In any industry, one innovation often begets the next. Big ideas do more begetting still. Thomas Edison's light bulb begat fuses and outlets and generators and more. Al Gore's Internet? Well, it is just starting to beget.

In the rough plumbing industry, one of the biggest innovations in recent memory has been and continues to be the evolution of PEX piping systems. As PEX sinks its roots, it brings new shoots-including products and solutions that help it grow.

Its benefits are obvious to many. It's cheaper than copper. It's flexible and light. And it's easy to install. But its limitations are equally well known. It can be nicked and kinked and cut. It can sag. It can flex in ways no one wants or welcomes.

Thanks to newly engineered products, however, the benefits are beginning to overwhelm the limitations, and people are noticing. Take California for example. 

It was something of a breakthrough when on Jan. 1, 2008, California finally amended its plumbing code to allow the use of PEX for domestic water systems. A year later, the state approved the use of PEX plastic pipe and tubing. Historically, part of the opposition to PEX has stemmed from the failure of some technicians to install PEX systems appropriately. One reason for that is they have continued to use the hanging and bracketing methods they have used for years, methods that were ill-suited to PEX. As the California breakthrough suggests, this is all changing. PEX is proliferating, and new hanging and bracketing technologies are helping to make it possible.

Unfortunately, all of the many virtues of PEX can come to naught if the tubing is not anchored and bracketed to its best advantage. When installed professionally, with engineered hanger and bracketing devices, a PEX job can be a work of art. When installed haphazardly, a PEX job is a crisis waiting to happen and the cost difference between art and crisis is negligible. Consider a few problematic PEX installations:

  • With Blocks. Even before the advent of PEX, the wood block was-and in many cases still is-a support staple in the rough plumbing industry. It was just never a particularly good one. With PEX, it is less good. PEX, because of its flexible characteristics, requires engineered support that wood blocks just can't provide. Yes, the wood might not cost anything at face, but the time a contractor spends searching for the wood, measuring twice, cutting, notching, drilling, and installing does come at a price. Then, with insult added to injury, the finished installation often appears sloppy or, worse, the contractor is exposed to liability and brand damage.

  • Through Studs. In some states, when running PEX through studs, installers are allowed to drill a 5/8-inch or larger hole through a stud and call it a means of support. But this method puts the PEX pipe at risk, as it comes into direct contact with an abrasive surface. Worse, when PEX pipe is mounted directly to a stud, the tubing can, and oftentimes does, transmit unwelcome noise right through the walls.

  • With Stub Outs. Nowhere is bracketing more critical than at a PEX stub out, the transitional point where the rough plumbing meets finish plumbing. Simply put, stub outs are abused. They are exposed to the "handiwork" of rough and finish carpenters, sheet rockers, painters and, well, "others." They also happen to be one of the few bits of rough plumbing the homeowner sees. For reasons of both effectiveness and aesthetics, it is essential that this installation be professionally secured with an engineered product.

Fortunately, there are several product solutions that are both affordable and readily available.

Engineered Bracketing. Bracketing technology is finally catching up with the advances in PEX. Many options are designed for specific situations, like stub outs beneath sinks or stub outs behind showerheads. There are sliding metal bracketing solutions that integrate plastic clamping devices; there are rigid metal bracketing solutions that integrate sliding plastic devices.

There are rigid and flexible solutions, designed to work best with copper pre-formed PEX stub outs, which connect to the PEX piping before the piping reaches the bracket. Bracketing solutions with PEX copper stub outs are some of the best, highest quality installations. They help a contractor leverage the benefits of PEX inside the wall and the power of rigid pipe outside the wall.

More recent advances in bracketing include products that integrate swivel PEX bend supports. These bend supports can work on their own to support PEX; or, when combined with the bracketing solutions, they can help turn PEX into a stub out. For many, who are open to having PEX on the finish and outside the wall, this is a game changer. It is welcome recipe of cost savings and strength.

There are more options still. Each bracket has a design purpose. That purpose is to enhance quality and save time and money. Finding the right bracketing product for each installation is worth a contractor's time. A few minutes of research is all it takes to learn how to improve installation quality, save time and build a better brand of PEX plumbing.


Engineered Hangers

It is important to use hangers with PEX; it could be argued hangers are more important when installing PEX piping than when installing rigid piping. National plumbing codes require PEX to be secured every 32 inches horizontally. Copper only needs to be supported every six feet. In vertical runs, both PEX and copper must be supported a maximum of every 10 feet. Hangers help protect PEX pipe both during and after rough installation, as the pipe is often pulled through studs or over studs or just mounted to them. They also help isolate the piping from the wood studs, an important step to help protect noise transfer.

Among the simplest and best solutions is the C-shaped, plastic talon. It comes with a labor-saving, pre-loaded nail. Multi-size versions of this pre-loaded hanger are also available. Then, there are C-shaped, plastic talons that feature flexible, isolating legs. This leg slightly lifts the tube off the mounting surface, allowing an installer to drive the hook first and mount the pipe second. To many installers, that is a big feature. It takes some of the clumsiness out of PEX pipe hanging. It is also convenient for changes or, later on, for remodels or repairs.

PEX pipe hangers also come in a wide variety of sizes and styles. Most hanger options are available in sizes from 1/2- to 1-inch. Some come bigger. Like the brackets, hanger styles are born out of the "form follows function" design principle. There are standard single pipe hangers of various kinds.

There are newer double pipe hangers that allow the installer to run two parallel lines within the same clamp. There are full-clamp pipe hangers that lock down the tube prevent it from escaping, which is sometimes desired such as on hot water lines (for expansion and contraction). There are multi-size, ratcheting pipe hangers that can be used for pipe or other linear runs such wiring or corrugated stainless steel tubing and its derivatives.

The list goes on. Each hanger has a role. Contractors would be wise to learn how to use them to save money and the improve quality of their PEX system installations.

Some of these products can be purchased for mere pennies. But all of them are inexpensive when considering the labor savings they generate and quality they ensure. In a way, they are some of the highest returning, lowest risk investments a contractor can make. Really, there is no reason to not use them.


Perfecting PEX: Making the Decision

Change is never easy, even when it is change that you control. You have to research, decide, purchase and train. The last step is probably the hardest. Luckily, hangers and brackets are simple and cheap. They take no time to train. And, there is no real investment risk.

Nevertheless, change is made more difficult when rough-in plumbing is subcontracted. Such is the case with piecework. Flat rates per housing unit do not seem motivate the highest quality work. So, an outsourcing contractor is often left with work that is, well, not how it would have been done if it were "in-sourced". Ultimately, another's false thrift can expose a contractor to liability or risk the brand.

To protect yourself and build your brand, it is smart to control the design of the system-including the hangers and bracketing. Consider specifying hangers and bracketing for PEX system work, even subcontracted work.

The best way to break old habits is to explore new ones. Websites make this easy. A little research into engineered hangers and bracketing, especially for PEX, is about as good an investment of time as a contractor can make. What's more, hanger and bracketing manufacturers will often provide free samples to help a contractor evaluate their value firsthand. The ambitious firm will save money, improve quality, reduce risks and maybe even "innovate" its brand.

As we said, innovation begets innovation.


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