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Thu 9 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Piping hot

The pipes and plumbing sector has become more varied with the growing popularity of district cooling in the Middle East. Peter Ward reports on the direction the market is currently taking.

The pipes and plumbing sector has become more varied with the growing popularity of district cooling in the Middle East. Peter Ward reports on the direction the market is currently taking.

It is all too easy to take plumbing in a building for granted. Installing pipe work into a project can be costly, time consuming and extremely intricate and this makes it a subject developers can ignore at their peril.

The market is, like most in the Middle East, best described as booming. Pipeworks managing director Gary Brodie estimates that the pipe work market overall is worth US $1 billion (AED 367million) a year, of which US $250-300 million is MEP, the remainder being oil and gas. Brodie explains: "As long as your quality is right, as long as your technical knowledge is right, as long as the product you are supplying is right you can't fail [in this market], unless you are three times the price of everyone else." He adds that only Shanghai can match the area's thriving market for the sector.

However, despite the huge amount of money involved in the sector, it can still be overlooked as Supertrade manager Wilhelm Niederhauser reports: "The contractors and developers are low-cost driven. The buildings are all made [to look] flashy with brass door handles and marble, but what goes inside the walls nobody is concerned about it."

High-rise piping

Firms in this sector are constantly being posed with new challenges as buildings in the region get higher. The installation pipe work in a tall building is a bigger issue then may be first thought as the pipes must be thicker in order to cope with the pressure rating needed to transport water.

Brodie explains: "As these buildings have got taller there has been a requirement for higher pressure ratings. The taller the building is, the more pressure there will be in the system because of gravity, so the valves and the pipes have a certain thickness. And the pressure rating in these taller buildings is getting higher and higher and that's a challenge."

High-rise buildings also require a lot more valves in the plumbing. "In a typical building you would say for every ten floors there is US $100,000 worth of valves typically," Brodie states. "So the higher the building, the more expensive [the plumbing system is]."

He adds, however, that this is not a problem for the pipe work and valve industry itself. The expense incurred by the developers is going into pipe work companies' pockets and it is a problem left with the designers and contractors.

Because of the need for thicker pipes in high-rise buildings, the industry's trend towards the use of plastics over metal pipes has been restricted. "Plastics pipes are probably never going to take over the entire market from steel. When you talk about high rise buildings, you still need steel pipes. There are still some projects where steel is the only thing that can do the job, but who knows what technology could emerge," Tyco Water marketing manager Khalid Sqheir states.

"At the moment plastics has its own limitations when it comes to high-rise buildings, basically because of the high pressure ratings." However plastic piping is being used for huge projects such as the Palm Jumeirah sewerage collection system, which features a 40km sewer line of high density polyethylene pipes.

The general size of pipe work appears to be increasing in the region due to the boom in district cooling and the continuing flow of high-rise buildings being built.

Brodie reveals: "Typical piping inside the building, the bathroom, plumbing piping is always going to be the same, but because the buildings are taller its common sense. If you are trying to supply water to 50 people in an apartment building you don't need a big pipe. But if you are trying to supply to 500 apartments in a big building then you need a lot of water and bigger pipes."

Pipe work standards

Health considerations must be accounted for when choosing the material for pipes, especially when they carry drinking water to a home.Niederhauser reports: "Health is an issue. For a while copper used to be popular and copper is a good material, but if the water stands for a while oxides dissolve into the water and it can become poisonous. And the same applies to a number of plastic pipes like PVC and PPR: you can get limescale and it invites bacteria. It depends which plastic though."

As with all building components, there are some developers who try to cut costs at every opportunity. In plumbing systems this can have a negative effect in the long-term future of the building, as Niederhauser explains: "I think the idea of life cycle costs has not caught on yet, everyone is looking for short-term profit. There are products on the market that are guaranteeing 50 years life but they are a bit more expensive of course and it is harder to get contractors convinced to use them because they are under pressure from the developers to keep the cost down."

The increased competition in the market means prices are being driven down, despite the cost of raw materials increasing. Brodie reports: "We are caught between the market and the competition wanting to drive the prices down and the manufacturers, their costs are going up. This is normal anyway, but right now it's extreme."

This squeeze on prices can result in a dip in quality of pipes installed and the cost of maintenance ends up with the client. Niederhauser explains the cost of correcting piping problems can be substantial: "When a pipe leaks inside a wall you have to break the tiles and then after two or three years maybe you won't find the right tiles anymore and then you have to break down the whole bathroom. It's a mess in the end."

Installation changes

Installation methods have changed over time in the sector. Plastics pipes have made the whole process easier and this in turn has eased pressure on firms to find skilled labour. Sqheir reports: "The thing about plastics pipe is that it's really easy to pick up on in terms of installation and the process is less hectic than steel. When you talk about metallic products you'll be looking for pipe fitters and certified welders and they are really quite scarce." Sqheir adds that he believes the best connection method is the solvent sealant technique as it easily used and training is relatively simple.

Installation is a crucial area of plumbing systems and one that Niederhauser believes is improving but is yet to be perfected: "The connection methods are improving of course, but all these connection methods have a chance of failure, for example a PVC pipe when you apply the glue if it is not all the way around the circumference and the pipe is attached mechanically it may develop a leak and interrupt the building process."

In the district cooling sector, there has been an increase in the number of companies using spools. Perma-Pipe Middle East head of sales Soren Kjaer explains the concept: "A spool is a piece of pipe where you have several pieces of fittings and straight pipes built together; this reduces the amount of labour on site and increases the installation speed."

Kjaer also reveals another trend in the market - fibreglass piping - although he also points out it has flaws: "Fibreglass piping has to be laminated on site, which is a very time consuming process, it's a very slow process that requires skilled people. Its not easy to do and there's been some problems after the pipes have been installed because of issues with the workmanship."

Regulations for the plumbing sector are inconsistent as there is not one overriding set of rules for the region, as Brodie explains: "There is no national standard here for valves and pipes. [Consultants] rely on international standards and the problem with that is in terms of the valves there are two real types of international standards: an American one and a European one. It would be nice if the industry here would pick one and standardise it." Brodie believes that a lack of standardisation is resulting in a worrying drop in standards of products being used in projects in the Middle East.

Techniques, trends and technologies in the pipe work sector are as varied as in any industry. The importance of having a reliable piping system coupled with the sheer range of uses makes it unlikely that one form of pipe will ever be used for all purposes.

However the market is poised in a way that one significant breakthrough could alter it considerably although when and where it will appear is anyone's guess.

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