Copper maintains a 65 percent market share in North American plumbing systems.
Instead of being intimidated by the statistical dominance, makers of cross-linked polyethylene pipe see opportunity.
Awareness of PEX pipe is growing. So, too, is its market share. While traditional plumbing applications provide the most explosive growth opportunity for PEX, rising demand for hydronic radiant floor-heating systems cannot be ignored.
PEX tubing used in radiant floor heating has been growing 15-30 percent each year for the past decade, said Lawrence Drake, executive director of the Loveland, Colo.-based Radiant Panel Association.
Whether installed in a new home or as a retrofitted new heating system, radiant floor heating accounts for about 5 percent of all heating systems being installed in the United States, Drake said.
According to the Radiant Panel Association, an estimated 331 million lineal feet of PEX tubing was sold in North America in 2004, up 90 million lineal feet from 2003.
PEX use grew by 40 percent last year in plumbing applications and 35 percent in floor heating, said Lance MacNevin, chairman of the Washington-based Plastics Pipe Institute's high-temperature plastics division and a business team manager for Rehau Inc., a Leesburg, Va.-based pipe and tubing extruder.
Many factors are contributing to PEX's speedy growth rate, MacNevin said: a reduction in installation times, the comparably high cost of competing materials like copper, relative immunity to leaks and corrosion, and a simpler installation system that requires less-skilled workers, which helps contractors save money.
PEX pipe is flexible, which allows plumbers and installers to manipulate the pipe more easily than pipe made with rigid materials and to use fewer fittings.
Major building codes pertaining to pipe materials recently have included PEX in their language, which has stimulated market demand for the material, many PEX makers said at the International Builders' Show, held Jan. 11-14 in Orlando.
``There's no barrier to sales anymore,'' MacNevin said.
Apple Valley, Minn.-based Uponor Wirsbo, credited with bringing PEX radiant floor-heating technology to the United States from Europe, announced a capacity expansion in September. Rehau announced an even-larger expansion earlier this month.
The PEX division of Erie, Pa.-based Zurn Industries Inc., a division of Jacuzzi Brands Co., is one of the engines driving Zurn's growth, said Patrick Sauer, vice president of sales and marketing for Zurn PEX plumbing and radiant heating systems.
``We've grown at a very, very large clip, especially when you consider the size of our company,'' Sauer said. In the past five months, Zurn PEX's growth rate has increased by 100 percent.
John Fraser, president and chief operating officer of McPherson, Kan.-based Vanguard Piping Systems Inc., another extruder of PEX pipe, said hydronic radiant floor heating, while still a budding technology in the United States, is an ideal application for PEX.
``It's far superior to a forced-air system. You don't have the dust and everything else. It's just the most comfortable form of heat you can imagine,'' he said.