Understanding Plumbing Pipe Material Differences

There are several types of plumbing pipe materials in use, and understanding the differences between them is helpful when you’re considering repairs and upgrades. People that live in older homes may be using pipes that are constructed with materials that are harmful and no longer in use. Newer homes may have pipes made of different materials to deal with specific parts of the plumbing system. In this brief primer, we will look at six different plumbing pipe materials to help you make informed decisions.

1.  Copper

This is a popular plumbing pipe material choice, and it’s available in two varieties: flexible and rigid. Flexible copper is thin and pliable, which makes it an ideal material for plumbing in tight spaces and corners where shapes are required. Rigid copper is firmer and more durable; it’s typically used in longer and straighter runs. These two copper pipe materials are used in conjunction with each other to form an entire plumbing system for the home. The main advantages of copper are that it’s corrosion-resistant, it can withstand temperature extremes, and it can last 50-70 years. Copper is porous, and it’s not a good fit if you have a supply of acidic water. The main disadvantage of copper is that it’s expensive when compared to other options on this list. But, copper pipes can be recycled at the end of their useful lifespan, and no toxic fumes are released during their construction. This makes copper pipes a more environmentally friendly option if you have the available budget to install them in your home.

2.  PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

Polyvinyl chloride or PVC pipes have become a popular plumbing pipe material in recent years. PVC is a mix of vinyl and plastic that has low manufacturing costs, and yet it’s extremely durable for plumbing applications. PVC pipes are light, easy to cut, and installation is simple, which further reduces costs. Pipes that are labeled NSF/ANSI-61 are safe for the transportation of potable water for drinking and cooking. These pipes are cheap to produce, and they are often used for drainage systems too. PVC pipes can last a long time, but when they carry hot water, vinyl chloride can be released into the water. For this reason, PVC pipes are typically restricted to cold water transportation.

3.  CPVC (Chlorinated Polyvinyl Chloride)

Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride or CPVC pipes are an ideal alternative to the PVC material. The chemical composition of CPVC makes them heat resistant, so they can be used to transport hot water up to 200ºF. Although these pipes are very similar to PVC, they are more flexible, and this makes them easier to work with. When these advantages are considered, it should come as no surprise that CPVC is becoming a more common choice than PVC. But, there are a couple of drawbacks to consider before you install CPVC plumbing pipes. First, these pipes can release extra chlorine into the drinking water, which some people may find unpalatable. Second, CPVC pipes can be prone to freezing or splitting if they are not fully insulated.

4.  PEX (Cross-linked Polyethylene)

Cross-linked Polyethylene or PEX is another plastic pipe material that is commonly found in water supply lines. PEX is an interesting material; it has the advantages of PVC, such as low cost, durability, corrosion-resistant, and ease of installation. But, the key difference between PEX and PVC is that PEX is flexible too. At the time of writing this article, PEX is still a relatively new plumbing pipe material. But, it’s become a fast favorite with plumbers and homeowners alike. PEX pipes are only designed for indoor plumbing use, and certain types can affect the taste and odor of drinking water. It’s important to understand that PEX pipes are not suitable for the transportation of hot water.

5.  ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ABS pipes are those black plumbing pipes that you can see under sinks or exposed pipes that are located near the toilet. ABS is similar to PVC pipes when it comes to the cost and quality. ABS pipes are made with BPA, which is a hardening agent that is usually added to plastic products to improve their durability. This makes ABS pipes stronger than PVC and other plastic pipes, and they can resist freezing. But, there is a significant drawback, ABS pipes cannot withstand sunlight at all, and many local governments have banned their use in residential plumbing applications. If you want to use ABS pipes for drainage, it’s important to check local building codes.

6.  Galvanized Steel

Galvanized steel was once heralded as a dream material for plumbing pipes. Lead had fallen out of favor because it was recognized as toxic, and there was a need for a durable alternative. From the 1950s through to the 1980s, galvanized steel became the default plumbing material until copper piping was introduced. Galvanized steel is strong, but its main disadvantage is a shorter lifespan of 20-50 years before replacement is necessary. Galvanized steel is also prone to corrosion which leeches rust particles into the carried water. For this reason, galvanized steel tends to be at the lower end of the aforementioned expected lifespan range.

Plumbing Materials to Avoid

There are some plumbing materials that are no longer in use because they are too expensive, unfit for modern systems, and a hazard to health. The most egregious material is lead which was in common use, and lead pipes can still be found in some older homes. No level of lead is acceptable under EPA guidelines, and removing lead should be a priority. Other pipe materials that are not a good fit for modern plumbing systems include polybutylene, gray plastic polybutylene (PB), and black cast iron. These materials are vulnerable to cracks, leaks, and breaks, and replacing them will improve the health of your plumbing system. When you consider the high costs associated with water damage and water waste, a pipe upgrade is a bargain.

If you need to replace or upgrade your plumbing pipes, contact your local professional plumber today.