Plastic pipe producers are extruding as much product as they can, rushing to fill orders that were already in an upswing since the start of the pandemic and now rocketing further with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The historic federal legislation from President Joe Biden's administration earmarked $1.2 trillion to rebuild America's roads, bridges and rails; expand access to clean drinking water; improve access to high-speed internet; and advance environmental justice.
The $55 billion going to drinking water and wastewater infrastructure will be dispersed for projects that meet federal priorities, such as upgrading leaky distribution systems and removing lead service lines still delivering water to household and business faucets.
Some of the projects have started and most will be wrapped up in the next five years. PVC and high density polyethylene pipe producers are facing another flurry of orders after a dizzying couple of years brought on by the pandemic.
"Pipes inventories are very low. We can't make enough pipe to meet demand," Bruce Hollands, executive director of the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, said in a phone interview. "The market is booming."
It has been since the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns.
"Some people think a lot of municipalities had capital budgets with money in them and when the engineers worked from home, they focused more on those projects," Hollands said. "Now the infrastructure bill is continuing the drive to upgrade infrastructure."
Hollands heads the Irving, Texas-based trade group, which promotes the engineering and technical benefits of PVC products for drinking water, sewer and irrigation applications. The group says the pipes are durable, low cost and long-lasting, with demonstrated longevity of more than 100 years,
PVC pipes make up the largest share of new miles installed for both the water and wastewater markets, according to Boston-based Bluefield Research. The firm tracks pipes made from PVC, HDPE and molecularly oriented PVC (PVCO).
In 2022, Bluefield forecast PVC will have a 62.3 percent share of the miles of water pipe installed, followed by ductile iron at 26 percent, HDPE at 4.2 percent, steel at 3.8 percent, concrete and other at 1.8 percent each, and PVCO at 0.2 percent.
Developed as an improvement to conventional PVC pipe, PVCO pipe has more tensile strength for larger pipe diameters and lower flow velocities.
HDPE pipes, which are used mainly for potable service lines and wastewater projects, also have a service life of 100 years and are strong, flexible — which is popular in earthquake-prone areas — lightweight and leak-proof when fused together.
On the wastewater side, PVC pipe has a 48.6 percent share of the pipe miles installed, followed by HDPE at 24.3 percent, other at 11.5 percent, ductile iron at 10 percent, concrete at 3 percent and steel at 3 percent.
Overall, in 2022, 69.8 percent of the new pipe going into the ground for water and wastewater uses will be plastic pipe, Bluefield Research says.
"Plastic pipes are becoming the main choice now for new pipe installations," Lauren Balsamo, a municipal water analyst, said in a phone interview.
Sales are up 15 percent to an estimated $3.6 billion at JM Eagle, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of PVC and PE pipe that is the No. 1 pipe, profile and tubing producer in North America, according to Plastics News' new ranking.
At Advanced Drainage Systems Inc. in Hilliard, Ohio, sales climbed 40 percent to $2.1 billion, making it the third-largest pipe, profile and tubing extruder in North America, the updated ranking says. Ipex USA LLC in Pineville, N.C., also saw a 40 percent increase in sales to an estimated $1.26 billion, placing it fifth in the rankings.
Other double-digit increases were seen at Dura-Line/US and Canada, Performance Pipe and WL Plastics. Sales at those companies increased 12-18 percent.
By 2030, the research firm shows the share of plastic pipe being installed at 74 percent.
"Price is a big part of it as well as materials becoming more advanced," Balsamo said. "With technological advances, the plastic pipes are becoming stronger and more durable. They're not just beneficial from a cost standpoint but from a longevity standpoint compared to when they first entered the market."
Early generations of plastic pipe could become brittle or had issues with joint quality or stress cracks, but materials and manufacturing methods have evolved to address the issues.