HOUSTON - For 20 years, Keith Swinehart II dedicated his work to selling polybutylene plumbing for his family's company, Vanguard Plastics Inc. Now he and 200-plus Vanguard employees face the much tougher job of explaining how, in just a few months, the company can convert from PB to other materials. Vanguard is under the gun. The company runs pipe plants in McPherson, Kan., and Beaufort, S.C. Shell Oil Co.'s decision to stop making PB resin for pipe, made public earlier this month, was not totally unexpected after the much-reported problems and huge legal bills caused by pipe and fittings systems that leaked. Shell, the only major U.S. source of the material, said it will stop making it April 16.
Swinehart said Shell preceded the no-more-PB announcement with a 50 percent resin price hike last summer, in part to recoup legal bills. That was a signal Shell was rethinking its role as a supplier, he said.
``They really didn't have to say any more. From that point we had to conclude that this was a possibility'' and look at alternatives, Swinehart said.
To diversify, Vanguard began making chlorinated PVC plumbing pipe a year-and-a-half ago. Then came Shell's bombshell.
``We were very disappointed by the news that they were going to discontinue the product, and even more, we were shocked by the short time frame from the time of their announcement to their exit,'' according to Swinehart.
Vanguard is financially solid, he said. His father, Keith Swinehart I, founded Plains Plastics, a PVC pipe extruder, in McPherson in the late 1950s, then sold it to CertainTeed Products in the 1960s. He founded Vanguard in 1976 to make PB pipe. Keith II joined the following year to sell, mainly to professional builders.
Employees and managers will continue the pioneering spirit that led Vanguard into PB pipe in the first place, he said.
It was an odd Builders' Show for Vanguard, as company officials had to explain the company's quick change to cross-linked polyethylene. Vanguard has enough PB to keep making pipe through the summer.
Swinehart said the company has a strong name in plastic plumbing. A PB pipe competitor, U.S. Brass, is a few months ahead of Vanguard in switching to XLPE. Commerce, Texas-based U.S. Brass is reorganizing under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
At the show, Wirsbo Co. rolled out its XLPE plumbing, under the brand name Aquapex. Wirsbo has been extruding flexible XLPE piping in Apple Valley, Minn., for more than 10 years. Wirsbo is a unit of Oy Uponor AB, the Swiss plastic pipe giant.
Wirsbo's initial market push was into radiant heating - flexible PE tubing installed under floors, parking lots or athletic facilities.
On Jan. 1, Wirsbo created two separate divisions, to cover plumbing and radiant heating. Wirsbo has NSF International code approval.
In Houston, Wirsbo demonstrated how its fittings are installed using a tool that expands the tubing and fits a brass fitting inside. The XLPE tubing ``remem-bers'' its original shape and shrinks right around the fitting.
Vanguard expects NSF code approval by mid-April. XLPE production should begin in May, Swinehart said. Vanguard will be able to use its existing extruders, with some adjustments. The company has to add a post-extrusion curing process.
``We will need some different types of equipment, but it's not the immense hurdle we thought it would be.''
Fittings can be a touchy subject when explaining plastic plumbing to homebuilders. Many leakage problems with PB pipe were created by injection-molded acetal fittings that broke, sometimes by poor installation.
But when PB pipe first came out, everybody used brass fittings, said Vanguard's Swinehart. The pipe initially was installed underground. Later, it expanded into use inside the house.
In retrospect, according to Swinehart, switching to acetal fittings ``was a deal. It was a mistake. Acetal seemed to have all the answers. It had a very good mechanical strength. It could withstand the temperatures. It had a reasonable price and it had been used in the plumbing industry for 20 years.''
Then the leaks started, al-though Swinehart said the mediablew them out of proportion and got some key facts wrong. Vanguard switched back to brass fittings - and Swinehart strongly makes the point that PB pipe with brass fittings was a dependable product.
For Vanguard's new XLPE pipe, Marshall Brass Co. of Marshall, Mich., is making the same fitting, a brass insert with copper compression rings, as it has for PB, Swinehart said. The dimensions are slightly different to accommodate PE tubing, which has a different outside diameter than PB, Swinehart said.
Swinehart, a frank-speaking Kansas native, said he wants Vanguard to keep making a small amount of PB pipe, with resin sourced offshore. About seven years ago the company introduced the Manabloc, a manifold system, to answer contractors' worries about problems with PB. He declined to say how much Vanguard has spent on lawyers or settlements. But he has learned first-hand the risks of introducing a plastics innovation to construction.
``You have no hindsight. You have no experience, which makes it really new,'' he said.