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A lot of us now supplant every other item in our grocery carts with its greener alternative—our soap, our cereal, our floor polish now comes with a reduced environmental impact. Certainly, those everyday shopping decisions add up, and we get to self-congratulate each time we buy an item stamped with a happy, green tree. The truth is though that some of the greenest purchases people make are longer-term investments—our roofs and floors and the pipes that run in between.
As more people strive to run net-zero households, the environmental savings we tally where no one else is looking—in our pipes and at our thermostats—speak to a different sort of environmental commitment. It might be one vested with more humility. For triple-bottom line company Uponor—a maker of cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) tubing used in sustainable plumbing, heating, cooling, and fire sprinkler systems—the company’s unassuming motto sums things up: “The beauty lies beneath.”
The company sells products that, if they do their jobs, customers rarely think about again. Dale Stroud, Senior Director, Offering/Marketing at Uponor explains, “Our products are basically invisible to the customer. They open up a faucet and expect water to come out. They don’t really think about how the water got there.”
But pipes and tubing make a difference. One of Uponor’s main product lines is a radiant heating and cooling system that circulates warm or cooled water through tubing under the floorboards. It’s a system that easily connects to high efficiency boilers, geothermal or solar systems. Regardless of how it is heated or cooled, water is 3,500 times more efficient than air at holding and carrying heat from point to point. All told, radiant floors typically yield energy savings of around 30 percent as compared to air-flow systems.
For plumbing, Uponor has also developed a D’MAND hot water delivery system that meets LEED H, EPA Water Sense, and ICC700 requirements for water conservation. D’MAND pumps hot water to the faucet within a few seconds, reducing what runs down the drain as people wait at the tap or shower for the water to heat up. Even without the additional delivery system, the thicker walls on PEX tubing holds 25 percent less water after the tap is shut off. This means that the next time someone turns on the tap, there's less wasted water during the wait for new, hot water.
Among the contractors who use Uponor and the customers in whose homes they are installed, you’re likely to find a firm commitment to conservation. Patrick J. Murphy, a professor at DePaul University specializing in social entrepreneurship, sees pipes and tubing to be a particularly good setting for examining the true social and environmental orientation of customers. Murphy explains, “It’s one thing to buy a hybrid car, which everyone can see you driving. In some cases, there is a certain kind of vanity that attends to those kinds of purchases.” According to Murphy, plumbing is different, because people can’t see it. Investing in more sustainable pipes and tubing, he suspects, reflects a truer concern for the natural environment.
Though Uponor’s products live in the background of our lives, the company has a public presence in the Twin Cities area where its North American operations are headquartered. Among the many organizations the company supports—through grants and matching employees’ charitable donations—Uponor is part of Habitat for Humanity’s Eco Village, which will be one of the first sustainable neighborhood developments in the country to receive the LEED Homes Platinum designation.
According to Jim Farr, St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity’s executive director, Uponor has donated technical assistance and free products for each residence in a development that will include 18 homes and a community center. Through solar and geothermal energy and efficiencies within the homes, Eco Village will be a net-zero community. Dozens of Uponor’s employees and management team are working on the project, and have time to do so, thanks, in part, to three paid volunteer days allotted to every full-time employee at the company.
Despite the fact that consumers—and soon residents of Eco Village—use Uponor’s products every day at home, frankly, pipes and tubing still aren’t exactly a flashy purchase. “We’re such a visual society anyway, you know. You want the granite countertops and you want the sexy sleek car, for example, but in the structures in which we live—the bones have to be good,” Ingrid Mattsson, Uponor’s Director, Advertising/Brand Management says. “We have systems that make the bones stronger and better.” Like a mother encouraging her child to drink milk for strong bones, Uponor helps people care for what lies beneath, and through modest changes, live more sustainable lives.