Plumbing Pipe Basics

Plumbing Pipe Basics

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.

Copper

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.

Advantages:

  • Copper creates a biostatic atmosphere and prevents bacteria growth
  • Resistant to corrosion from hard water
  • Stands up well to cold conditions and helps prevent bursting pipes due to freezing
  • Impervious to UV light and can be used in direct sunlight or buried underground
  • Easy to install and very recyclable.

Disadvantages:
  • Copper can be expensive in some areas
  • It is rarely used as a waste water line
  • High levels of fluorinated/chlorinated drinking water can cause pipe erosion
  • Underground leaks can be difficult to find and repair

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.

Advantages:

  • Cheap and easy to install
  • Lightweight and durable
  • Chemical resistant
  • Cannot conduct electricity
  • Easy to manipulate and cut with minimal tools

Disadvantages:
  • Susceptible to UV sunlight degradation
  • Improperly sealed joints can easily leak
  • Cold gain and heat loss are accelerated
  • Hard freezes easily cause PVC and CPVC pipes to burst

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.

Advantages:

  • PEX is shipped on a spool, making it easy and affordable to move and install
  • Pipes can flex 90 degrees, eliminating the use of many fittings
  • PEX uses no lead or chemical based sealants on fittings
  • Can take below freezing temperatures and up to 200 degrees of heat
  • Flexible piping helps eliminate water hammer noises common with PVC and copper pipes
  • Works perfect for underfloor heating systems

Disadvantages:
  • PEX requires the use of specialty tools for installation
  • As a relatively new material, it has not been time tested like other plumbing materials
  • Not all plumbers know how to install PEX
  • Oxygen can seep into the line creating corrosion and scaling in underfloor heating systems

Steel

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.

Advantages:

  • Works excellent with existing steel lines
  • Can withstand high pressure situations
  • Steel pipes can be used for water, sewage, fire sprinklers and gas lines
  • The strongest of all plumbing pipes and easily prevents hard freeze bursting
  • Fireproof and structurally strong, steel can be used in residential, agricultural, commercial and industrial settings

Disadvantages:
  • Hard to install, heavy and expensive
  • Corrodes easily
  • Scaling can occur faster than other plumbing materials
  • Easily conducts electricity

Concrete

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.

Advantages:

  • Super strong: can be driven over
  • Can receive enormous amounts of water without corrosion problems
  • Works perfect for commercial and industrial applications
  • Can be preformed to exact specifications

Disadvantages:
  • Can be very expensive
  • Difficult to install
  • Used only for grey water—can't be used for other water systems

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