Recent years have seen a rapid increase in the use of flexible plumbing systems as alternatives to traditional rigid pipes. Scarcely heard of 20 years ago, they first made their mark as niche products used, for example, where access to the job was difficult. Today, however, they are very much 'mainstream' and are incorporated in many new homes and buildings throughout Europe and further afield.
As a raw material, Polybutene-1 has a balance of performance properties ideally suited to the manufacture of hot and cold water pressure pipes. Pipes produced from Polybutene-1 have been shown to fulfil all the stringent demands of mechanical performance and water quality requirements specified by national, European and international standards for use with potable water. This, combined with its inherent flexibility and thermoplastic properties, make Polybutene-1 an extremely versatile plumbing pipe material.
Polybutene-1 piping systems are now available in diameters from 10 to 225 mm, providing for a broad range of installation requirements. Whether the project is a small renovation, plumbing for a family house, or a large hotel, Polybutene-1 piping systems will provide a comprehensive solution.
Polybutene-1 based systems were pioneered by Hepworth Building Products, which remains the market leader. However, more recently a number of well respected manufacturers have also introduced flexible ranges so that there is now considerable choice, and product is readily available in Europe and many other countries. This has helped to spur growth in the percentage of sales of Polybutene-1 products.
The benefits of flexible, Polybutene-1 based systems can be conveniently considered under two headings: installation and performance.
Because the products are supplied on coils they are easy to handle on site. The availability of long pipe lengths means that the requirement for joints in the system is reduced. This feature, coupled with pipe flexibility, allows plumbing to be installed around a property in much the same way as electrical wiring. Pipes can also readily be routed through building elements.
Recent advances in other aspects of construction technique also tend to favour flexible systems. For example, many new homes are now built using silent floor joists or 'I' beams. These cannot be notched in the same way as traditional timber joists, so services such as plumbing must be fed through drill holes along the centre line. Using a flexible pipe system makes it easier to achieve this. Pipes can readily be cut to length in situ, helping to minimise waste. There are also safety benefits since the jointing systems used mean there is no requirement to use blowtorches and hence no fire risk. This is a particular advantage where space is restricted.
Polybutene-1 piping systems have lower thermal diffusivity than copper pipes and this means water takes longer to freeze in them during inclement weather. If it does freeze, the pipe expands to take account of the added volume, returning to its normal dimensions when the thaw comes. Pipes of this type will not scale-up in hard water areas or corrode in soft water areas. They absorb and suppress sound, rather than transmitting it. They are not subject to 'water hammer' which can otherwise be a problem, particularly in areas noted for high water delivery pressures.
The same characteristic that slows the speed at which water can freeze within Polybutene-1 pipes also results in them remaining cool to the touch, even when high temperature water is running through them. This can be an added benefit particularly where children or the elderly and infirm are among a building's occupants. Due to the reduced requirement for fittings, installations plumbed using flexible systems are highly cost-effective. In terms of system performance, flexible ranges offer excellent longevity, making them a good long-term investment.
Now holding a significant market share, flexible plumbing systems have certainly 'come of age' and are extensively used for hot and cold water services and central heating applications. Comparable systems are also available for underfloor heating which is once again growing in popularity.
Evolution of these products continues apace as manufacturers extend and modify systems in response to changing needs.
Whilst flexible systems have gained greatest market penetration in the domestic sector, they are also extensively specified in commercial and industrial environments because of their convenience, performance and durability.
Their use is projected to grow very rapidly as more professional plumbers and specifiers recognise the benefits.
Significantly, the fact that many of today's new homes are built using these systems will also make them an even more attractive and logical choice for modifications and extension works in the years to come. This means that as well as demand growing among housebuilders it is expected that, in the future, more professional plumbers will choose flexible systems when undertaking repair, maintenance and improvement work.