When most people think about plumbing pipes, they imagine that there is only one type and it carries water into and wastewater out of their homes. At a basic level, this is correct, but there are different types of plumbing pipe materials and they are chosen for specific reasons.
The History of Plumbing Pipe Materials
Using different types of plumbing pipe materials and designs is not a new idea. During the evolution of plumbing systems, different civilizations have tried various approaches with some or no success. The ancient Greeks relied on clay pipes to bring freshwater into their public buildings but they were fragile and vulnerable to breaking. The Roman Empire used lead to make water carrying pipes and some historians believe that lead poisoning was a factor in the fall of that empire. As we moved into the 20th Century, other materials such as cast iron, copper, galvanized steel and others were used. Of those, only copper is in widespread use today because it’s flexible, durable, not harmful and easy to use.
Let’s take a look at five common types of modern plumbing pipe materials in more detail:
1. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) Pipes
These are typically used in sinks, toilets, shower drains and other applications. PVC is a popular plastic pipe because it protects the water from corrosion better than other materials. This makes PVC pipes extremely durable for long-term use and they are very durable unless they are subjected to direct damage. A PVC pipe can handle higher water pressures and it can be used as the main water supply line for a home. It’s lightweight, easy to cut to size and more flexible than heavy galvanized steel pipes. The inner lining of a PVC pipe is smooth, this prevents sediment buildup and the pipe has increased resistance to blockages.
PVC pipes have some drawbacks, the size options are limited and they cannot withstand hot water. There have been concerns about the toxicity of PVC but there is no definitive information on that at this time. PVC pipes meet the American National Standards Institute standards, but some scientists maintain that drinking water from a PVC pipe may cause respiratory ailments and reproductive problems. Certain states have even banned the use of PVC pipes to carry drinking water until there is more data.
2. Cross-Linked Polyethylene (PEX) Pipes
This is another plastic tubing material that’s affordable and increasingly used in water supply lines. It’s similar to PVC, it prevents corrosion leaching in water, it’s flexible, easy to install and it can withstand high water pressures. But, this is a superior material because PEX pipes can be used for hot and cold water. These pipes tend to be color coded for easier identification by plumbers when they are carrying out installations, maintenance or repairs. At the time of writing, there are no health concerns about PEX pipes and for that reason it’s eclipsing PVC as a plumbing pipe material.
3. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) Pipes
Again, ABS pipes are similar to PVC pipes, but they are easy to spot because they are colored black. One of the standout features of ABS is that it’s very resistant to colder temperatures. The main use for ABS pipes is for vent and drain lines and it’s easy to install. The main drawback is that exposure to direct sunlight causes warping. Another problem is that these pipes tend to be noisy as water passes through them which can be disturbing for homeowners and their close neighbors.
4. Copper Pipes
Copper is one of the few plumbing materials that has truly stood the test of time. This material has been used in plumbing pipes for decades and they are typically used in sinks, tubs, showers and other fixtures in older and newer homes. These pipes handle high water pressure well and they can be used to carry hot and cold water with no problems. A well installed copper pipe can last for fifty years, they are corrosion-resistant and they are a popular choice amongst homeowners and plumbers alike. Copper can be recycled to make new pipes which makes it an environmentally-friendly choice. There are three main disadvantages, they are: copper is expensive, this is a rigid material that’s hard to use in tight areas and the price of copper will rise in future.
5. Galvanized Steel and Cast Iron
These two pipe materials have fallen out of favor, but they were still in use in the early 20th Century and they can be found in older homes to this day. Cast iron pipes are heat-resistant and durable, but they are prone to corrosion and clean water delivery is not guaranteed. Galvanized steel pipes were installed in homes up to 1960, they are coated with zinc to protect the pipe from corrosion and rust problems. This material was designed to be a safe replacement for toxic lead water supply pipes. But, over the years, it became apparent that galvanized pipes are prone to corrosion and rust damage on the inner pipe walls. Again, this means that rust can leach into the drinking water and this makes them unsafe to use.
As you can see, these five types of plumbing pipes are very different and they are used for specific tasks. Galvanized steel and cast iron pipes should be replaced because they are prone to corrosion and at this point they would be old and worn. Copper is a fantastic material for plumbing pipes, but it is expensive and the price is likely to rise in the future. For these reasons, the more affordable and accessible plumbing pipes are PVC and PEX. It’s obvious that PEX is superior for plumbing pipes because it can handle hot and cold water well. But, PEX is more expensive than PVC and PVC pipes still have a place as cold water supply lines and drain lines. In a modern plumbing system it’s likely that you would have a mix of PEX and PVC and even copper if you have the budget.
If you need to upgrade your pipes, contact your local plumber today.