Rushing in Where Copper Fears to Tread

By Nicholas Owsley

Every once in a while, industry will come up with a solution to a social challenge. Copper piping has been an industry favourite for residential and commercial plumbing for many years due its highly accommodating physical properties. In the past few years, however, copper theft has sky-rocketed and made the use of copper piping in plumbing systems risky and burdensome from a security point-of-view. Largely in response to this challenge, composite pipe technology has made major strides in recent years at improving product quality, and is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to copper.

The product of 20 years of research and development in Germany, Ginde South Africa’s multi-layer composite pipe system is one of the larger players in the market. According to the manufacturers, these multi-layer hybrids of plastic and aluminium generally boast many of the best properties of copper piping while avoiding a number of the drawbacks. Typically, copper pipes display impressive temperature stability and can be exposed to very high temperatures, a property that traditional plastic pipes do not possess. Multi-layer pipes, however, due to their aluminium core, are highly heat resistant and can face a large range of temperatures without damage or contamination. Multi-layer pipes also match copper pipes in flexibility and strength, another of the major value-adds of copper piping. This allows the piping to be installed with far fewer fittings. Multi-layer piping technology maintains these benefits without compromising on necessities such as durability and pressure stability. This technology is also exceptionally versatile and can be used in a wide range of applications, from under-floor heating and air conditioning systems to distributing natural gas.

The physical properties of these pipes are evident, but in our local context what really gives them their special appeal is that people are not eager to jump fences in efforts to illegally procure them. Since 1998, copper theft has risen dramatically, and the theft of copper piping in residential and commercial plumbing systems has failed to escape the ambit of this illicit activity. Copper exposed on the outside walls of buildings is a prime target for copper thieves, but often even buried pipes have attracted thieves’ designs.

Dudley Reid, the owner of Durban-based Dudley’s Plumbers, notes that his customer base experiences on average two incidents of copper theft a week. Furthermore, the cost of this theft is often not limited to replacing the pipes, but can include costly repairs as well since the process often causes widespread damage to property. Ryan Owsley, owner of Ryano’s Plumbing in Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape, says that he often encounters incidents of property damage from copper theft, often from thieves having to dig up piping or forcefully remove it from enclosing structures. ‘One of my customers had some piping wrenched from her ceiling and the water damage destroyed almost all of her furniture and caused major damage to her floor and ceiling. Almost everything in the house had to be replaced,’ laments Owsley.

Owsley says that the insurance companies he works with are increasingly refusing to replace stolen piping with copper pipes due to the risk of second-time theft.

Copper theft has a significant national impact. In 2012, Police Minister Nathi Mthetwa estimated that copper theft caused a R5bn drain on the South African economy. This impact is driven predominantly by cable theft, but as the illicit trade in copper has grown so the theft in copper piping has grown with it.

In light of these developments, multi-layer composite piping has gained traction as the product of choice in the global plumbing industry, and has also made in-roads in plumbing systems in South African residential and commercial properties. Since 1999, Ginde Pipes, an international producer of Multi-layer composite pipes, has expanded its distribution to 89 countries globally, and sells an average of 20 million feet of piping per month. Ginde SA, the South African branch of the international distributor, has also expanded its footprint and includes 33 agencies nation-wide, also supplying to 11 Southern African countries in total. U-Smart, another importer of multi-layer composite pipes, has installed piping systems for a number of soccer stadiums and hospitals, indicating that this technology is becoming popular for use in large-scale projects. “The piping technology developed by Ginde and others has allowed residential and commercial property owners to enjoy many of the advantages of copper without the patent risk of damage to property, and the need to install sophisticated security systems to ward off would-be thieves,” explains Ginde SA MD Emil Visage.

Undoubtedly, the scourge of copper theft needs to be stopped in its entirety, and it is up to the systems of justice to ensure that this harmful illicit trade is brought to a halt. The existence of illegal copper trade networks has significant ramifications for the economy as a whole, especially with regards to cable theft. However, multi-layer composite piping has proved to be a consumer’s solution to the problem of copper piping theft, and perhaps there are lessons here for other manufacturers who utilise copper and other precious metals in their products. Until such a time as the illegal copper trade is curbed, this technology appears to be the future of commercial and residential plumbing in South Africa.

 Nicholas Owsley is an Assistant Project Manager at Fetola. He recently graduated with an Honours Degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and has been published in the Sowetan, Engineering News, Business Report, and others.

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