Much like the cellphone industry a decade ago, today the backflow preventer market is going small.
“Designers and engineers are asking for backflow preventers that fit in smaller spaces with a reduced footprint and are easy to test, maintain and repair,” Zurn Product Manager of Water Safety Rick Fields says.
Watts Water Technologies Backflow Product Specialist Cameron Rapoport agrees: “The market is trending toward lighter, smaller valves, as well as ease of field repair — especially for larger-diameter valves. We’re seeing manufacturers transitioning to more advanced materials or using mixed materials, such as composites or stainless, as part of their design platform.”
To meet these demands, Zurn has developed its Flood Control Integrated System. The company’s FCIS is a plug-and-play solution for relief-valve discharge, allowing a facility manager to determine when relief-valve water discharge changes from a nuisance to a hazardous situation within their building.
“In critical water applications such as hospitals,” Fields begins, “the FCIS can shut down one system and open up a bypass to provide continuous service. Headloss is a concern in many areas as is water discharge from the differential-relief valve on reduced-pressure principle assemblies. These concerns have not changed much over the years, but what has changed is how much more focused we are on helping customers solve these problems.”
Gene Faasse, a design engineer and product compliance with T&S Brass, believes current gaps in technology may offer opportunities for manufacturers to innovate creative solutions.
“The majority of backflow-prevention devices now are individual products that require connection to the water system,” he says. “If these products also could be designed as modular components, manufacturers could more easily incorporate them in their products and where needed as currently happens with simple press-in check-valve cartridges, interchangeable faucet cartridges and faucet aerators. A modular design also would simplify periodic service or replacement.
He adds: “Often times, backflow-prevention devices are a visible part of a finished product even though they are not aesthetically pleasing devices. A modular component could be better integrated in the product design for aesthetic purposes.”
Cutting through the red tape
Fields notes developing new technologies poses a tough challenge for manufacturers because the codes and standards side of the industry is slow to react.
“Existing standards are not addressing technological advances other industries are now leveraging, which can be very design-restrictive,” he says. “End customers need to be vocal in expressing their needs, which will help the entire industry influence standards changes.”
Fields adds: “Market development is occurring within our own defined geography. As backflow codes and ordinances become stronger and better enforced, the combination of containment and isolation backflow programs are seen as the right solution to providing safe and clean drinking water and making sure this assurance does not ever vanish.”
Faasse says finding the proper compliance agency with jurisdiction is a major challenge.
“The manufacturer often will get involved to investigate the issue, discuss with the jurisdiction official and offer a resolution to the MEP associates on the project,” he says. “As with most plumbing-related products, regulatory requirements tend to be both a primary driver and primary limiter for new technologies. Before being introduced, any new advances require a multi-step process that includes evaluating whether the technology is covered by an existing standard or whether a new standard or amendment will be needed. Does an adequate test protocol exist to evaluate the technology in a way that will satisfy regulators? Will national, state or local regulators accept the technology and permit its use? Addressing all these issues is a long process for manufacturers.”
Rapoport points out shrinking mechanical rooms have posed some issues in the backflow-preventer market. Watts has integrated more advanced analytical tools — such as computational fluid dynamics — as well as real-time lab and field evaluations to elevate issues.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is the tradeoffs between providing the best possible cross-connection protection, handling debris in the water such as sand and grit particles, and the need for maximized fluid flow and minimized head loss through a backflow device,” Rapoport says. “This is especially true when you consider the need for more compact backflow devices due to shrinking mechanical rooms. These factors tend to be mutually exclusive. However, this balancing act is a critical aspect of all backflow designs.”
Because of the volatility in copper pricing, Rapoport and Watts believe the shift away from the primary raw material in backflow preventers (copper) is on the horizon.
“We see a shift to more advanced materials playing a significant role in future backflow designs —just like what we saw in residential piping when it moved toward CPVC and PEX,” Rapoport notes.
Fields and Zurn believe the focus on testing backflow-preventer systems is key to the future of the market. Zurn aims to help a backflow preventer owner better identify when failures occur and how to solve the issue quickly and economically. In due time, Field says, it may be possible for owners to identify failures before they occur.
“Backflow preventers are somewhat unique to other valve products in a water system. Since they protect the sanctity of the drinking water system and ensure drinking water is safe, it is essential they are tested annually,” Fields says. “(Tests) can reveal degradation of internal components, usually caused by aggressive water, flow or pressure conditions or the presence of debris in the water system.”
Rapoport agrees enhanced training on these devices is of utmost importance.
“Increased education about backflow devices and backflow prevention is one of the most vital components toward ensuring the continued safety of our water supply,” Rapoport says. “Not just educating those directly involved with specifying, installing and maintaining the backflow-preventer, though they definitely should get as much education as possible, but also the public in general.
“Robust backflow prevention programs cost money. The public needs to understand the importance of these programs and support their cities and counties in developing and maintaining strong backflow-prevention plans.”