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Comparing Steel and Plastic Pipelines in the Water Industry

The water industry relied on pipeline infrastructure to distribute water and the primary material options chosen for this are steel and plastic. Each material has pros and cons to consider and they are used for different applications.

Steel pipelines are known for their durability and strength.

They are made from various alloys which include stainless steel and carbon steel. Steel pipes can withstand high temperatures and pressures which make them ideal for industrial applications. They are also used in high demand urban areas. It is a rigid material that also has tensile strength. It has minimal deformation under pressure which is needed for water distribution systems. You can read more about the characteristics of steel pipelines in the steel mains blog. Plastic pipelines are made from PVC, PEX, HDPE etc. and they are known for their resistance to corrosion. They are flexible and lightweight. You can produce plastic pipelines in long continuous lengths so that the number of joints needed is reduced. This will reduce the potential for leaks. The internal surfaces of plastic pipes are smooth which further reduces friction so that the water flow is more efficient.

When it comes to durability,

Steel pipelines are very durable but they can be susceptible to corrosion if they are in an environment with acidic soil or high salinity. Corrosion leads to peaks and failures in the pipeline if they are not maintained properly with protective coatings or cathodic protection systems. But steel pipelines will last for many decades with good maintenance. As plastic pipelines have a high resistance to corrosion and chemical reactions, this gives them an advantage when it comes to maintenance and longevity. The flexibility of plastic pipelines allows them to withstand ground movements and seismic activities as well. The initial cost of steel pipelines is higher compared to plastic pipes. This is because more resources and energy goes to produce steel. Installation is also quite labour intensive as this needs welding and handling of heavy materials. The maintenance costs can also be quite substantial given the prevention of corrosion.

There is a lower initial cost for plastic pipelines

And the labour and machinery needed for installation is reduced given its lightweight nature. But there are environmental considerations in choosing pipeline materials as well. While steel production is energy intensive and leads to significant greenhouse gas emissions, it is a highly recyclable material. And recycled steel will have the properties of new steel which will greatly mitigate the environmental footprint. But there are concerns regarding plastic pipelines as it is derived from petroleum based products. While production of plastic generates fewer emissions, the long term consequences on the environment is significant. There are some types of plastic that can be recycled but this process is not as efficient as steel recycling nor as widespread. Plastic pipelines will also contribute to microplastics pollution as they degrade over time. When choosing between steel and plastic, you have to consider the specific application and environmental conditions. You can use steel when you need high strength and resistance to mechanical loads. This is generally for industrial applications. For residential areas where the environment is less demanding, plastic pipelines will be a good option.