wings.

Most of us would agree that, unless a bold design statement is deliberately being made, pipework should be neatly boxed away and, if visible, it should complement the design of the building. No one would expect the piped services supplier to walk up the red carpet, or construction site equivalent.

However, pipes are critical for the successful day to day operation of a building. Whether it is for cold water supply, heating applications or chilled water for air conditioning, these functions are relied upon for the daily routines of the building occupiers. Certainly, in the Western world, we all take for granted that we are able to get drinking water at the simple turn of a tap, have a shower whenever necessary and put the heating on as required.

In most new-build decision making processes, most of the ultimate customer’s energy is focused on the visible elements associated with piped services eg the boilers and radiators. Rarely does the end-user stop to ask whether the pipes are multilayer, what pipe fittings will be used and are they freeze-break resistant. The pipes are, after all, completely hidden from view and it is assumed that they will be fit for purpose.

However, there are some major decisions to be made about the pipework at the early planning stage. While the end user gives little, if any, thought to the pipes, those commissioning and overseeing the design and build have to make some important choices to ensure that pipework performance is maintained.

Materials matter

The key decision to be made is whether to use plastic or copper pipework.

For nearly 200 years, copper was the traditional material of choice as it offered a flexibility that appeared to be unchallenged by any other medium. The main part of copper’s appeal was that it could be readily moulded into any shape to fit the awkward turns and corners that pipes are invariably required to follow.

A recent sparring partner to enter the ring and contest the position of copper as the material of choice for pipework is plastic.

Although advocates of copper make a case for its continued use, plastic pipework suppliers have some strong statistics as evidence for the increasing numbers of users converting to the synthetic solution. Independent data shows that from 1999 to the end of 2005, copper pipework sales across Europe have reduced from just under 800 million metres per year to just under 700 million per year.

Those challenging the use of plastic most commonly cite flexibility as a weakness of the solution. However, as an advocate of both PEX and PERT multilayer pipework systems, I would counter this claim by highlighting the fact that, while copper pipe is restricted to three metre lengths, plastic pipework can be supplied in up to 100 metre sections. Additionally, it is possible to push pre-insulated plastic pipe through long lengths of ducting without having to access or joint it.

Any claims of plastic pipe sagging are countered with the use of multilayer solutions that incorporate aluminium ensuring that the pipework can be flexed into the required form without jointing and, once installed, stays rigidly in shape.

Other advantages, such as claims of durability, which are given for copper simply don’t hold water.

It is widely acknowledged that the pH of water can vary and erode copper. And, adding weight to the evidence of the robustness of plastic, the average length of a guarantee for copper pipework is considerably shorter than that offered by plastic suppliers. Plastic doesn’t corrode, scaling doesn’t build up in hard water areas, it provides a 100 percent oxygen barrier and it won’t split if the water it contains freezes.

Having set the scene regarding the need for a critical primary decision about the preferred material for the pipework, it is important to flag the point that more detailed choices need to be made about the supplier and here purchasers need to consider total solutions against ‘pick and mix’ options. There are many manufacturers of plastic pipe but my advice would be to find a company that provides a total plumbing system – you need to be confident that you have access to a complete range of fittings that complement your pipework and will cover all eventualities on site.

An evolving industry

Those involved in pipe installation also need to be mindful that this is an evolving industry with constant innovation, much of it led by wider European trends.

While at a basic level pipes simply carry water and, as such, are considered an essential service solution by many people, applications for pipework are growing and forward-looking pipework suppliers are adding breadth to their brand with innovative initiatives.

Far from being a static market, it is prudent therefore to keep a finger on the pulse of latest building trends and be aware of breaking technologies.

Underfloor heating for example is fast catching up with radiators and it is widely predicted that, within the next five years, this solution will become more popular than traditional heating options.

Those that have converted to underfloor technology which optimises heating patterns for different zones, rooms or floor materials are quite evangelical about the fact that it provides a more comfortable heat. Chosen carefully, systems are available that maintain a set temperature to eliminate unpleasant cold lower levels and whether the choice of covering is carpeting, hardwood, tile or stone, floors will always be comfortably warm.

With the increasing move toward environmental options, energy savings are a major attraction of underfloor heating. Statistics cited by Roth Industries for example confirm that room temperatures can be reduced by as much as 3°C/5°F without sacrificing comfort. For a typical home, this means that up to 30 percent can be saved on heating bills.

Additionally, in line with the preference for clean design aesthetics, radiators – which most consider unsightly and awkward from a decorating perspective – are no longer required. A key attraction of underfloor heating therefore is the fact that the entire system is hidden, leaving every wall free for furniture or artwork.

To the end user, underfloor heating is simply a wonderful warm footed experience: behind the scenes however, the pipework solution provider will have been called upon to provide a technical solution including, amongst other things, a manifold to distribute warm water to loops of PEX tubing that are configured to provide the ideal heating system.

No longer the Cinderella of service providers

One of the most recent additions to the pipework solution provider’s portfolio is wall heating. Built into the shallow screed of the wall this breakthrough design development, a natural evolution from underfloor heating, underlines the fact that pipework suppliers, traditionally the Cinderella of service providers, are in fact involved at the cutting edge of new technology.

Astute builders and developers should take heed of the advantages of evolving, innovative pipework technology. While the nuts and bolts basics of pipes may not excite the end customer, value-add applications such as underfloor and wall heating can be used as selling points for both commercial and domestic construction projects.

In conclusion, while the average person doesn’t give a moment’s thought to the pipework in their home or office, the role played by pipes is becoming increasingly sophisticated. And, while rarely in the limelight at a topping out ceremony, key decisions about choice of piped services materials and provider are absolutely essential – after all, nobody wants a burst pipe at their champagne launch celebration!

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