PVC the commonly abbreviated name for polyvinyl chloride and is one of the most widely used thermoplastic polymers used in the world. It is heavily used in a number of industries; predominantly however it is used in the construction industry for pipe fittings and window fixtures. The PVC we see today for pipe and other construction uses is a result of the work of the B. F. Goodrich Company during the nineteen twenties. Before this, the material was largely unworkable and sometimes brittle, the combination of plasticizing agents meant that the material became far more malleable and usable.
PVC pipe is a combination of plastic and vinyl materials; as such a pipe made from PVC is durable to the extreme. Fundamentally, it is hard to damage and lasts for long periods of time without the need for replacement. Hence the pipe material is used extensively by those in the construction industry. PVC will never rust or rot and is extremely hardwearing. Within construction; it is predominantly used in water systems, sewer lines and for underground wiring applications.
After its initial development in the twenties it was rarely used for at least another decade. This was because industries found it hard to find applications for the new material. It was not until the late thirties that they found the remarkable shock absorbing properties of PVC. As a result, rather than the pipe applications we see today, PVC was used to create tyre treads that would be long lasting, and hence more cost effective.
It was in the nineteen fifties that the PVC pipe became widely used in the construction industry. This development came as a result of a new manufacturing technique. Put simply the technique used a machine called an extruder; it was through this specialist machinery that it was possible to form the PVC into hollow tubes and hence the PVC pipe was born. The virtual indestructibility of the PVC pipe led to uses in water irrigation systems and more widely in the construction industry as a cheap ad durable way to construct water piping systems.
A PVC pipe is able to cope with large amounts of stress and tension. This ability to handle bending and movement made it the perfect material for use in the construction industry in earthquake prone areas. It is possible for PVC pipe to cope with the stresses of an earthquake and the large amounts of movement without rupturing and experiencing damage.
An added benefit of PVC pipe is that as the material has an extremely smooth surface, it also has the ability to resist bacterial contamination. Bacterial contaminations such as E. coli are seriously harmful to humans and hence this property is highly regarded. As a result of this ability, water companies are happy to use PVC pipe in their systems as it can help to prevent unwanted contamination.
The material does have its limits however, much like the old PVC a pipe carrying high pressure gas can be prone to rupture. These shards can pose quite a threat to those in the vicinity. Added to this, the materials used in construction of PVC pipe, when vaporised can be extremely detrimental to health. Reportedly cases of proximity to heated PVC have stated that the chemicals and heavy metals can lead to certain forms of cancer, especially in the lungs.
This is a minor problem however for a material that has revolutionised the construction industry. Not only has it created a cheap solution to piping problems but, thanks to its long term durability, has meant maintenance costs have been reduced. The question is; would the world be the same without PVC pipe?
Industry expert Thomas Pretty looks into how PVC pipe and pipe fittings have revolutionised the construction industry.