A Brief History of Pipe Materials
Aug 16, 2023
Sewer systems have been around in one form or another for thousands of years. As technology advanced, pipeline materials have changed, improving durability and functionality.
With all these developments over time, most utilities have to contend with multiple pipeline materials, each of which have different maintenance concerns and a different lifespan.
Early Sewer Systems
Materials in the 1800s
The first waterworks in the United States was installed in Philadelphia in 1802. Many of these early systems were still built with brick and mortar. Lines had to be much larger to account for the rough interior and required more structural support. Over time, corrosive materials in the sewer also wore away mortar, leading cities to invest in other, newer materials. One of the new pipe materials to find popular use was wooden pipe.
These pipes came in two styles: stave style, made by pressing beveled boards together with steel banding, or log style, made by hollowing out the middle of a log. These types of pipes were installed across the United States, from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon. As recently as July of 2018, crews unearthed a wooden log pipe in downtown Spokane, Washington on the Idaho border.
New Materials for a Modern Age
By the 1900s, vitrified clay was the piping material of choice for most cities. First discovered in Babylonia in 4000 BC, vitrified clay is made by firing clay pipes and throwing salt into the kiln to produce vapor. Clay pipes are very heavy and required water or rail transport, meaning many cities could only install them if they had a local supply of clay. Though popular, vitrified clay requires care during installation.
Another popular material during this time was fiber conduit, more commonly known as Orangeburg pipe, named for one of its manufacturers, Orangeburg Manufacturing Company. Fiber conduit was created by impregnating wood fibers with coal-tar pitch. This pipe material became popular for a number of uses: water transmission, sanitary sewers, electrical lines and more. It grew in popularity throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s.
Its popularity declined beginning in the late 1960s as PVC entered the market. Orangeburg pipe is not currently used for new piping due to its shorter lifespan. Cast iron was also a popular material at this time. The first cast iron pipes were installed at Versailles in 1664. In the United States, the first cast iron pipes were installed in Philadelphia in the 1810s to replace deteriorated spruce log pipes. Eventually, Philadelphia was entirely piped with cast iron due to its longevity and ability to withstand higher water pressure. Many of the sewer lines in use today are piped with cast iron.
However, cast iron has a high risk of corrosion, so different coatings were developed to help slow down the corrosion process. One of the most popular coatings was cementlined cast iron.
Concrete pipe was also rising in popularity during this time, though it was signifcantly heavier and more expensive. Prestressed concrete cylinder pipe was first manufactured in 1942 and consists of a thin steel ring encased in concrete.
This type of pipe material is still being installed today and is commonly used for larger pipe diameters, storm sewer lines and water mains. Finally, plastic pipes including PVC, ABS and PEX pipe came into popular use.
Although PVC was first developed in the 1860s, it didn’t take off until the 1950s and ‘60s when more precise extrusion techniques allowed for more reliable manufacturing. Today, plastic pipe is an increasingly popular pipe material, used for everything from sewer laterals and residential plumbing to gas distribution and chemical processing.
It has some of the highest corrosion resistance and claims a long-projected service life, although to date it’s only been in the ground approximately 60 years—as yet well short of materials like clay, which have a demonstrated service life that can exceed 125 years.
As investment in our national infrastructure increases, the durability of these materials will continue to remain a key consideration.
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