Significant Savings in Aluminum Conduit
The rigid metal conduit market in North America represents a $320 million industry closely tied to the non-residential market. Although rigid aluminum accounts for just 15 percent of the current conduit market, recent studies speculate rigid aluminum conduit should grow significantly to reach $160 million by 2020.
New research shows a cost-savings benefit for contractors who switch to rigid aluminum conduit from rigid steel conduit. Not only can rigid aluminum conduit save contractors and engineering firms up to 17 percent on usage costs, rigid aluminum conduit meets or exceeds all UL6 and National Electrical Code standards, performing as well or better than steel.
These statistics are the result of a comprehensive study undertaken in 2012 to examine the North American electrical conduit market, comparing steel and aluminum material systems. The study was conducted by IBIS Associates, an independent strategic consulting company focused on quantitative analyses of competitive economics and business development issues for the materials and manufacturing technologies.
One of the main objectives of the study was to create a snapshot of the rigid metal conduit market landscape in terms of product, materials, sizes, end-use industries and suppliers. The results highlight some of the obstacles facing wider adoption of rigid aluminum conduit, and help to explain part of the reason the industry has been slow to recognize the obvious benefits associated with rigid aluminum conduit.
Among these obstacles includes a lack of incentive to change. Electrical conduit represents only a small piece of construction supplies— particularly compared to conductors themselves and other electrical components—and is therefore not a big-ticket item when contractors go to fill specification orders, which doesn't give much reason for suppliers to stock large amounts. Additionally, many designers and engineers have greater familiarity of, and more experience with, galvanized steel electrical conduit, leading to a natural default to this material. Lastly, the perception of rigid aluminum conduit as a more expensive material prevents greater use of rigid aluminum conduit within the electrical conduit industry.
The study also highlights multiple market factors and identifies several market trends connected to areas of opportunity. Because the growth of the electrical conduit market is tied so closely to the non-residential industry, increased capital investment in this industry has sparked an increase in conduit usage. And while certain types of conduit are surging ahead to take advantage of this demand, others are losing ground.
Accounting for these obstacles and market trends, this study proves there is a clear case for rigid aluminum conduit as a more cost-effective and better quality material compared to rigid steel conduit.
Advantages of Aluminum Conduit
As part of this study, the costs for purchasing and installing various types, sizes and materials of conduit were collected and compared. The IBIS investigators gathered data from conduit manufacturers, suppliers, equipment representatives, distributors, engineers and contractors, as well as government agencies, trade groups and publications.
Their results show that rigid aluminum conduit consistently ranked among the most cost-effective materials in terms of raw material and total installation costs, especially when compared to rigid steel conduit, as demonstrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Conduit & Install Total Cost per 100'
In a sense, the increase in savings seems to parallel the increase in size of the diameter tube being used, with cost advantages more apparent on larger projects and for conduit with larger diameters, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Cost Comparison by Conduit Diameter
The IBIS study points out there can be some confusion, in that all these products are rigid as opposed to flexible; when the industry speaks of "Rigid," it is usually referring to the thickest category of GRC and Aluminum, providing the greatest level of protection for wiring and cable. Within these specific projects, the use of rigid aluminum conduit is referred to as UL6 and UL6-A.
Additionally, as part of the study, equipment representatives and distributors were interviewed and questioned about the conduit sales by size for four projects that were conducted where rigid aluminum conduit was used in place of GRC. These projects were analyzed by comparing the costs of conduit purchase, installation, combined purchase and installation, and the amount saved by aluminum usage. Not only do material costs weigh heavily in rigid aluminum conduit's favor, but due to its light weight, rigid aluminum conduit is easier to transport and also faster to install, representing cost savings in terms of shipping and labor.
"Electrical contractors are required to take precautions when it comes to lifting heavy materials. The weight of the (aluminum) conduit saves back and arms during the installation phase of the project. What would normally take two people with rigid steel conduit takes one with aluminum conduit."
Aaron Littlepage, Construction Services Consultant and former Journeyman Electrician, Wylie Associates Inc., Houston TX
The results indicate a clear cost-savings in each case, with rigid aluminum conduit saving an average of $6,100 or 8.5 percent for the two mid-scale projects, and an average of $141,500 or about 13 percent for the two large-scale projects.
Better Performance and Adaptability
Cost, however, is not the only advantage rigid aluminum conduit has over rigid steel conduit. Rigid aluminum conduit also performs better in the field and has superior durability; it resists corrosion and will not rust or discolor, even after extended outdoor exposure, minimizing the dangerous conditions that arise when steel rusts out. This is particularly important in outdoor installations, such as bridges, tunnels, parking garages and other outdoor construction areas involving infrastructure.
Another proof point indicating better performance is that rigid aluminum conduit is nonmagnetic and does not spark, eliminating the risk of explosion from a spark or fire, which is particularly important in refineries, waste water treatment facilities, coal mines and grain elevators. While some of the advantages of using rigid aluminum conduit can be quantified, the health and safety of workers during the installation process is invaluable.
Furthermore, because rigid aluminum conduit is produced as a single pipe, there is no welded seam as there is with rigid steel conduit, which can fail or snag wires during installation. Rigid aluminum conduit can also be easily bended and threaded—equal to, or more easily than rigid steel conduit—representing an easier pull-through and faster installation. (See Figures 3 and 4.)
Figure 3: Bent Rigid Aluminum Conduit
Figure 4: Installed Rigid Aluminum Conduit
Finally, rigid aluminum conduit is a far more sustainable material than rigid steel conduit.
On projects where there is demolition or reconstruction, any existing rigid aluminum conduit can be recycled, representing a true beginning-to-end cost savings advantage. In fact, a 2004 study conducted by the Delft University of Technology found that 95 percent of aluminum used in building and construction is recycled at the structure's end-of-life. When aluminum is re-melted, it doesn't omit toxins or poisonous gasses during the process. Not only is aluminum a more "green" material, it can be used to earn LEED points.
Future of Aluminum Conduit
Because of its flexibility and sustainability, there are multiple uses for rigid aluminum conduit. One area identified in the IBIS study that is quickly growing is the EMT market. While EMT is used primarily in light weight commercial construction applications, it has been experiencing a similar shift in the electrical conduit market, converting more contractors, designers and engineers from rigid steel conduit.
Despite the many advantages of rigid aluminum conduit, it is currently not the material most commonly sought after within the electrical conduit market. The results of this study are optimistic, however, and suggest a surge toward rigid aluminum conduit as the preferred choice among contractors, designers and engineers. Conclusively, the biggest source of competition facing rigid aluminum conduit is perception, not fact.