Plastic pipe is continuing to gain share from competing materials in virtually every end market, as the industry educates municipalities and decision makers on the benefits of its products.
Officials from all corners of the plastic pipe industry said they expect the trend to continue in 2007.
``With rising questions of corrosion of materials, rising cost of traditional materials and plastic pipe with more and more established durability in several applications, it is taking market share from traditional materials,'' said Tom Walsh, a Houston-based consultant to the pipe industry, by phone. ``I think this trend will continue.''
Code and regulatory changes, including a recent decision by the Federal Highway Administration to require multiple materials to be considered in storm-water drainage specifications, as well as ASTM International's inclusion of standards for bimodal polyethylene 4710 resin, figure to be a boon for the industry.
PE pipe is already the material of choice in the gas-distribution industry. Advances in resin and joint technologies will help ensure it stays that way.
``You have a number of resources that are coming together to advance the technologies, and that is the resin side of the business, the manufacturing side of the business and the distribution side of the business, where all three of those areas converge to bring improved products to the marketplace,'' said Tony Radoszewski, executive director of the Irving, Texas-based Plastic Pipe Institute.
Radoszewski said he is not aware of any significant advancements made by pipe manufacturers in competing materials.
``We're a dynamic industry and we compete against what I consider to be static competitors,'' he added.
Demand for higher-pressure capacity and larger diameters will drive growth in PE pipe sales, said Gene Palermo, president of Palermo Plastics Pipe Consulting in Friendsville, Tenn.
PE pipe stands to gain the most ground in water distribution.
``Where it's 95 percent market share in gas, in the case of water, it's about 3 percent in North America,'' Palermo said.
PE pipe for water distribution has about 50 percent market share in many parts of Europe and nearly 90 percent in Scandinavia, by contrast, he said.
Palermo points to politics as the reason materials like copper, ductile iron and concrete have had such a stronghold on various North American pipe markets.
``The biggest competitive barrier to [PE] pipe is inertia,'' he said. ``I can't make a guy change his specifications for a project.''
It's that dynamic that has Hilliard, Ohio-based Advanced Drainage Systems Inc. singing the praises of the recent Federal Highway Administration action.
ADS, the market leader in corrugated high density PE pipe, employs engineers whose sole job is to work with regulatory agencies to get HDPE specified, said Joe Chlapaty, ADS president and chief executive officer.
In the mid-1970s, concrete-industry efforts led to the FHWA implementing rules prohibiting the use of flexible conduit in projects funded by the federal highway trust fund. HDPE pipe was not the impetus for that rule, but it ultimately barred it from being a choice until December, when the rule changed.
``We were able to convince [FHWA] that alternative materials [should] be considered in the funding and construction of highways receiving federal dollars,'' Chlapaty said.
He estimated that HDPE represents no more than 15 percent of the corrugated pipe market.
``I think there's a huge potential for growth,'' he said.
Bob Walker, executive director of the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association in Dallas, told attendees at the Plastics Pipe XIII technical conference in October that U.S. municipalities spend $36 billion annually repairing broken water mains and defective pipe.
Corrosion is the cause of the problem nearly 90 percent of the time, according to Walker. About 6 billion gallons of water are lost per day in the United States among the various cracks and leaks in infrastructure.
According to an FHWA-funded study, researchers determined corrosion costs the U.S. economy $276 billion annually.
As decision makers specifying projects learn the benefits of plastic pipe - such as corrosion resistance, lower installation cost and longer estimated life cycle - industry officials said they believe market share will increase.
Growth will vary on a market-by-market basis and on a company-by-company basis as the industry continues to consolidate. Overall, the plastic pipe market is forecasted to grow 3.5 percent annually from now through 2010, according to the most recent data from Advance, N.C.-based Plastics Custom Research Services' ``Plastics Processing Report Series.'' The entire plastics industry expects to grow at a 5 percent annual rate during that time, the report said.
Kurt Waldhauer, president and CEO of McPherson, Kan.-based extruder maker American Maplan Corp., said he expects the market to grow for large-diameter pipe.
Maplan, a subsidiary of Bad Oeynhausen, Germany-based Battenfeld Extrusionstechnik GmbH, sold two 63-inch HDPE extrusion lines to Livingston, N.J.-based J-M Manufacturing Co. Inc. and another to Gainesville, Texas-based PolyPipe Inc. last year. It marked the first time 63-inch pipe had been extruded in the United States.
Waldhauer said more 63-inch lines will be sold in 2007, and orders are expected for the developing 72-inch lines, which Maplan expects to deliver in 2008. He said Maplan will deliver one to Latin America in the second quarter.
He expressed confidence all of the grass-roots education efforts are paying off.
``I think we have enough of a track record now,'' he said. ``This plastic stuff is a viable material, and plastic pipe is a fantastic solution to our infrastructure needs.''