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Orangeburg pipe (also known as "fiber conduit", "bituminous fiber pipe" or "Bermico") is bitumenized fiber pipe made from layers of wood pulp and pitch pressed together. It was used from the 1860s through the 1970s, when it was replaced by PVC pipe for water delivery and ABS pipe for drain-waste-vent (DWV) applications. The name comes from Orangeburg, New York, the town in which most Orangeburg pipe was manufactured. It was manufactured largely by the Fiber Conduit Company, which changed its name to the Orangeburg Manufacturing Company in 1948.
The first known use of fiber pipe was in an experimental water delivery pipe in the Boston area. The pipeline, finished in 1867, measured 1.5 miles in length and was in use through 1927. Bitumenized pipe was not in widespread commercial use until the late 19th century when it was utilized exclusively as electrical conduit.
In 1893, Stephen Bradley, Sr. founded the Fiber Conduit Company in Orangeburg, New York. Bradley's neighboring Union Electric Company electric power plants used exhaust steam from their steam generators to dry the fiber conduit before they were sealed with pitch. In turn, the Fiber Conduit Company's conduits were used to run electrical wiring throughout numerous newly constructed buildings across the country for the next forty years. Bradley, along with several competitors, laid miles of the fiber electrical conduit in skyscrapers, such as the Empire State Building.
The early 1900s brought tremendous expansion of the telephone, telegraph and electrical industries along with subway construction along the eastern seaboard. This expansion in the usage of electrical and telecommunications wiring brought with it a rising demand for fiber conduit, which was being used to contain this wiring within buildings, as well as in subway tunnels. In addition, fiber conduit was increasingly being used to create underground ducting for distributing wires under streets and roads, as well as along railroads.
Fiber was next adopted by the booming oil industry to pump salt waste-water from drilling sites to treatment and disposal areas. This industrial use quickly yielded the insight that while long-lived and incredibly durable in normal draining operations, bitumenized fiber easily ruptured under pressure. During this trial usage by the oil industry, the fiber conduit pipe tested was called "Alkacid" by the Fiber Conduit Co. of Orangeburg, New York. Owing to the aforementioned issues with pressurized usage, the oil industry soon stopped using the fiber "Alkacid" pipe and started using cement-asbestos pipe.
While a variety of companies competed with Fiber Conduit Company, it was by far and away the largest producer of bitumenized fiber conduit piping throughout the early 20th century and demand for fiber conduit only increased during World War II with the need for electrical conduit for use in new airfields and military bases. In 1948, the name of the Fiber Conduit Company was changed to the Orangeburg Manufacturing Company. As World War II ended and gave rise to the post-war housing boom, the demand for cheap housing materials was at an all-time high and available drainage materials were scarce. Orangeburg Manufacturing produced a thicker-walled, sturdier, round version of fiber conduit, selling it as "Orangeburg pipe" for sewer and drain uses.
Orangeburg pipe was made in inside diameters from 2 inches to 18 inches out of wood pulp sealed with hot pitch. Joints were made in a similar fashion and, due to the materials involved, were able to be sealed without the usage of adhesives. Orangeburg was lightweight, albeit brittle, and soft enough to be cut with a handsaw. Orangeburg was a low cost alternative to metal for sewer lines in particular. Lack of strength causes pipes made of Orangeburg to fail more frequently than pipes made with other materials. The useful life for an Orangeburg pipe is about 50 years under ideal conditions, but has been known to fail in as little as 10 years. It has been taken off the list of acceptable materials by most building codes.
It was observed in early usage that Orangeburg was susceptible to deformation from pressure. Deformed Orangeburg has been referred to as "egg-shaped" and is subject to blistering. Thus, manufacturers recommended bedding the pipes in sand or pea gravel to prevent rupture.