Tight Connections: Press-fit joining expands the possibilities
There used to be just a handful of ways to join Pipe A to Pipe B to Pipe C. Most plumbing projects included spots where workspace was tight and there wasn’t much room for wielding a tool. Plumbing professionals were always looking for ways to do the job more efficiently, more safely and with happy customers as the end result.
Along came the development of the press-fit tool. As more and more contractors continue to move away from traditional methods of pipe joining—brazing, soldering, welding—and press-fit systems become more prominent, tools need to adjust to support and accelerate this transition, said Corey Dickert, director of product marketing for Milwaukee Tool.
“This is a rapidly changing market, fueled by the need for improved consistency and efficiency on the job,” Dickert said. “All firms large and small are looking to maximize bids and service times and minimize call backs. Because of this we are seeing a rapid growth in complete engineered systems like Uponor’s Propex expansion system and press fittings.”
“Pressing copper and PEX connections have become very popular solutions when connecting systems that are carrying hot water,” said Marcus Borman, the global marketing manager, for RIDGID. “As more and more users see the benefits of pressing, we are getting more adoption and contractors are throwing away their torch, flux, and solder.
“Business owners across the country are seeing shorter down times and higher quality connection,” Borman noted. For example, if a pipe burst in a major hotel, or if they decided to expand, they might have to shut down the water supply for a couple of hours in order to solder on a dry system. “Not only would this create a headache for the hotel, but it will also lead to unhappy hotel patrons.
“However, if their joints were pressed, the process could be done in a matter of minutes and meanwhile, the patrons will be unaware of any loss of water. This situation also allows contractors to get in and out of locations quickly and efficiently, resulting in more job sites, helping them attract and retain more customers.”
Though press and expansion tools have been around for a number of years, there is a lot of demand in the marketplace to broaden the capabilities of these systems, Dickert added.“Ten years ago press was primarily used in copper pipe joining. Today, it is used across many systems and there is a rapidly growing market for its use on black pipe. Jaw offerings are being expanded at a rapid rate to support these new systems.
“PEX, on the other hand, is working toward a stronger commercial plumbing position and, with the introduction of the first PEX installation tool that goes up to 3”, The Milwaukee M18 Force Logic ProPEX Expansion Tool, the commercial pipe market has the first product that can take PEX through an entire job from riser to fixture in many cases.”
Vive la difference!
The latest pressing tools are consistently getting lighter and smaller, while retaining the highest quality, Borman said. “At RIDGID, our largest tool with a battery – that can make connections on ½” to 4” copper – weighs 8.5 pounds; 15 years ago, the tool was almost double that weight. Our latest tool also provides customers with the ability to run 42,000 cycles before it needs to be serviced, which is more than any other press tool on the market.”
This trend serves the contractor a number of different ways, Borman said. The newer tools are able to get into tighter spots that prior models were not able to get into. They are easier to hold. They are also easier to take to and from the jobsite. As we make the tools lighter and smaller, we are also improving the quality of the tool at the same time.
In the press market, tool size, bulkiness, and weight have made them challenging to use in a commercial setting amid the mazes of installed pipe, Dickert said. “The Milwaukee Force Logic Press tools offer the only inline one-handed option that can fit anywhere an installer can reach. This has been a game changer for a market that has been challenged by the limitations of the larger pistol gripped tools of the past.
“PEX addresses the need for increased power to generate the force need for cold expansion of large pipe. These trends will continue, but ensuring the tools meet the demand has been necessary to take the next steps in the evolution of the space.”
Press tools used to be known for being difficult to use in tight situations. This has changed, according to the experts.
“This is the most dynamic change in the market place,” Dickert said. Traditional press tools could weigh up to 20 pounds, but today Milwaukee offers the world’s lightest and smallest press tool with its M12 Force Logic Press Tool that comes in at only 3.8 pounds. The M18 Force Logic press tool is the lightest full size press tool on the market and, as mentioned before, both tools are inline so the user can navigate the pipe maze and press a fitting nearly anywhere they can reach their arm. This translates to much more productivity while on the jobsite.”
When working in a tight spot, pressing tools are second to none, Borman agreed. “Not only is it easier to make the connection, but you also do not have to worry about accidentally starting a fire, nor do you need to get a fire permit. Pressing is not just about tight spots though. Pressing will save time on each fitting, which frees up contractors to do more work on the jobsite, and allows them to move to other jobsites faster.”
“Like other applications for pressing, hydronic systems have many tight spaces that require connections,” Borman said. “This is one area where pressing copper really excels. Hydronic systems will also typically have a few elbow connections that need to be made; if a user connects using a RIDGID tool and Viega elbow fitting, they will have a stable joint that has more material than the rest of the pipe, and this helps keep the system up and running longer.”
“Speed, consistency and ease transcend the use of the product,” Dickert said. “For any contractor looking to get an edge in their market they should evaluate if it is the right fit for their needs.”
What about training?
There is some training involved with any new system, but both of the trends mentioned above are seeing very fast adoption rates because of the ease of training installers, Dickert said. “Like a pipe system, a skilled installer is critical to consistency of the system, but because these categories build on their strong foundation knowledge of pipe installations and don’t require a complete ground up education, they can be easy to incorporate into most organizations. From a safety perspective, the systems help to alleviate some of the dangers of working with open flames and torches on a job,” he added.
Outside of the training that contractors must go through to correctly install pipe, the time spent actually training how to use the pressing tool is minimal, Borman said. “The copper tubing needs to be cut. After, we recommend that the pipe is then deburred by sliding on the fitting and mark where its final pressed location should be, putting the tool and its jaws over the fitting and pressing the trigger. In about five seconds, there’s a secure connection.
“While there are fewer safety concerns with this method compared to any other, there are still some precautions we recommend. We encourage using safety glasses at all times on the jobsite and keeping your fingers far away from the jaws while it is pressing.”
Where doesn’t it work?
There may be situations where transitions or proximity can be a challenge with both of these systems, but that is not very different from traditional methods, Dickert said.“The mechanical plumbing and HVAC users of these systems are great problem solvers and, much as with traditional methods, they can work around the challenges.
“There are systems that these markets are not applicable for today, but for most of them it is just a matter of time until the product is produced. There are plenty of opportunities with this technology, and I’m confident we’ll continue to see expansion of applications, especially in regard to press and cold expansion.
“There are only three limitations that we encounter in pressing, and those are size, temperature, and pressure, Borman said. We can press copper and stainless steel from ½” to 4”, black steel pipe goes from ½” to 2”, and PEX can be connected from ½” to 2”. Press fittings are rated to withstand temperature between 32- and 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Lastly, press fittings are rated for systems with a maximum pressure of 200 PSI. However, certain applications may be above or below these ranges. Before installing a system, users should reference the range for the system they’re installing by [visiting manufacturer’s websites.]”