Debate Over Piping a Problem for Engineers
Debate over the best piping material has been on the rise recently, and for engineers, who ultimately bear responsibility for their designs, this conflict of conduits has become something of a headache.
“There is a need and a time and a place for all types of pipe,” says Marguerite McClam, P.E., with the South Carolina Society of Professional Engineers. “It’s up to the engineer to do their homework to determine what’s best in a particular situation.”
The real headache for PEs comes from attempts to legislate how pipe is chosen for a project and even what type of pipe PEs can use in their designs. Both SCSPE and the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers have recently had to contend with such attempts to interfere with PEs using their own professional judgment based on experience, expertise, qualifications, and the applied knowledge of engineering principles to determine the type of pipe that should be used in a given situation.
“The thrust of the legislation was basically to require engineers to just say how the pipe had to perform … and then leave it up to the contractor to select the material,” says OSPE member Andrew Stone, P.E. “OSPE’s opposition was basically saying those specifications aren’t going to cover all of the considerations as to why an engineer would select a particular type of pipe.”
In his testimony on a bill (H.B. 214) before the Ohio House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Stone provided an example of a consideration simple specifications don’t cover. “By maintaining a piping system constructed of the same material and standard sizes, a community can stock interchangeable parts that fit the entire system, thereby lowering repair costs and shortening outages,” he told the committee. “Think of it as similar to purchasing computers for a large office. Would anyone buy Apple computers for half an office and PCs for the other half?”
Whether maintaining pipes or computers, according to Stone, necessary resources and costs go up the more types you try to use in a single system. As a result, H.B. 214 could inhibit communities from making the best decisions for their particular circumstances.
The bill currently allows for engineers to specify a particular type of pipe if sound engineering practices suggest a certain piping material is more suitable to the project, but it is the opinion of both OSPE and the National Society of Professional Engineers that such language puts a burden on PEs to justify their decision.
As NSPE’s Immediate Past President Tim Austin, P.E., F.NSPE, put it in his letter to the Ohio House committee, such a burden goes against NSPE’s Position Statement No. 1745, which indicates that “an engineer in ‘responsible charge’ should be completely in charge of, and satisfied with, the work product of the engineering services rendered. Additionally, an engineer in ‘responsible charge’ should have and exercise the authority to review and to reject or approve both the engineering work in progress and the final work product.”
In South Carolina, lawmakers rejected H.B. 4661 (originally introduced as S.B. 408), in part due to the efforts of SCSPE in 2014, but the bill has since reappeared. As introduced, the measure would have required state agencies to use PVC piping for water supply, wastewater, stormwater, or storm drainage projects.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a need for plastics,” McClam says. “[But] it all depends on the situation.”
For example, contaminates in the ground can be absorbed through PVC and other thermoplastic pipe, she explains, which makes it an incredibly poor choice to run through contaminated areas. In situations where replacing pipe isn’t especially difficult or costly, however, thermoplastics are a good choice for reducing upfront costs, she continues.
PVC is also typically a great choice for sewer lines, according to McClam, but she believes the decision should be made by a qualified engineer. Engineers, she says, are the ones doing the research on and looking at the implications of different types of pipe.
The language in South Carolina H.B. 4661 has since been amended and in its current form is similar to Ohio H.B. 214. It requires government engineers to “consider all piping material in determining project requirements when state funds are used for a water supply, wastewater, stormwater, or storm drainage project.” The language may be less restrictive than the Ohio bill, but ultimately the South Carolina Society still believes it could put a burden on PEs to justify their decision.
Both bills have been referred to committee. As of mid-August, Ohio H.B. 214 was still before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee and South Carolina H.B. 4661 was before the House Committee on Finance.
“We were able to stall it in sub-committee,” says SCSPE Executive Director Adam Jones. “But we know from the other lobbyists it’s definitely going to come back.”