Pros and Cons of Common Plumbing Pipes
Alex "Solar Girl" Steele
If you’re not familiar with the different types of piping used in various plumbing applications, the differences can be a little daunting. It’s always best to leave plumbing work to the professionals, but if you want to boost your knowledge around the materials your plumber uses around your property, take a look at our concise lesson on the benefits and pitfalls of each!
The newest addition to the plumbing scene is PEX, or cross-linked polyethylene piping. This innovative new material is both rigid enough to withstand intense water pressure and flexible enough to bend up to a 90-degree angle! With its strong yet malleable qualities, it can be used throughout the whole home, within walls, ceilings and other restrictive areas. At this time, PEX is only approved to use with water, not sewage or drainage. Blue PEX is for cold water lines, and red PEX is for hot, making it easy for any plumber (or skilled DIY-er) to know which line is which when making repairs. It is also amazingly easy to cut, and compatible with copper piping, push-fittings and other fitting types, so it can be utilized in a number of projects. Some plumbers complain that it does not always fit perfectly with push-fittings, however, and leaks are occasionally reported when PEX is used with push-fittings, but this is rare. There is also further research needed on the long-term water pressure capabilities of PEX, because it is so new to the scene. Probably the biggest negative associated with PEX is the fact that it cannot be recycled, unlike steel or copper pipe. So, while it is very useful, there are some circumstances where it’s not the right choice.
PVC pipe is probably the type of piping you think about when the word “plumbing” comes to mind. That white pipe under your bathroom sink? PVC! PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride, and is typically used for drainage or venting. Even though PEX has started to outshine PVC in popularity, it is still a favorite for many plumbing projects because it is incredibly durable, lightweight, and easy to install. It is also quite inexpensive, making it perfect for long pipe runs, such as irrigation projects. On the downside, however, it is a little more difficult to cut than PEX – requiring the use of a hacksaw, and uses solvent glues to connect. The solvent must be applied evenly to reduce the risk of a leaky, incomplete seal. Because the solvent used to connect PVC is so strong, it cannot be unbonded once cured – it must be cut. So, PVC pipe is best used for permanent, long term applications. It can degrade in sunlight, so it makes the most sense to only use PVC indoors or underground. PVC is a great “happy medium” for plumbers, but there are some situations when something heavier than PEX but less resource intensive than metal is needed!
The most common type of metal piping is flexible copper. It is usually used for running shorter distances, because copper can get very expensive. So, it is popular for use with dishwashers, refrigerators, or the final runs for hot water heaters. The unique qualities of copper allow it to stay strong against repeated water pressure, but easily bent and adjusted to fit in tight spaces, around corners, and in unconventionally shaped areas of the home. It can be easily bent with the use of a basic propane torch, but we discourage homeowners from trying this. We strongly recommend leaving that kind of job to a fully licensed plumber. Other than the high price of copper, it is quite thin, which means sometimes it is prone to breaking. Copper isn’t the best option for most plumbing jobs due to its fragility and high cost, but it’s incredibly important in some key applications.
The final type of piping we will talk about today is galvanized steel. Steel used to be commonplace in all sorts of plumbing scenarios: water, gas, sewage, drainage, and more… But it has fallen out of popularity as more modern supplies are developed. Instead of using solvents, torches, or push-fittings to connect pieces, galvanized steel is threaded, so it can be disconnected and reconnected more easily than other types of piping. Steel is incredibly strong, so it lasts for years, but it is prone to corrosion, which can result in pipe blockages. Depending on the chemical reactions that occur when steel corrodes, it may release toxic lead traces, which can contaminate water supplies. This can be expensive and cumbersome to repair and take municipalities years to complete. If you kept up with the news about the Flint, MI water crisis back in 2014, you probably heard that the catastrophic lead poisoning in the water system there was the partial result of old, corroded galvanized steel piping. After years of expensive public works projects, almost all the Flint water lines have been replaced with safe copper, and the water is safe to drink again. The mismanagement of the Flint water crisis is a prime example of why it is so important to routinely monitor and repair plumbing infrastructure.
As improvements in plumbing technology come out, innovation can lead the way towards safer water supplies and more secure homes. There is so much to learn about the hard trades, and plumbing is an especially unique vocation. We hope this miniature deep dive on the various kinds of piping used by industry professionals helps you feel a little more knowledgeable about what’s going on under your sinks and within your walls. And of course, the next time you spot a leak, or your hot water heater goes on the fritz, be sure to call Aqua Wolf Plumbing!