After a tumultuous 2020, what can we expect from the next 12 months? Wolseley Pipe examines some of the key trends to watch out for in 2021.

What does the future hold for building services engineers, M&E contractors, facilities managers? While it’s impossible to accurately predict what will happen in these unprecedented times, there are some key trends that will continue to emerge this year. As the first-choice specialist merchant for commercial and industrial pipe and heating systems, Wolseley Pipe is uniquely placed to help the sector understand, prepare for, and exploit these opportunities.

Pete Grierson, Wolseley Pipe’s National Sales Director, said: “Once lockdown restrictions are lifted, we expect the remainder of the year will be very strong. The construction sector is ready to crack on and it’s our job to help it build back better.”

Wolseley Pipe can accurately monitor and respond to emerging trends thanks to close relationships with its key suppliers such as hot water and heating solution specialists Baxi Heating, pump manufacturer Grundfos, heating protection and water treatment company ADEY, and piping provider Polypipe Building Services.

Prefab sprouts

While fabricating off site is nothing new, it is fair to say that the sector is yet to fully embrace it. However, social distancing, an ageing workforce, and the constant drive to increase productivity are converging as drivers for change.

“Prefab has been around for 15 years or so when it comes to plant room, drainage and hot and cold water,” said Pete. “However, it is back in the spotlight due to three issues – labour, resource and social distancing. We can deliver a system topped and tailed, directly to site, which means they require fewer operatives to install, it improves productivity, and it’s all controlled remotely. Contractors are increasingly considering this as an option and manufacturers are investing in providing more prefab solutions.”

Hot water and heating solution specialist Baxi Heating also expects its prefab business to continue to grow. Neville Small, Baxi Heating’s Key Account Director, said: “We are already seeing higher demand for prefabricated product. We can build a replacement boiler on its frame, which substantially reduces downtime and labour costs. While it started before covid, social distancing measures mean we expect it will carry forward because of the benefits in terms of convenience, labour costs, and safety. Ultimately it is easier to install.”

Repair, not replace

With economic conditions leading to budget cuts, repairing systems is becoming more popular than replacing them. “This is the biggest trend we are seeing,” added Neville. “Customers are opting to repair rather than replace heating systems, which has led to a significant increase in sales of spare parts for commercial systems.

“Because commercial buildings such as hotels and offices are not at full capacity, they can often manage with reduced heating loads, so they are not as keen to replace the full system.”

However, as some buildings went into lockdown without first properly shutting down their heating, they are now requiring remedial work. “Unless you adjust the building management system controls and provide for frost protection, you may need to service and repair the heating system when the building comes back into full use,” said Neville. “We are experiencing high demand for our service kits, which contain all the components needed to service the system in a timely manner.”

Sally Elliott, Strategic Account Manager for Grundfos, says building downtime is driving demand for energy audits and predictive maintenance.

“Lockdown is a great opportunity to re-examine pump efficiency,” she said. “Some buildings are never going to return to full capacity. We offer audits to check if a smaller pump would be more efficient and cost-effective for the building.

“With predictive maintenance, we can also avoid service interruption due to pump failure,” she added. “We can draw data from the sensors into the cloud, analyse it and ensure that pumps are repaired or replaced before a breakdown occurs.”

FM increased flexibility

Facilities management companies are no longer finding that large refurbishment or maintenance projects are best suited for completion during holiday periods. This has been driven, to some extent, by changes in working patterns resulting from the need for social distancing, forcing many workspaces and educational settings to relocate at home. FM companies now find that refurbishment or maintenance projects no longer need to be scheduled around traditional shut down dates, such as spring, summer and autumn holidays, transforming when they work.

Ian Roberts, Managing Director of ADEY Commercial, said: “Pre-covid, planned maintenance typically took place during traditional holiday periods. Feedback from FM companies is that they are now refocusing, as they now have more flexibility to work outside of these times.

“We are currently experiencing a high level of engagement from FM companies, who wish to engage with businesses that are solution providers and can provide all the products and services they need.”

Self service

The M&E sector is very traditional, and the vast majority of pipefitters or M&E contractors still prefer human interaction when ordering products – either in branch or over the phone. However, this has also started to change due to covid.

“Coronavirus forced more contractors online and demonstrated the productivity benefits of a digital, self-service model,” said Pete of Wolseley Pipe. “We are targeting a five-fold increase in digital sales this year, after investing in our online platform to make it quick, easy and straightforward for contractors to use.”

Sustainability

The green agenda will continue to remain prominent throughout 2021 and beyond and has certainly been highlighted as one of the key pillars in the government’s ‘build back better’ campaign. Wolseley Pipe is looking at ways in which the business can work together with suppliers like Polypipe Building Services and contribute throughout the supply chain.

Speaking with Tania at Polypipe Building Services, she said, “Building back better has to include improving sustainability as well as improving our products. Some of the ways in which we are looking to reduce our carbon footprint is switching to more sustainable sources of electricity to power our factories. We’re also looking at ways to increase the amount we recycle around the Polypipe group. Polypipe is currently leading the way with 50% of the polymer we process coming from recycled materials, but there’s ambition to do more”.

Baxi Heating is also seeing demand changing from gas to electric boilers and air source heat pumps (ASHPs) due to legislation. “Electric boilers and ASHPs are on the increase in order to comply with building regulations, particularly on new builds,” said Neville.

Responsible approach

Polypipe Building Services’ Managing Director, Andrew Cullum also sees a shift in responsibility moving from the contractor to their clients – particularly in light of the Hackett Report which followed the tragic Grenfell disaster.

“Responsibility has to sit with the client alongside the contractor in terms of specification,” Andrew said, “product has to be fit for purpose. We are expecting new legislation as a result of the Hackett Report, in 2021 and beyond. It is our job to remain ahead of the game. The responsibility is on the supply chain to be honest in terms of the performance of their products. In a post-Brexit world, British standards and kite marks will be more important than ever.”

When it comes to commercial tenders, both public and private sector organisations are placing increasing emphasis on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Partnering with the right supplier is vital to writing a successful bid.

“CSR is only going to become even more relevant for tenders,” added Wolseley Pipe’s Pete. “For some companies, this is a box-ticking exercise, but we firmly believe it should be embedded in your corporate culture. We are genuinely passionate about protecting the environment – we have targets in place to increase recyclable packaging materials and to eradicate single-use plastic. Clients can leverage our expertise and industry leadership when it comes to submitting bids.”

While there are clearly some challenges ahead – as with any year – 2021 also offers significant opportunities for growth. Companies that partner with full service, forward-thinking suppliers such as Wolseley Pipe will be best placed to take advantage.

In a rapidly changing environment, providing innovative, reliable, and flexible services for end-to-end project delivery will be more important than ever. Wolseley Pipe is perfectly placed to help the building services sector to remain agile, add value, and thrive.

Wolseley Pipe’s key trends for 2021:

  1. Prefabrication

More offsite fabrication to reduce onsite labour costs and improve productivity

  1. Repair vs Replace

More customers opting for repair rather than replacement, due to budget constraints

  1. Digitalisation

Customers moving to a self-service, online model which is much more efficient

  1. Sustainability

More innovative products and increased demand for greener solutions

  1. Responsibility

More regulation as an outcome of the Hackett Report, and more onus on CSR in tenders