Over the past year, the pandemic has had great impacts on our mental, physical and social world. This has affected every aspect of our lives, from the way we think to the way we work to the way we eat (getting groceries delivered), sleep (some, not so much) and breathe (through masks).

This new way of life has also shifted the commercial construction industry, revealing the need for greater hygiene and indoor environmental quality (IEQ) in our health care buildings. Since these structures house the most vulnerable individuals — both young and old — it’s important to focus on innovations that make these buildings safer for the health of the occupants, while also keeping in mind the need for economically viable solutions that help projects stay on budget and on schedule.

Greater hygiene in plumbing systems

PEX, developed in 1968, is now the most-installed plumbing product in residential new construction, beating both copper and CPVC combined.

However, while PEX has become the standard in the residential sector over the past two decades, the commercial world has been slower to adopt the technology, with some believing metals are superior to polymers.

Yet, with demands increasing for value-engineered commercial projects, PEX has come to the forefront. With a plumbing-pipe offering in sizes up to 3 inches, PEX is challenging traditional copper and CPVC materials for domestic water applications. Its combination of cost savings, installation efficiencies and stronger performance are proving PEX is the best solution for meeting the new needs of commercial-building design and construction.

One of the best features of PEX is its durability. While copper systems can corrode and experience scale buildup over time, PEX is immune to these factors that can have a very adverse effect on water quality in the form of bad taste and odor or even bacterial formation.

In addition, PEX joining methods don’t require glues, cements or other chemicals that are necessary with CPVC systems. These joining chemicals have the potential to pose risk if they seep into the drinking water system.

Depending on the manufacturer, most PEX products are listed to ANSI/NSF 61 Drinking Water System Components — Health Effects and are evaluated by the ASTM F2023 test method for assessing oxidative resistance to hot, chlorinated water. This provides confirmation the pipe does not leach harmful substances into drinking water and is safe for potable systems in healthcare facilities.

From an installer standpoint, PEX provides installation efficiencies as well as safety on the job site. The flexible pipe bends to reduce the labor time and costs of fittings with each change in direction, and the connection system eliminates open flame and chemicals for added installation ease and job-site safety. Additionally, its lighter weight (up to three times lighter than copper) makes it much safer and easier to move around a job site.

Fewer connections in a flexible PEX system also improves water flow and reduces pressure loss for better system efficiencies and performance. In addition, the smooth interior surface of PEX also means less pressure loss in a system.

Best of all, PEX has stable material costs, making it a reliable solution when it comes to bidding a project. With copper pricing fluctuating on a daily basis, increasing more than 25% in 2020 (according to tradingeconomics.com), PEX is the safer bet for the bottom line as well.

Better IEQ with hydronic systems

The coronavirus has also exposed the weaknesses of our indoor climate systems to protect us — not just from the virus, but also allergens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and microbial contaminants, such as mold and bacteria.

Hydronic radiant heating and cooling systems that use flexible PEX in a slab, under floors, or in the walls or ceilings to transport warm or cool water to condition an interior space are highly effective solutions for creating energy-efficient comfort while improving a structure’s IEQ.

Over the past two decades, the number of radiant heating and cooling systems in North America has increased dramatically because of the well-known sustainability factors of the application. This is because the heat-transfer capacity of water is 3,500 times greater than that of air, so a radiant system that uses a circulator to move water (instead of a fan to move air) can achieve the same heat transfer using significantly less energy.

Now, with the focus on IEQ and, more specifically, air quality, radiant heating and cooling systems are becoming even more popular because they don’t use fans or blowers that circulate viruses and allergens through the air. With a radiant system that quietly, effectively moves water through PEX piping under the floors or in walls or ceilings, health care facilities have a consistent, reliable solution that doesn’t depend on the air (along with the necessary filters and ducts) for comfort.

Using PEX for distribution piping in hydronic hot-water heating or chilled-water cooling applications is also a smart solution. Again, because the pipe is available in sizes up to 3 inches, it’s a durable, corrosion-resistant solution compared with copper, steel and black-iron pipe for risers, mains, and distribution piping. And, again, because of its safety on the job site with lighter weights and safer connections, it makes sense to switch to PEX for these applications.

The importance of learning more

As the commercial building industry continues to evolve as we look toward a future of safer, smarter structures — especially in health care — it is our responsibility to ensure the products and systems we are installing in buildings are effectively meeting all areas of high-performance building.

This means providing durable, reliable, safe and sustainable solutions that are effective to design, easy to install, meet budget requirements and deliver on long-lasting performance for decades to come.

If you are interested in learning more about PEX pipe and fitting systems, visit the Plastics Pipe Institute website at plasticpipe.org or the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association website at ppfahome.org. For more information about radiant heating and cooling systems or hydronic distribution systems, visit radiantprofessionalsalliance.org, heatinghelp.com or healthyheating.com.