Plumbing & Mechanical recently interviewed Roddey Dowd Jr., president of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Co., on issues facing the U.S. construction industry. Charlotte Pipe is a 110-year-old manufacturer of cast-iron and plastic pipe and fittings systems headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.
PM: Has Charlotte Pipe seen signs of the economic recovery and, if so, in what market segments?
RD: Since World War II, the construction industry has led the country out of every recession. We’ve seen no real turnaround from the most recent one; we probably have seen a flattening out.
This is a residential-led recession. We think the country is going to come out of it but the residential construction market remains mired in a severe slump. February turned out to be one of the weakest months ever for the U.S. housing sector. Starts, permits and sales of existing homes all plunged. The known inventory of homes for sale - about 3.7 million at the end of February - doesn’t include the millions of properties sellers and banks would like to list. More foreclosures on the market will mean more supply and more downward price pressure. We expect housing starts to remain low until more of the excess inventory of existing homes is absorbed.
We see commercial building leading the construction sector out of the recession, which is unusual. On the commercial side, we are seeing signs of an increase in demand, which we hope will continue and strengthen. The return to health of the financial and banking sectors should translate into more commercial real estate and development lending.
PM: What opportunities does the green building movement offer to plumbing and piping contractors?
RD: The U.S. Green Building Council reports 1 billion square feet of buildings around the world have now been LEED-certified over the last decade. The U.S. green building market will continue to grow, particularly in the government sector, creating an opportunity for contractors to market and up-sell green and sustainable products. The private sector will build the most efficient buildings possible. Residential construction also will offer opportunities. More manufacturers are marketing products to meet this demand. Charlotte Pipe and Kohler Co. are working to obtain LEED points for plumbing products, something that is currently unavailable for owners, builders and architects.
PM: What is the significance to contractors of the new certification program from NSF and CISPI for no-hub cast-iron couplings?
RD: NSF International is a great certification agency. The Cast Iron Soil Pipe Institute recently announced it partnered with NSF to launch a new certification program that will hold no-hub cast-iron couplings to rigorous standards. We don’t make couplings but the new standards will be just as tough as they are on NSF-certified cast-iron soil pipe and fittings.
CISPI assisted NSF in developing this new certification program to give users confidence that the cast-iron pipe, fittings and couplings used in drain, waste and vent systems are made to the appropriate industry standards. Manufacturers will receive NSF certification for couplings that meet the CISPI 310 standard based on in-plant inspections conducted by trained NSF personnel. Now plumbing professionals can simply look for the NSF marks on their cast-iron pipe, fittings and no-hub couplings to be confident the products meet the highest quality-control standards.
PM: How is Charlotte Pipe connecting with contractors today?
RD: We have always placed a premium on building close, personal relationships with the contractors who use our products every day. We want them to know we appreciate their business and we want to be a technical resource for them in the field.
In addition to spending time with contractors, we launched our new Facebook page, www.facebook.com/CharlottePipe, on March 1. Social media allows us to reach a younger generation of plumbers who may not be as familiar with our company. We’re using our Facebook page to distribute useful information and spark conversations on topics that are of interest to the contracting and engineering communities.
PM: If you had one message to give to contractors, what would it be?
RD: Hang in there. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and as long as it’s not a train, we’ll get our economy and construction markets back to health soon.
PM: What else has Charlotte Pipe done to support contractors’ green building efforts?
RD: Our cast-iron soil pipe and fittings are as green as green can be. For decades we have been manufacturing cast-iron soil pipe from 100 percent recycled content, resulting in millions of tons of scrap iron being recycled. As an added bonus, cast iron can be recycled after the life of a building and re-melted into new soil pipe and fittings. Ninety percent of the scrap iron we use comes in by rail, which helps to keep our carbon footprint very small.
Demand for new green products led us to launch RePVC and ReUze piping systems. Unlike traditional PVC pipe, the center layer of RePVC is made of 100 percent recycled material, slowing the consumption of raw materials and reducing the amount of waste entering landfills. RePVC is NSF-listed and manufactured to ASTM F 1760.
ReUze is the answer to engineers and contractors looking for a well-marked, efficient way to distribute nonpotable water inside a building or home. It is the first purple CPVC pipe, and it is clearly marked as “WARNING: NONPOTABLE WATER DO NOT DRINK.” The color and markings ensure that water lines fit for human consumption are not crossed with nonpotable water lines. Until now, some contractors have reported using copper pipe, painting it purple and then marking the pipe by hand; this is not an optimal or efficient way to install a piping system.
PM: From your viewpoint, what are the biggest challenges plumbing and piping contractors face today?
RD: During the peak of the construction boom, finding and keeping reliable skilled labor was the biggest challenge facing contractors. Today, keeping the doors open and maintaining positive cash flow are the big struggles. Contractors have had to right-size their businesses and low-bid on projects just to keep their people working. Unemployment in the construction market is more than twice as high as the overall unemployment figures. Contractors have had to face rising material costs and unbelievable competition. Eventually, successful contractors will have to be able to re-establish acceptable profit margins.
PM: Overall, are contractors doing a good job of making sure the right piping material is being installed in the right application?
RD: The trend toward value engineering originally specified cast-iron soil pipe and fittings with plastic DWV plumbing systems in building construction has been underway for some time. The worst economy in 70 years has tempted engineers, developers and contractors to look at this possibility to save every penny they can.
On the surface, value engineering may appear to be good business. Code restrictions on the use of plastic pipe and fittings have gradually diminished over time in certain model codes and local jurisdictions. And certainly there are appropriate applications where it makes economic sense to use plastic in place of cast iron - such as in tract home construction.
But in our estimation, the practice of value engineering within the industry has gone too far. While others argue that plastics meet the minimum code standards, what meets code and what represents the best solution for high-performance buildings are two very different questions. Good engineers and good mechanical contractors understand this.
As a company that manufactures both plastic and cast-iron pipe and fittings, we have been obligated to speak out. There are applications where Charlotte Pipe and Foundry would not recommend the use of plastics as a replacement for cast iron - specifically in underground, commercial high-rise construction or high-end custom homes. Not only is it technically inappropriate in these applications, often it does not even make economic sense to switch when installing plastics properly.
PM: What can contractors expect to see from Charlotte Pipe in the second half of 2011?
RD: We have an active new products committee that continues to explore new products to diversify our offering as well as provide more value for contractors and wholesalers. In addition, we’ve invested heavily in information technologies that will help contractors be more efficient and cost effective.
For example, our extensive line of pipe and fittings is now available as Autodesk Revit drawings; these are parametric files that can be downloaded at www.charlottepipe.com. Users can download individual products or groups of products, depending on their needs. By using Charlotte Pipe’s Revit offering, they can now get exact data and dimensions, making the virtual system much closer to a real-life installation.
PM: What do you see as Charlotte Pipe’s greatest accomplishment or most distinguishing feature?
RD: This year we are celebrating our 110th anniversary - a proud accomplishment to be sure. We’ve produced a short video to commemorate our longevity and posted it to www.charlottepipe.com and our new Facebook page.
However, we are most proud of the fact that we have not had a forced layoff in almost 30 years. In fact, in our cast-iron operation, our last layoff was in 1958. Even in this historic downturn, we have kept our people on the payroll and working as many hours as we can give them, with full benefits. Our associates have been loyal and hard-working and we believe it is not only a good business decision to keep our people on, but also the right thing to do. The best attributes we have are our employees and our customers.