REHAU was in the news last summer after releasing the results of an installation study designed to compare pipe and fitting systems used in commercial plumbing projects.
With that in mind, we spoke to Ryan Westlund, a senior manager of radiant heating and cooling with the Building Solutions Division, to find out more about the commercial market for PEX. Plus, we also asked him about the radiant and snowmelt market, found out more about what the company is doing to train contractors and what REHAU anticipates for the market’s future.
Q: A lot of contractors might think “radiant” when they think of “PEX.” But, of course, PEX is an ever-growing presence in commercial plumbing applications, too. What does REHAU see as the current prime motivators for using PEX in commercial plumbing applications today?
A: In commercial plumbing, the three crucial measures are reliability, safety and savings. Our innovative plumbing technology – RAUPEX UV shield PEXa pipe with the EVERLOC+ compression-sleeve fitting system – exceeds widely used alternatives on these three measures.
For example, under reliability, we find things like freeze-break resistance, due to the ability of PEXa pipe to expand in freezing temperatures, and corrosion resistance, which keeps flow consistent over time.
In terms of consumer and worker safety, our system is NSF 14/61 certified to provide safe drinking water with no mineral build-up and eliminates the jobsite risks of exposure to harmful glues or chemicals and fire risk related to soldering.
And lastly, savings comes down to material and labor, so anything we can do to drive down installation time is a big benefit. Here our technology really stands out, installing up to 65 percent faster than traditional copper plumbing systems and 20 percent faster than other PEXa with cold-expansion fittings.
Q: The whole notion of alternative methods to join pipe isn’t exactly brand new anymore. However, contractors tend to be creatures of habit.
A: Agreed. Contractors want to do their homework before changing what works for them, which is why we focus on helping contractors get hands-on with our products.
Our fitting technology is a compression-sleeve system, which is very different from press fittings. EVERLOC+ compression-sleeve connections are made with two expansions of the PEXa pipe followed by compressing the sleeve over the pipe and fitting. This connection is immediately ready for pressure testing. Press fittings are widely used, but our research indicates that it is not uncommon to discover unpressed fittings during pressure testing, increasing time on the job.
Q: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “most accepting” and 1 being the “least accepting,” where do you think contractors stand on choosing fittings or sticking with soldering traditional piping?
A: I’m sure you’ll find contractors at each end of the scale, but there is a gradual movement away from soldering as quicker, cleaner yet still reliable fitting technologies prove themselves on the market.
In our research, plumbers indicated that soldering was their least favorite connection method, because it is messy and finished work doesn’t look as professional. They mentioned that hot solder drops on things and people below and flux gets on their hands and makes the pipe slippery.
Q: You’ve mentioned your research several times. Tell us how your plumbing time study came to be and please summarize what you think are the key takeaways of the study.
A: Last year, REHAU worked with Home Innovations Research Lab to conduct an installation time study designed to compare different pipe and fitting systems used in commercial plumbing projects. The study compared four systems: 1) copper pipe with press fittings, 2) copper pipe with solder fittings, 3) PEXa pipe with ASTM F1960 cold-expansion fittings and 4) REHAU RAUPEX PEXa pipe with EVERLOC+ fittings.
The timed installations were performed by an experienced commercial plumbing crew in two identical sections of a mockup hotel guest floor. Each of the four systems were installed on a section of the mockup by two different plumbers. The installations included 1/2-, ¾-, 1-, 1 ¼-, and 2-inch piping, representing the size ranges in a typical hotel plumbing system.
Key findings of the study were:
• The REHAU RAUPEX PEXa pipe with EVERLOC+ fitting system installed up to 65 percent faster than copper and 20 percent faster than PEXa with ASTM F1960 cold-expansion fittings.
• PEXa systems and the copper solder system passed the 60-psi pressure test on the first attempt, while two unpressed fittings were discovered in the copper press installation during the pressure test.
• Installation time for PEXa with ASTM F1960 cold-expansion fittings increased by 33 percent versus REHAU RAUPEX PEXa with EVERLOC+ during a cold-room installation, with temperature slightly above freezing at 33 F.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Complete details on the study can be found at www.everlocplus.com/timestudy.)
Q: I wonder if there are any other insights on what these particular contractors thought that you could share?
A: After the installers had worked with all four fitting systems, they were asked to comment on aspects they liked and disliked about each of the systems.
As already mentioned, plumbers liked working with copper press better than copper solder, but in both cases, it is best to have two men on the job—one to cut, prep and supply pipe and the other to join fittings. They preferred PEXa over copper installations because of fewer fittings needed and less time measuring, cutting and attaching fittings to pipe. They also were the least concerned with the long-term health effects of PEXa compared with other piping systems.
Q: Can you fill us in on what the sales and marketing experience has been for the system?
A: We are always trying to push ourselves from a marketing and sales perspective.
We constantly look ahead to the newest technology and strive to enhance our systems and products. We believe we designed a system that helps the installer, while extending the system lifespan compared with traditional materials. In some cases, there are contractors who stick with what they’ve always used and others who try new products as soon as they are released. We want to keep encouraging contractors to take advantage of the latest technology.
The expression “you can’t please everyone” is certainly true for this industry, but if we can please our current customers and gain new ones with a fitting system that’s easier to install and more secure, then we’ve done our job.
Q: Have there been any refinements to the system since its introduction?
A: I would say extensions rather than refinements. At AHR 2017, we launched our residential plumbing system. In October of that year, we expanded the EVERLOC+ compression-sleeve fitting system to include 1 ¼-, 1 ½- and 2-inch diameters for commercial plumbing and hydronic piping applications. And we are continually expanding our fitting range based on market requirements.
Q: Any other plans in the works for the system that you can discuss?
A: We have a number of things under development, but it’s too early to discuss them. When the time is right, our customers will be the first to know.
Q: Tell us about your recently announced Lunch and Learns to educate the trade.
A: That’s right. We have a very strong REHAU Academy customer education program. REHAU is currently offering a series of commercial plumbing and heating seminars as Lunch and Learns to industry professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The one-hour seminars provide an introduction to design and installation of PEXa piping in plumbing, radiant cooling, radiant heating, geothermal and snow and ice melting applications. Seminars are delivered at offices of engineers, design-build companies and commercial contractors by REHAU application experts, and can be presented individually or combined into a multitopic program.
Q: What else is REHAU doing to reach out to the contractors with training and other programs to help them understand the potential market, in particular, for commercial PEX applications?
A: REHAU always strives to reach the entire chain of customers, both direct and indirect, to ensure that we are bringing value to as many stakeholders as possible. We have three key legs to help in this effort.
First, our REHAU Academy exists to educate the market about PEX. This takes different formats from one-hour Lunch and Learns to our full-blown three-day Skill Builders seminars. We also offer online continuing education content through AIA and AEC Daily.
Next, we try to keep our contractor community connected to us through our REHAU EDGE contractor development program that organizes contractor events and rewards their loyalty.
Third, we are always striving to provide industry leading design support that includes everything from pipe layouts to jobsite visits. By doing this, we are often engaging our contractor community in technical and installation topics and are able to use this support in an educational manner.
Q: We certainly don’t want to forget about PEX used for radiant applications. What can you tell us about the state of the current radiant market in the U.S., both for the residential and commercial applications?
A: Radiant heating and cooling systems are continuing to push the envelope on what is possible from an energy efficiency standpoint.
The next frontier to reduce our energy footprint is actually already here. Zero net-energy buildings are not only pushing mechanical systems to be as efficient as possible, but they also tend to demand high levels of thermal comfort in an occupant-centric design strategy.
Since radiant fits this need perfectly, we anticipate seeing more adoption as the design community continues to have success applying our systems across both the residential and commercial applications.
Q: What advice would you give contractors who, say, might have a strong radiant game, but not have so much going for them on the plumbing side?
A: Well, it’s no secret that the demand for plumbing is much higher than the demand for radiant heating.
These applications basically require the same set of materials, tools and skills. I would encourage these contractors to attend trainings offered by manufacturers and wholesalers to learn about the market potential and interact with other contractors who install both plumbing and radiant. There are so many resources out there, but taking the first step and reaching out is sometimes the hardest. In the end, just try it.
Q: Are contractors taking a more comprehensive view of using PEX to offer a complete package to customers? And if they are not, how should those contractors think about snowmelt systems?
A: Contractors might think of snowmelt as a specialty item. While the demand is relatively small, it can be more profitable because fewer contractors compete in this niche.
Here again, the design concepts, materials and skills are very similar to radiant heating, and once a project has a boiler for hydronic radiant, snowmelt is a natural extension.
This is particularly true in any applications where safety is paramount, such as hospitals, university campuses and other facilities that have to remain open in inclement weather. Why not start by offering to present hydronic snowmelt to the engineers and owners on their radiant projects.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: As a first step, REHAU has a five-minute recorded webinar that can be viewed at http://bit.ly/2zdVuq2.)
Q: What does the company see happening within this market over the next five to 10 years?
A: The market is constantly changing. Contractors are great at installing plumbing and heating systems, but finding the best applications for these systems and communicating their value to customers is the hard part.
Just like in the residential plumbing market, we expect polymer piping will become more accepted on commercial projects. As engineers and contractors get more comfortable with PEXa pipe in particular, they will be more likely to specify and install it.
Hydronic distribution piping systems, that have traditionally used copper piping to move hot or chilled fluid from the heat source to a conditioned space, are set to see the same shift to polymers that has affected the plumbing world.
Systems such as REHAU RAUPEX crosslinked (PEXa) pipe combined with REHAU EVERLOC+ compression-sleeve fittings are making polymer solutions a natural evolution because they install easily and help to advance building sustainability and safety.
The long coils and flexibility of PEX combine with galvanized support channels for overhead distribution lines that offer simpler design and reduced installation time. The polymer system has connections designed for no-leak security and maintains consistent flow over time.
With the PEX industry now offering larger sizes up to 3 inch as well as higher temperature ratings of 200 F, PEX can often be substituted for metal hydronic distribution pipe.
From the radiant heating side, the hydronics market will likely continue to see steady growth.
The technology behind REHAU radiant heating and cooling systems helps to advance building comfort and sustainability by circulating heated or cooled fluid through a network of pipes in floors, walls or ceilings, which is one of the most efficient ways of moving energy. This is why radiant heating/cooling is often used for zero-net energy applications, where buildings try to produce as much energy as they consume on an annual basis, aiming for an Energy Usage Intensity of zero.
Another sentiment driving the growth of radiant is a focus on how building solutions affect the health and well being of occupants.
We spend countless hours of our lives inside buildings, so the quality of our indoor environments really matter. For example, a growing body of research indicates that thermal comfort increases the productivity and attention span of students.
If our systems can help contribute to a healthier building and improve the quality of peoples’ lives, then I’d say we're on the right track.
A major industry concern is the shortage of a skilled labor. We’re facing an aging pool of contractors in their 50s and 60s and a younger generation that’s not eager to learn these trades and skills.
At the end of the day, plumbing and hydronic installation is a craft. Contractors and installers around the world take pride in their work and so do we. The industry can ease the skilled-trade shortage by designing systems that are easier and faster to install and keeping designs as consistent as possible between plumbing and hydronics. Contractors should be able to work seamlessly across both trades.
Switching from metal to PEXa piping is typically a big time-saver, because it reduces the number of connections required and their complexity, allowing smaller and less specialized crews to get the job done.
Another challenge our industry is currently facing is the impact of digitalization.
We need to ensure solutions integration with smart-home technology. Platforms such as Nest and Google Home are continually advancing, but often lack the potential for integrating floor sensors in a radiant heating system to appropriately manage comfort. The industry is trying to predict how much digitalization people will want in their homes, which systems will be most commonly used and the level of control that should tie into hydronic systems.