Orangeburg pipe is broad term that describes a selection of pipe products made from compressed wood pulp and bitumen. First used in the late 1800s, bitumenized fiber pipes were widely found in water and sewerage lines and electrical conduit until the 1970s when ABS and PVC pipes became the standard. Orangeburg pipes were available in a number of sizes ranging from 2 inch (51 mm) to 18 inches (457 mm) and in round or oval profiles. Although generally efficient, the Orangeburg system proved to have several significant weaknesses including susceptibility to solvent degradation and plant root intrusion.
The bitumenized piping which was to become known as Orangeburg pipe was first used on an experimental Boston water supply line in 1867. The 1.5 mile long pipeline, constructed with pipe sections made of compressed cellulose fibers treated with coal tar, proved successful, and remained in service for 60 years. Based on the success of the Boston waterline, large scale production of bitumenized piping began with the formation of the Fiber Conduit Company in 1893. The company was located in Orangeburg, New York, and would later become the Orangeburg Manufacturing Company, which gave the bitumenized piping its generic name. Although the company had several competitors at all stages of its operation, it was by far the biggest producer of bitumen sealed cellulose piping.
During the Fiber Conduit Company days, the piping was exclusively used as an electrical conduit. Millions of feet were installed in skyscrapers and subway systems, and for the telephone and telegraph industries. Although brittle and easily compressed, the oval shaped conduit was popular due to its light weight and the fact that it was easily cut with a handsaw. The severe metal shortages and housing boom after World War II created a demand for an alternative to cast iron drainage and water supply pipes, and the newly formed Orangeburg Manufacturing Company started to produce a larger version of the conduit for that purpose. Orangeburg pipe was available in a range of sizes up to 18 inches (457 mm) in diameter, round in cross section with sturdier walls, and suitable for gasket and adhesive free joints. Although larger, the same pitch sealed, compressed wood pulp construction was used in all the pipe variants.
Although marketed as something of a miracle product during this period, the Orangeburg pipe system did have several significant weaknesses. Any solvents in drain water such as acetone or kerosene tended to degrade the pitch or bitumen used to seal the pipes, thereby leading to leaks and failures. Despite being widely advertised as being “root proof," the pipes were also susceptible to compression failures and tree root intrusion. This has lead to owners of buildings which still contain Orangeburg piping having to deal with constant pipe failures. Fortunately there are joint solutions available for the Orangeburg pipe systems, and they can be repaired or joined to modern PVC and ABS pipe lines.