Vent manufacturer hopes to change code, industry practices

Albany firm asks congressman for help to get safer but more expensive material in wider use
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko watches as Centotherm worked Robert Jeannotte fuses two pieces of pipe.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko watches as Centotherm worked Robert Jeannotte fuses two pieces of pipe.

ALBANY — The complex tapestry of building codes that regulate how structures are built holds a key to potential growth for an Albany manufacturer that wants expand its workforce and sales.

Centrotherm Eco Systems laid out its case for code inspectors and other guests visiting its South Pearl Street facility Wednesday, among them U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who represents the area.

In a nutshell, it’s trying to get the variation in codes between states and even counties eliminated in favor of a universal requirement that vents for water heaters, furnaces and boilers be made of material with a high melting point — such as the polypropylene that Centrotherm uses.

“We are trying to transition people from using steel or PVC, which is not designed for the application it’s being used for,” CEO Joel Dzekciorius. 

Stainless steel and the chlorinated variant of PVC can withstand higher temperatures like polypropylene can but are more expensive. Regular PVC is less expensive but can fail at lower temperatures. Centrotherm’s fitted products can be quicker and therefore less expensive to install on site than regular PVC, but the upfront cost of materials remains a deterent.

As they stand now, company officials say, state codes are sometimes lax, insufficient and vague, not to mention inconsistent across borders. 

Polyvinyl chloride — the ubiquitous PVC pipe — is banned in New York City but legal in neighboring Westchester County, for example. 

Company officials said most bans are enacted after a carbon monoxide-related death is linked to a PVC pipe failure. But with the economic incentive of a cheaper material, builders and manufacturers continue to use PVC where it’s not banned. 

Centrotherm Eco Systems is a subsidiary of German firm Centrotec Sustainable AG. It has approximately 30 employees, 28 of them in the South Pearl Street plant, about half of those in manufacturing. It has capacity to expand production in Albany and is currently looking to hire, though it has competition in a tight labor market.

The task before it is gaining (or forcing) U.S. acceptance of an alternative product that costs more. Polypropylene is more established as a vent material in Europe.

Centrotherm officials said they don’t expect pushback from the PVC industry, which is aware of the temperature limitations on its products. Maximum recommended operating temperature is only 140 degrees for PVC, as opposed to 248 degrees for Centrotherm’s proprietary blend of polypropylene.

They said resistance is more likely from heating equipment manufacturers and installers who don’t want to have to pass along the higher costs of polypropylene to their customers.

Centrotherm’s main product is ventilation duct, a pipe 2 to 12 inches in diameter. An automated process takes tiny pellets of polypropylene, melts them at 350 to 400 degrees, extrudes them into a pipe of the specified diameter, and runs the pipe through a water shower until it emerges dripping wet and cool to the touch.

Another machine cuts the pipes to the specified length and warms one end to prepare it to be shaped into the flange that allows for quick assembly.

Away from the high heat and automated cutters, workers label and box standard-sized pieces or manually customize pieces for customers.

The raw polypropylene is all new but the finished product and any scrap is 100 percent recyclable.

Tonko seemed fascinated by the tour, and said as much afterward, indicating how he likes to see the process work through design, redesign, production and sale under a single roof, as it does at the South Pearl Street factory.

Tonko started out as a mechanical and industrial engineer and has focused on energy through much of his political career, from various committee assignments in the state Assembly to leading the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to committee assignments in Congress. He is, he said, an engineer who works in politics.

Tonko said he’d work with his colleagues in both parties to address the code issues as Centrotherm requested, but said the matter raises a larger issue: codes are not revisited often enough after they are written. They need to evolve with the increasingly sophisticated technology that they affect, he said.

He also took a swipe at the tariffs the Trump administration has begun imposing. Much of Centrotherm’s manufacturing equipment comes from Germany, so tariffs would boost the cost of upgrades in its Albany plant.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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