Copper's Construction Marts Remain Strong

July 27, 2001


New York, NY— By Andrew G. "Andy" Kireta, Sr., President and CEO, Copper Development Association

Reproduced with permission from American Metal Market © 2001 Cahners Business Information. All rights reserved.

Copper consumption in building construction markets is holding up well. Preliminary data published by the Copper Development Association Inc. (CDA) show that 39 percent of the record 9.6 billion pounds of copper mill products shipped to the domestic market in 2000 went into the wire, cable, tube and sheet products that CDA classifies as important portions of the building construction sector. Additional copper is found in such items as motors for HVAC equipment, appliance wiring, architectural goods and the like. Overall, U.S. copper consumption rose by a healthy 4 percent in 2000, for the fifth-straight record year.

Building wire
Consumption of copper for building wire has held at or above the 1.4-billion-pound mark for the past four years. Supporting that long-term strength, in part, is the continuing growth in residential power consumption, now up nine-fold compared with the 1950s. More to the point, consumption per home increased more than four-fold over the same period, but wiring systems in many residences haven't kept up with the increased loads they now carry.

Safety isn't a strong issue yet, but home buyers are demanding more convenience in the form of more outlets and more robust circuits. Proposals submitted to the National Electrical Code(r) would increase the minimum wire size in 15-amp residential circuits from AWG 14 to AWG 12. It may take some time before the recommended code changes are adopted, but they could create a 60 percent increase in the amount of copper now used in 15-amp circuits.

An average U.S. home contains 439 pounds of copper, 195 pounds as building wire. Upgrading all new homes with AWG 12 wire would increase copper consumption by approximately 50 million pounds.

Computers and computer-driven communications equipment need electrical power that's uninterrupted and free from voltage glitches and harmonic distortions. This has become an increasingly troublesome issue in commercial buildings in recent years.

David Brender, CDA's National Program Manager for Electrical Products, sees more copper as the best way to keep power quality high. "Recommended practices by the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and others call for placing electronic equipment on dedicated branch circuits and limiting the number of outlets per circuit to six or fewer," says Brender, who works closely with the technical organizations concerned. "Doing all that improves power quality while using more copper. In addition, neutral wires in the circuits should be full-sized or even doubled to accommodate harmonic currents, and every circuit should contain a green ground wire. Taking those precautions also means using more copper, but it's inexpensive insurance to protect your equipment."

Upsized copper wires also reduce the amount of energy wasted as heat, and really significant energy savings can be gained by replacing old, standard-efficiency electrical motors, especially those that run nearly constantly in equipment like pumps, HVAC fans, elevators and escalators. Replacement should be made with high-efficiency models as defined by the Energy Policy Act of 1992 or, preferably, by models from a recently recognized class of NEMA Premium(tm) efficiency motors. (NEMA is the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.)

Largely because they contain about 20 percent more copper, the improved motors are several percentage points more efficient than their predecessors. NEMA estimates that its PremiumTM efficiency motor program could save over 5,800 gigawatt-hours of electricity nationwide and prevent the release of nearly 80 million tonnes of carbon equivalent into the atmosphere over the next 10 years. According to NEMA, that's the equivalent of keeping 16 million cars off the road.

Telecommunications Wire
Copper retains a strong and even growing position in telecommunications. One reason is that the lines which service the millions of local area networks (LANs) inside commercial buildings are still overwhelmingly twisted-pair copper (TPC). The cable industry is doing its part by continually developing new standards that expand TPC bandwidth. Also helping is a ruling last year by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requiring all newly installed telephone cable (residential and commercial) to comply, at a minimum, with the industry's Category 3 standards. So-called "Cat 3" cable contains four specially twisted pairs of copper wire in place of the two pairs found in older wire.

According to Bill Black, CDA vice president for wire and cable, Cat 3 wire has long since been eclipsed both technically and commercially, first by Cat 5 and now by Cat 5E (enhanced) cables, which can transmit data at 100 megabits per second (Mbps), six times faster than Cat 3. Formal standards for 250-Mbps Cat 6 cable should be published shortly, although the cable is already widely used.

Black says copper twisted pair "continues to be preferred inside structures because it offers better connectivity than fiber, installers are very familiar with using it, and it provides more than adequate bandwidth at low cost."

High-bandwidth TPC is also becoming commonplace in residential wiring, he says. The buzzword here is "structured wiring," a system for phone, data and television wiring in which each outlet is connected directly to a central distribution device, home-run fashion. At least 10 U.S. cable suppliers currently offer structured wiring systems, either as bundles or individual cables. Bundled systems might contain two Cat 5 or better telecommunications cables and a pair of RG-6 coaxial cables for TV connections.

All that connectivity brings more copper into the home. Studies by Dallas-based Parks Associates, a market study group, found that 180,000 new homes (12 percent of new housing starts) were fitted with structured wiring last year, and penetration is growing. Parks' forecasts suggest that 600,000 new homes (48 percent of starts) might be equipped with the systems in 2004. CDA estimates that structured wiring adds about 20 pounds of copper to the average home, and will, if Parks' forecasts are realized, increase U.S. consumption by 12 million pounds annually in just a few years.

The retrofit housing market is also encouraging. "There are roughly 106 million homes and apartments out there today," says Black, "And we're adding 1.5 million each year. That means the retrofit potential will always be increasing. To match the amount of additional copper that will go into structured wiring in 600,000 new homes in 2004, we'd only have to retrofit 0.6 percent of existing homes a year."

Structured wiring isn't exclusively a U.S. concept. John Mollet, vice president for electrical and electronic markets for the International Copper Association Ltd. (ICA), points to a similar Australian program called "Smart Wired," which won a Year 2000 Award for Excellence from that country's National Electrical Communications Association. Mollet notes that the concept is worth watching, preferably with one eye on the large Asian market. Structured wiring is also gaining acceptance in Europe and Latin America, especially in countries attempting to leapfrog to the latest communications technology.

Copper Plumbing Tube: Reliability Continues to Pay Off
Copper water tube was installed in more than 80 percent of new homes last year, consuming an estimated 675 million pounds of copper. That, together with 575 million pounds of copper in commercial tube (mainly for air conditioners and refrigeration equipment), accounted for 14 percent of U.S. consumption last year.

Low-cost plastic water tube has taken residential market share away from copper over the past few decades, but I believe copper's proven reliability will maintain the metal's dominant market position. Copper water tube has been around for more than 75 years.

Homeowners appreciate reliability; they demand it in their cars, and they want it in their homes. Reliability also helps us promote copper tube for safety-related products like home fire sprinkler systems and natural gas distribution lines. Natural gas distribution lines are one instance where copper is actually the least expensive option in terms of both materials and labor. Flexible copper tube is gaining popularity, especially for fueling direct-vent gas fireplaces and compact, through-wall gas furnaces

Lead-free plumbing brasses, including varieties developed by a consortium headed by CDA, are now widely available. The new alloys help plumbing hardware manufacturers comply with strict federal and state regulations on the amount of lead permitted in products that contact potable water.

Architectural Copper
Architectural copper, long-revered for its moisture protection and longevity as well as its natural beauty, was once reserved mainly for the roofs of cathedrals and public buildings. Now, it increasingly finds applications as varied as exterior building panels, colorful interior wall and column cladding and even flooring. In residential as well as commercial buildings, copper has evolved from a convenient structural material for gutters and downspouts to an architecturally interesting material used for products such as shingles, railings, fascia, lighting and innovative trim.

Malcolm Holzman, a New York-based architect, specifies the metal frequently in his designs. "Copper is a natural material, like stone," he says. "And I often use the two materials in combination. When used outside, the evolution of color in coppers patina adds a dimension of time to a structure."

Daniel Sternthal, CDA's national program manager for architectural markets, educates thousands of architects annually about copper's potential uses. "Architects are key individuals," he says, "not just because they might specify a copper roof or wall cladding, but because they have a big part in deciding which materials are used in a building's infrastructure from reliable plumbing and electrical cables to energy-efficient motors and transformers. We see many architects who first came to enjoy copper aesthetically and now respect it for its practical value."

Copper consumption will always be tied to the health of the building construction market; and the growth in usage intensity adds to that impact. The trends that drive copper intensity are hardly frivolous: faster communications, higher energy demand, better energy efficiency, more reliability, sound value. With drivers like that in control, copper's position in building construction should remain strong.