Plumbing & Mechanical recently interviewed Tomas Lenman, owner and founder of MrPEX Systems, near the company’s headquarters in Ramsey, Minn. He retired a year ago when Jan Andersson became company president.
Lenman began his career in 1971 as an engineer with Wirsbo Bruks in Sweden, where he developed the first PEX production process. He went on to develop standard specifications for PEX tubing in Europe and Australia.
Between 1982 and 1984, he wrote the ASTM F876/877 Standards for PEX tubing in the U.S., picking up the nickname “Mr. PEX.” Lenman founded Wirsbo Co.’s U.S. operation in 1984 and managed it until 1992, continuing as a consultant until 1996. He managed the start-up of Roth Industries’ PEX Tubing Division from 1997 to 2001 when he started MrPEX Systems with exclusive distribution of PEX products in North America for Sweden-based LK Group.
PM: Why did you decide to start your own company in 2001 with MrPEX?
TL: In late 2000, I read in the German newsletter Global Pipe that Lennart Aagren of Uponor Innovation AB now worked for the Swedish LK Group and had developed a new PEX-A production process. I had worked in parallel with him in the 1970s and early 80s in the research of PEX materials within the Nordic Plastic Pipe Group, so I knew his capabilities.
At the time, he also had developed a new production method — crosslinking PEX tubing in extrusion using AZO compounds. This method is not covered by the ASTM F876/77 standards but was covered in several European standards as a PEX-D material. I visited with Lennart and LK in March 2001 at the ISH trade show in Frankfurt, Germany. I became very impressed with what I learned! I soon was able to obtain the North American distribution rights from LK and started MrPEX Systems.
PM: What distinguishes MrPEX from other PEX tubing for radiant, domestic water and snow-melting systems?
TL: Our manufacturing process is quite different from other PEX producers. It is a comparatively high-output process with the pipe finished at the end of the production line. It may include multiple layers (such as oxygen barriers), so no second-step processing is required as it is for PEX-B and PEX-C. Because PEX-A crosslinking takes place at temperatures higher than the polyethylene melting point, those links are formed with no disturbance. The result is the most flexible pipe on the market. In addition, the LK process has a molecular orientation with not as many fibers along the tube. We compared our pipe to the Slinky toy spring when we started selling it in 2001. That was very successful, so maybe we should bring it up again in our marketing.
PM: What was the biggest challenge you faced in 1984 when you founded Wirsbo’s U.S. operation? Does MrPEX face a similar or new challenge today?
TL: Radiant floor heating was virtually unknown in the U.S. at that time, so we had to do a lot of missionary work informing contractors, distributors and engineers about the comfortable, energy-saving and draft-free environment provided with this method of heating. Additionally, hydronic heating had only a marginal share of the total U.S. heating market outside the Northeast and New England, while in Europe water-based heating was the rule. The magnitude of education required was huge. Today, the market has become fairly mature, and efficiency is becoming the main task.
PM: Did you also find that plumbing and heating professionals confused PEX with polybutylene, another type of plastic pipe that experienced system failures in the U.S.?
TL: Polybutylene’s not a bad material, but some terrible mistakes were made when it was beginning to be used in plumbing systems. It was mainly used for domestic hot- and cold-water plumbing, and less for radiant floor heating. All those failures didn’t help the reputation of plastic pipes, but PEX didn’t have any failures.
PM: As an engineer, what do you view as the most innovative development in the production of PEX tubing systems?
TL: The one-step extrusion process of producing PEX-A makes manufacturing the pipe much more efficient than it once was. The design process is very important but being able to produce the pipe more efficiently is critical as competition increases.
PM: What applications will provide the most growth for PEX tubing systems in the U.S. construction market?
TL: While in earlier years, heating was the sole application, now domestic hot and cold water plumbing is the main application for PEX. That volume still has the potential to grow. As the demand for fire sprinkler systems increases, this will allow for PEX growth, too.
PM: Where do you see the future of radiant cooling technology in the U.S. construction market?
TL: Because humidity is an issue in most parts of this country, I believe the growth will take place mainly in the nonresidential sector. In those applications, humidity control already is in place where it’s needed. Commercial radiant cooling is booming right now, while controlling residential cooling is trickier and somewhat limited.
PM: MrPEX introduced a number of new products in 2017 (Radiant Wood Track, F1960 Cold Expansion Fittings and Pre-Insulated PEX-a Tubing). Do you expect this focus on new products to continue?
TL: We must listen to our customers to supply what they need or wish. That has been our focus in the past and needs to be the rule for the future, too. We must follow the market and jump on the train early in becoming aware of new developments. One reason we ended up being more active with new products in 2017 was more focus on plumbing. We introduced plumbing as a part of our catalog in 2016 and expanded our presence in 2017.
PM: How important is the relationship between MrPEX and the wholesale distribution industry?
TL: We don’t sell any retail; we sell to wholesale. I have heard many predictions on the fall of the wholesale industry for decades, but these have proven to be false – at least for the plumbing-and-heating sector. We need to support the wholesalers, and they will support us. This will be true for the next decades to come.
PM: Do you see the level of interest in green energy systems — such as solar thermal and geothermal — increasing, decreasing or staying about the same among U.S. construction industry professionals?
TL: I am certain the interest in green energy will continue to increase. Just as Europe was far ahead in radiant floors when I arrived here in 1984, it now is far ahead in geothermal market penetration. Climate change due to un-green energy is becoming more obvious. With more hurricanes such as Harvey and Irma to come, I believe the change to green energy will become urgent to everyone!
PM: As a businessman, what one piece of advice would you give to plumbing and heating contractors? Would it be the same for engineers and distributors?
TL: I’m convinced that demand for green energy will be increasing for a long time to come. Adapt your business accordingly to stay in the forefront to take advantage of this trend.