Combatting infections with copper pipework

Covid-19 has seen how we do business and our usual working practices change rapidly during these unprecedented times, with some sectors and certain products becoming more crucial than ever before. Here, Dan Wild, UK business unit director for Conex Bänninger, outlines the advantages of copper as a pipework material and the specific role it plays in helping to combat infections.

There’s no doubt that the last few months have been difficult, not just in the UK, but across the globe. For those involved in the HVAC industry, it’s been particularly tough getting to grips with the government guidelines and really understanding the extent of work that is seen as ‘essential’.

For a vast number of installers up and down the country, whether they were working on domestic or commercial projects, many have had no choice but to lay down their tools and stay home over the last few months. Whilst this obviously has significant financial implications for businesses and individuals alike, the good news is that government support is available and everyone should be extremely proud that they’ve played their part in staying safe and helping to protect the NHS and frontline essential workers.

However, for all those that aren’t involved in ‘essential’ projects, there’s also many installers out there carrying out vital work on frontline projects to maintain the supply of heating and hot water to UK homes, hospitals and businesses.

With health and safety at the top of the national news and political agenda, one solution that has been around for centuries but is growing in popularity is copper pipework.

The key reason for this is the antimicrobial properties of copper. In many healthcare and medical environments for example, which require the strictest hygiene performance specifications, copper pipework has been the number one plumbing material of choice for many years.

The advantages of using copper pipework is increasing all the time, with more and more projects thinking seriously about the benefits of the material, to help minimise any potential risks posed by waterborne bacteria.

Copper attacks a wide range of dangerous bacteria, including Legionella, and helps prevent a multitude of pseudomonas infections such as ‘swimmer’s ear’. Direct interaction between the surface of the copper and the bacterial outer membrane causes it to rupture. As a result, the bacterium loses vital nutrients, water and dies.

This biocidal effect of copper and copper alloys is recognised by several major scientific bodies. In 2014, the independent non-profit making ECRI Institute (formerly known as the Emergency Care Research Institute), whose guidance is looked to by more than 5,000 healthcare organisations worldwide, listed anti-microbial copper as ‘one of its Top 10 Technologies to Watch’.

Of course, proper water hygiene continues to be absolutely essential with EN806 taking over from BS6700 as the applicable industry standard covering ‘specifications for installations inside buildings conveying water for human consumption’. This makes copper an essential material to specify at the design stage of a new drinking water system or a refurbishment too.

As a general rule for drinking water, keep cold water cold and hot water hot. Up to 20°C bacteria can survive but are not active. At 60°C and above some 90% of bacteria will be killed within two minutes. The ‘optimal zone’ for bacteria to thrive is between 45°C and 60°C.

It’s not just the antimicrobial properties of copper that make it an ideal pipework solution. As a noble metal, copper also resists corrosion and compares favourably to steel and iron. It is highly resistant to extremes of temperature too, whether those be highs or lows and in the case of a fire (its melting point is 1,085 °C) its non-flammable capabilities mean copper tube and fittings will not burn or give off toxic fumes. Copper also performs well in terms of its linear thermal expansion – or lack of it. Where the temperature rises by 30°C, copper pipework will expand by just 5mm over 10 metres. While marginally bettered by steel (4mm), it matches stainless steel, is better than aluminium (7mm) and comprehensively outperforms PE (Polyethylene) (54mm) and PVC (60mm).

Copper also is a sustainable material of choice as it is 100% recyclable. In fact, some 80% of copper ever mined is still in use today. And while it takes 100 gigajoules of energy to refine one ton of copper, it takes only 10 gigajoules to reprocess it. So recycling is 90% better when environmental costs are taken into consideration.

To find out more about the benefits of copper pipework as a preferential fitting material, take advantage of Conex Bänninger’s CPD programme. The programme is designed with specifiers and M & E contractors in mind while stockists, installers and water suppliers will also find it useful.

While focussing on copper, the programme also looks at current legislation and codes of practice, and considers the full range of products and jointing solutions on the market, from solder and braze, to compression, threaded, press and push fit.