Minimal training requirements make for an easy transition for plumbers


Known for its flexibility, durability, installation efficiencies and cost-effectiveness, PEX tubing is now installed in more new-construction homes in the United States than copper and CPVC combined.

And with competition always at the forefront of any business, plumbing contractors are turning to PEX for another reason — multipurpose fire sprinkler systems. It adds a new profitable service to their repertoire and also helps home builders meet the sprinkler mandates that are continuing to proliferate across the country.

Unlike standalone fire sprinkler systems, created for commercial use, that rely on rigid CPVC or copper pipe, multipurpose PEX-based systems combine the cold-water plumbing and the fire sprinklers into a single, efficient system that uses the same pipe, fittings and tools as PEX plumbing systems. As a result, it eliminates one redundant piping system, thereby reducing material, labor costs and job site scheduling hassles.

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The ultimate payoff? A savings of 50 percent in installation time over standalone rigid piping systems.

Introduced into the residential market more than 20 years ago, multipurpose systems typically require minimal training — usually by the manufacturer — for contractors to become qualified to install.

“You’d be surprised how easy it can be to move from setting sinks to installing residential fire sprinkler systems,” says Kelly Fahey, co-owner of PacWest Sales in Mukilteo, Washington. “Plumbers already have the knowledge, tools and, more importantly, the solid working relationships with home builders to prosper.”

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Benefits of PEX

PEX has proven to be a highly effective alternative to CPVC and copper pipe for several reasons.

  • It will not pit, scale or corrode like copper piping systems can in harsh water conditions.
  • The unique molecular structure of PEX is stable, inert and unaffected by chemicals that can cause environmental stress cracking in CPVC pipe, such as leak detectors, thread sealants, pipe wraps, lubricants and caulks.
  • PEX is also very flexible, affording a bend radius six times the pipe diameter.

Why is flexibility important? There are two main reasons.

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Since the flexible pipe is available in long coil lengths, an installer can simply bend the pipe to make a change in direction without having to stop and cut in a fitting. This saves time by potentially eliminating up to half the required fittings necessary in a rigid system. This flexibility also reduces materials costs and limits potential leak points in the system.

Another benefit of the flexible pipe is its expansion capabilities. Because flexible PEX can expand up to three times the pipe’s diameter, it is also highly resistant to freeze damage. It can expand to accommodate frozen water in the pipeline and then contract back down to its original shape once the water thaws.

Case in point, a few years ago a 6-month-old home in Washington state lost power and went without heat for four days, causing the water inside the CPVC piping to freeze and the pipe to crack. The PEX system in the house, however, suffered no stress fractures due to the flexibility and shape memory of the pipe.

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This shape memory, which ensures the pipe will always return to its original shape after being expanded, offers additional benefits when used with cold-expansion fittings. To make a fitting, the installer simply places an expansion ring on the end of the pipe and then expands the pipe and ring with an expansion tool. Once expanded, the installer inserts a larger-diameter fitting.

As the pipe and ring shrink back down to their original shape, they create a strong, leak-resistant connection that holds tight with 1,500 pounds of radial force. And because the pipe must be expanded before inserting the fitting, it eliminates dry-fit issues. For installers who have ever missed cementing or soldering a dry-fitted connection, this is a game-changer.

PEX multipurpose systems offer several other advantages:

PEX is an economically more stable choice when compared to copper. The steadier material costs of PEX versus a commodity like copper make it easier to bid a job. Meanwhile, because PEX has no scrap value (unlike copper), it eliminates theft concerns.

Finally, because multipurpose systems are fed by a home’s domestic cold-water supply, there is no need for special accessories and components demanded by rigid, standalone systems. Eliminating check valves, backflow preventers, or separate water meters further reduces installation time and costs.

Natural extension for plumbers

Installed per the National Fire Protection Association 13D, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, residential multipurpose fire sprinkler systems offer licensed, trained plumbers the ability to expand their businesses without having to learn radically different skills or add a ton of new products and tools to their trucks.

Because the fire sprinklers connect to the plumbing supply line like any other fixture or fitting, multipurpose systems are a logical extension for plumbers. By delivering a lower installed cost than commercial-style standalone systems, a multipurpose PEX system is the low-hanging fruit for new-residential contractors looking to drive more dollars from their jobs.

So how do plumbers go about adding this profitable addition to their business?

There are PEX manufacturers who offer training for multipurpose fire sprinkler systems. A simple one-day classroom course or an online training course can get a licensed plumber ready for job site training to install multipurpose systems quickly and easily.

If you are interested in learning more about PEX or residential multipurpose systems, check out the following links, featuring technical and informational resources about these products and systems.

About the Author
Kim Bliss is the technical communications manager at Uponor. She can be reached at kim.bliss@uponor.com.


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