green, corrugated pipe stacked outside

The Future of Utility Infrastructure

Pipe extruders have a list of demands to meet when it comes to their products. Pipes must be strong, leak-free, corrosion-resistant, long-lasting and affordable. Copper, clay, concrete, and iron previously served as popular choices for pipes, but issues with each material became more obvious as alternatives gained traction. For example, copper pipes used to be the standard for utilities, but are now at risk of corroding. Heavier materials like iron and concrete are more costly than plastic to ship due to the increased energy used during transit. And while clay pipes are a natural, sustainable material, plants can grow through them because they're brittle.

First introduced over 70 years ago, HDPE seemed undesirable for pipes due to its low crack resistance. However, HDPE quickly grew in popularity as the material evolved into a more durable and cost-effective option. Widely used in industries such as construction, oil, gas, agriculture, and water sectors, PE pipe effectively transports potable water, wastewater, chemicals, hazardous waste, and compressed gases.

With a growing demand for reliable pipes in utility infrastructures, there is little room for error. Breaks and corrosion are common issues with pipes that present risk to the environment and populations. As a result, cost-effective, sustainable, and durable pipes are paramount.

HDPE is now one of the most popular choices for piping applications, with 20% of all plastic produced used in construction applications due to its lifespan and durability.1 In fact, HDPE’s 100-year life expectancy is nearly double that of alternatives like copper2 and clay3. Plus, polyethylene resists corrosion, bacteria, and tuberculation, which allows it to retain flow capacity for the entire product lifespan.

Pros and Cons of Pipe Alternatives

HDPE vs. Copper

A popular choice for piping applications, copper’s heavier weight makes it costly to transport. Copper pipes are more expensive and less flexible than HDPE pipes. They are also susceptible to sweating, which can lead to mold or mildew issues, and prone to burst when water freezes in them.4 Copper is less eco-friendly as well, due to the energy required to fabricate, transport, and install heavy pipes, something environmentally-conscious buyers will need to consider.5

HDPE vs. Clay

While popular due to their natural composition, clay pipes also have their faults. They are susceptible to roots growing into them, leading to blockages or leaks, and are expensive to transport due to their weight and fragility. Repairs and installations are also more expensive than with HDPE because workers need to be careful when handling the pipes.6

HDPE vs. Concrete

Concrete pipes certainly have long lifespans and high durability compared to other materials. These pipes can also withstand high pressure and heat, but their biggest flaw comes around maintenance. Concrete pipes must be maintained regularly to avoid blockages from sewage. And without the proper equipment or expertise, installation can be tricky, leading to additional costs and breakage.7

HDPE vs. Iron

If you were to take a pipe popularity poll in the first half of the 20th century, iron would easily win. Their strength and durability made iron pipes great for long-lasting underground applications. It's also a heat-resistant and noise-resistant material. Unfortunately, their susceptibility to rust makes them fragile and dangerous. Like concrete and copper, iron pipes' heavy weight makes them more costly to ship than a lightweight material like HDPE.8

The Top Choice for Strength, Durability, and Sustainability

HDPE has quickly become one of the most popular pipe materials for a variety of reasons. In addition to high strength ratings, HDPE offers superior weather-resistant advantages and is able to withstand rain, wind, seismic activity, and extreme temperatures. That’s because HDPE can flex, leading to its 0.00001% failure rate in the events mentioned above. Flexibility is a lauded characteristic for pipes in oil applications where seismic activity is common.

HDPE doesn’t rust and is resistant to abrasions, lowering chances that it will break like other pipe materials. Regarding durability, HDPE can withstand and dampen shock waves more than other pipe materials, making it highly resistant to water and useful for rugged environments.9

With sustainability gaining more importance, and pipe breakages getting more notoriety, pipe extruders require high-quality materials that address their challenges. HDPE has a small carbon footprint beyond the material’s creation,10 and it’s lighter than other materials like copper, concrete, or iron. HDPE’s light weight makes it less expensive to transport, saving extruders on gas and energy usage during transit. And when it reaches end-of-life, HDPE is 100% recyclable and doesn’t lead to substantial environmental or human health hazards as the disposal of other pipe materials may.

Shell Polymers will work with customers to address their specific needs around plastic pipes. We’ll supply high-quality, consistent HDPE resin that helps pipe extruders and their customers experience the benefits of HDPE pipes.

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Technical Expertise for PE Pipe Extrusion

Carl Baker

Professional headshot of Senior Technical Service Engineer, Carl Baker

Senior Technical Service Engineer, Pipe

A registered professional engineer since 1985, Carl Baker has spent more than 35 years in the polymer industry doing a variety of roles ranging from technical services, development, troubleshooting, and more. Carl holds leadership positions in several key industry organizations including the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association, the American Society for Testing and Materials, the Canadian Standards Association, and is a former board member of the Plastic Pipe Institute.

Meet Carl

Adriana Velasquez

Professional headshot of Senior Technical Service Engineer, Adriana Velasquez

Technical Service Engineer, Non-Pressure Pipe

A member of the Shell Polymer team since 2018, Adriana has more than 15 years of experience helping customers innovate in pipe and rotomolding applications. An acknowledged leader in her industry, she is Shell’s representative in external standards, certification and public safety organizations, including ASTM, CSA, NSF and the Transportation Research Board. Adriana also represents Shell in industry organizations such as the Plastic Pipe Institute, Association of Rotational Molders, and Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association.

1 https://www.modernbuildingalliance.eu/environmental-sustainability-plastics-construction/

2 https://www.copper.org/applications/plumbing/techref/chill/chllrs_nts_blts.html

3 https://www.cpda.co.uk/pipe-characteristics/durability/

4 https://www.donleyservice.com/plastic-pipe-vs-copper-pipes-which-ones-best-for-your-home/

5 https://plasticpipe.org/drainage/sustainability.html

6 https://plasticpipe.org/pdf/ppi-mid-position-paper-econompc-benefit-hdpe-pipe.pdf

7 https://www.buildingsolutions.com/industry-insights/3-tips-to-leverage-your-stormwater-management-system-into-a-sustainable-design

8 https://plasticpipe.org/pdf/ppi-mid-position-paper-econompc-benefit-hdpe-pipe.pdf

9 https://www.donleyservice.com/plastic-pipe-vs-copper-pipes-which-ones-best-for-your-home/

10 https://trenchlesstechnology.com/stating-their-case-pvc-vs-hdpe/