Plumbing systems have been in use for thousands of years. From early Greek clay sewage pipes to Roman freshwater aqueducts made with lead to the early colonial hollowed out logs—one thing is for certain; plumbing has come a long way. Today's modern day plumbing pipes consist of a variety space age materials from basic copper, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), flexible polyethylene (PEX) and many more. A combination of one, two or multiple materials can be used when running water and sewage lines, so it's definitely a good idea to know the strengths and weaknesses of these plumbing materials to help you choose the best material for your home improvement or new construction plumbing project. Use this guide to plumbing pipe materials and you'll be sure to know which pipe material is best for your plumbing project.
One of the most common types of water supply lines, copper has been in use for decades and probably will remain so for many more to come. Simple, flexible and easy to install copper supply lines are just about everywhere and can be used in a wide variety of cold and hot water supply line plumbing. Copper tubing comes in continuous lengths of 20 feet and is attached together using a soldering method known as sweating. Copper lines attach directly to hot water and cold water supplies with one continuous loop. Shut off valves are typically installed at each fixture to cut off water supplies at one location while water flows to the rest of the home.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC and its water supply line cousin chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) is used worldwide as a cheap and easy to install alternative to copper, brass and steel plumbing pipes. PVC and CPVC come in a huge variety of widths and lengths, making simple connections easy to install. With the addition of a multitude of quick connecting fittings that attach with a basic primer and glue, installing PVC and CPVC plumbing pipes are the easiest and cheapest form of plumbing pipe materials to install.
Other plastic pipes are commonly used for various applications. Polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) are commonly used as irrigation lines. Flexible PP and PE lines are often used in drip irrigation systems. Because of its ability to release plastic polymers into the water supply, it should not be used for potable water supply systems.
Flexible Polyethylene (PEX)
Also known as cross-linked polyethylene, PEX is a newcomer to the plumbing world. It has many distinct advantages over conventional plumbing supply lines. But because it has only been in use in Europe since the 70's and America in the 80's, it has been the cause of great controversy in the plumbing industry as a replacement to conventional plumbing materials. Made from a high density polyethylene, it is heated and extruded into tubing using several different methods that increase the strength of the pipe while still allowing it to retain its flexibility.
Steel and galvanized pipes were once widely used in underground settings before the advent of PVC. While it is still used today, residential use outside of irrigation systems is not recommended. Steel and galvanized pipes are highly susceptible to erosion and must be coated with a PVC lining to prevent scaling and corrosion over time. The typical steel pipe comes in varying widths and lengths and can last around 30 years without problems. Galvanized pipes last much longer but are typically used for storm water drainage.
Used primarily for storm water drainage and other gravity flow grey water systems, concrete pipes are typically reinforced with steel for additional strength. Residential use is limited to storm water runoff from driveways, retention ponds and road easements.