More Than A Pipe Dream
Greg Rowell, an estimator for plumbing and heating contractor, Frazier Co., Omaha, Neb., knew he was on to something when his crew returned after spending its first day trying out a new way to pipe homes for gas service.
“Look, look at my hands,” said one plumber. Unable to discern any cuts or scraps, Rowell was a bit puzzled by the demand.
“They’re clean!” explained the plumber. The new tubing, corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST), had none of the messy disadvantages of traditional black steel pipe. No more cutting. No more threading. No more pipe dope. No more oil. No more dragging pipe cutting equipment through the mud. No more manhandling 20-foot lengths of heavy, straight pipe. No more double-checking every tee, elbow or union for a potential leak.
“In other words, everything we’ve all hated about black pipe,” Rowell says.
But more important to Rowell than cleanliness was that piping a home with CSST took about one-fifth the time. “We were a little apprehensive at first because of one thing — price,” Rowell says. “But due to the increased speed of installation, we’re able to do more and still keep the integrity of the system.”
That’s great news for Frazier, which specializes in new residential construction, putting the finishing touches on more than 450 homes annually. And one company’s success typifies the reasons CSST sales have gone from nonexistent at the beginning of this decade to more than 50 million feet installed by the end of it.
Big ChangeThe new product represents the biggest change to happen to gas piping in more than 100 years. “It’s a $250 million dollar market, and the technology has always been the same,” says John Fitzpatrick, product sales manager for Parker Hannifin’s version of CSST. “You couldn’t name another component of the building industry in which the technology hasn’t changed.”
Only gas piping fitters faced the same cut, thread, dope and screw together methods perfected by their grandfathers. Tried-and-true, yes. Back-breaking and laborious, an even bigger yes. “Gas pipe fitters have one of the least desirable jobs in the entire home-building process,” says William Rich, director of marketing, Flexible Gas Division, Omegaflex Inc.
The new tubing offers a labor-saving alternative to rigid pipe. A 250-foot roll of CSST weighs less than 40 pounds, and can easily fit in the back seat of a sedan. Its flexibility requires fewer connections and fittings, making quick work out of routing through joists and around beams or other obstacles.
“That’s what we sell,” says Jeff Soechting, sales manager of gas products for Ward Mfg. “The ease of installation means more productivity. Contractors will be able to bid more business and be more profitable.”
The Gas Research Institute first introduced CSST to the United States in the late 1980s when it was apparent that gas utilities needed an alternative piping system to black pipe. (See sidebar.)
“Everyone has a gas fireplace in their living room, but more want one in the upstairs bedroom,” Rich says. “The only way to easily do this is with CSST.”
Tests conducted by the GRI showed CSST could save a quarter to two-thirds on labor in new construction, and up to three-quarters in rehab work. “The more complex the job, the better the savings with CSST,” says Jim Albrecht, GRI’s manager, member services and communications.
Rich knows these estimates aren’t just pie in the sky. A local rep in Knoxville, Tenn., challenged a contractor of a 145-unit townhouse project who preferred to stick with black pipe to at least give CSST a try. Each townhouse has six gas outlets supplying two furnaces, a range, dryer and fireplace.
The contractor piped the first unit in a six-unit building with black steel. This work required 24 work-hours — a full day’s work for a three-man crew — accompanied by a truck loaded with pipe that required cutting and threading.
Meanwhile, installation of the remaining five units was completed with CSST in a single day — and done so by just two of the original three-man crew. They didn’t even need the truck. The other plumber drove off to do other plumbing jobs elsewhere.
“The reason we’ve seen a willingness of the plumbing community to embrace this technology is that the construction market is so red hot, CSST allows plumbers to keep pace,” says Bob Torbin of Foster-Miller Inc., a Massachusetts engineering consulting firm, which performed GRI’s prime research on CSST. “You can plumb a house in two hours instead of eight. In other words, a contractor can do twice as many jobs with the same number of people or, if they’re lean and mean, they can accomplish the same amount of work with half the people.”
More Gas LoadFrazier Co. began using CSST in 1996 as part of an alliance with home builder BCB Enterprises and the Metropolitan Utilities District, the gas utility that supplies the region’s 165,000 customers with more than $145 million worth of natural gas.
“We’re after more gas appliances and gas load,” says Karen Fries, senior building representative, Metropolitan Utilities District, Omaha, Neb. “Customers are willing to pay more for a gas dryer, but not for plumbing a traditional black steel line to the dryer. That’s been the deal breaker.”
After just a few years of this type of promotion, most of Omaha’s mainstream builders are using CSST, including four high-volume builders that each construct more than 200 homes annually.
“You can’t hardly find a new home built in this area without CSST,” Rowell says.
As Rowell points out, the higher price tag is the first item on a contractor’s mind when contemplating a switch. While prices have dropped about 20 percent since Frazier Co. first started using CSST as more manufacturers produce their versions, the new tubing still costs about twice as much as black steel.
“We need to break apart the cost function, and differentiate between material cost and labor savings,” says Larry Wilson, Tru-Flex Metal Hose Corp. “When contractors say, ‘What’s it cost?’ they’re really only talking about the material cost.”
Contractors know, however, there are hidden costs with black steel that can easily eat away at profits. “The overhead associated with CSST is significantly less than with black pipe,” say Keith Kosinski, vice president and general manager of Titeflex Corp.’s Gastite division. “The challenges are two-fold: We need to convert contractors to a new technology, and convince them they can make more money by using a product that does indeed cost twice as much.”
Both points require education. And Kosinski knows that everyone would use it, “if it cost 20 cents a foot.”
In the end, Kosinski also knows that CSST “saves the contractor hours,” which should discourage them from treating such a labor-saver as an “adder” that makes little if any profit. “The truth is, contractors don’t make profits on the hours they bill, they make profits on the number of jobs they close.”
The fixation on price alone isn’t as monolithic as a few years ago. “It was a difficult sell,” says Parker Hannifin’s Fitzpatrick. “But contractors are open-minded and looking for ways to save on labor, and make margin on jobs they couldn’t even do before.”