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What you should know about plastic plumbing products

What you should know about plastic plumbing products

Plumbing is meant to last a long time. Traditional metal plumbing products – brass, copper, galvanized steel – all offer decades of service life. Once installed, these materials can deliver trouble-free operation for 70-100 years. More recently, plumbing manufacturers have turned to <plastic plumbing products to address cost and performance issues in traditional metal plumbing. But what should the consumer know about plastic plumbing products, and is it safe to install in your home?

Three most common kinds of plastic plumbing products

Before we launch here, one kind of plastic plumbing product deserves a special mention. Polybutylene plumbing (PB) is a plastic that was used commonly in the 1970s. It is flexible, freeze-resistant and inexpensive – until it breaks. (Then it can get very expensive.)

There’s no nice way to say this: it’s junk. Dangerous and unreliable junk.

If you have it in your home, make plans to retire it sooner rather than later. The original PB products are no longer sold, but plenty of PB pipe remains in service. Currently, there is no known way for homeowners to recover the cost of replacement, and your insurance company likely will not cover damage caused by its failure. Homes with PB plumbing are likely to be worth less on the market than homes without it. In other words, replacing PB plumbing will be a very good investment.

On to the better stuff…

PVC pipe

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe is a rigid, white plastic pipe. People think of it as “new”, but it was actually discovered in 1872. The original formulation was very brittle, and it wasn’t until 1926 that chemists discovered additives that would correct this characteristic.

You can use PVC for both potable and drain/waste/vent applications. It has an expected lifespan of 100 years. PVC is also durable and inexpensive, which makes it a natural choice for new installations and plumbing repairs. PVC pipe doesn’t use the same sizing system that copper tubing uses. If you’re using PVC to replace copper, you need to be aware of this when selecting the appropriate materials and fittings for your projects.

Metal piping relies on solder and fittings to create joints and turns or bends. PVC is rigid, like metal, so it also requires joints to connect pipes or change directions. Unlike metal pipes, PVC uses special cements to join pipes and fittings together. The cement softens the plastic, then hardens it again to create a solid, leak-proof connection.

PVC isn’t recommended for hot water applications that exceed 140°F. That’s hotter than most “default” water heater settings, but your water heater is fully capable of exceeding this temperature. (It’s not recommended. Most codes require special fittings if your water heater normally exceeds 140°F and you can be scalded in a second or two at this temperature.) If your control thermostat gets bumped or creeps around from vibrations, hotter water is going to have a bad impact on PVC plumbing. PVC is also very susceptible to UV damage, and it will freeze. Having said that, PVC is a good choice for cold water systems, vents and drains.

CPVC

CPVC is PVC’s suaver and more attractive brother. Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) is every good thing that PVC is and a little more. Unlike PVC, it can handle hotter temperatures – up to 200°F. It’s more flexible than PVC, more colorful than PVC and stronger than PVC. It still freezes, though. In addition, some codes place height limitations on PVC and CPVC applications.

CPVC is available in both Nominal Pipe Size (NPS) and copper tubing size (CTS) standards. It does not use the same cement that PVC uses. CPVC is also good for both potable and drain/waste/vent applications, and it can handle hotter water.

Most CPVC products are also vulnerable to UV light. UV light is used in the manufacture of PVC and CPVC, so it can also “undo” PVC and CPVC materials. Direct exposure to sunlight can eventually cause the materials to break down.

Now for the bad part – CPVC is a lot more expensive than PVC. (Five to six times more expensive, to be exact.) Despite the increased expense, CPVC is recommended for hot water systems and some relatively low-temperature exhaust applications.

Some homeowners prefer plastic piping because it is quieter than traditional metal plumbing. You’ll still hear some noises, but you’re not likely to hear the same kind of banging and knocking that you can get from metal plumbing products. It’s not good to mix PVC and CPVC in one run, largely because the cements for each material differ. The performance characteristics also differ; it’s best to stick with one type or the other.

PEX

PEX is a soft, flexible plastic pipe. The PEX designation stands for cross-linked polyethylene. This product – which is about 50 years old – can be used for plumbing, heating and cooling. When used in plumbing, it can withstand temperatures to 180°F.

You may already have some PEX in your home. It’s often used to connect water supplies to sinks, toilets and appliances.

When used in plumbing, PEX does have some distinct advantages. Because it’s flexible, it can be used in places where traditional materials could prove problematic. It’s a lower-cost option in many cases. It also resists bursting and freezing. It doesn’t require joints the same way that rigid systems do, so it’s easier to install. PEX is also very quiet compared to rigid pipe. (No “water hammer” from appliance valves.) You can join PEX lines with tools and fittings, as opposed to soldering or cementing pieces together.

PEX plumbing often provides options for remodeling and addition construction, where it may be difficult to add rigid plumbing.

PEX applications can be used in low-rise buildings (under 3 stories), but it’s only used on the clean side of a plumbing system. You’ll still need to use PVC or traditional drain materials on the “dirty” side of your system. Certain specialty PEX formulations can also be used in heating and cooling applications.

Plastic plumbing continues to evolve, and as a homeowner, you’ll likely be seeing more plastic plumbing as time goes on. Using the correct products for your plumbing applications will go a long way to ensuring that you have good results.

If you’d like more information about plastic plumbing products, or are thinking about replacing your traditional plumbing with a plastic alternative, please contact us at Boston Standard Company at (617) 288-2911 for a consultation.

Photo Credit: mel0808johnson, via Flickr

PEX plumbing – love it or leave it?

DIY plumbing tasks often call for the use of crosslinked polyethylene, also known as PEX or XLPE. You’ve seen PEX plumbing in hardware and home improvement stores. It’s a flexible supply-line hose that comes in various lengths and diameters. For residential applications, it is often packaged in ready-to-use lengths that have fittings already attached. It also comes in longer lengths and can be used behind walls. In commercial applications, it’s frequently used for “domestic” water services, hydronic heating and cooling, and natural gas transport.

PEX fittings could be defective

PEX is not without controversy. Some swear by it; others swear at it. And a major manufacturer has been the subject of a long-running class action lawsuit that’s accepting claims until 2020. According to the settlement, which covers Zurn’s “F1807” yellow brass fittings manufactured and/or sold between 1996 and 2010, damages caused by the failure, leaking or occlusion of the F1807 fitting are covered. No other Zurn product is included in the suit.

Consumers reported damage from leaks and reduced water flow stemming from the use of defective brass fittings. According to the suit, which was settled by Zurn and the members of the class, compensation is available for persons who “own or have owned real property containing plumbing systems that contain F1807 Fittings… and who have experienced at least one leak in a Zurn F1807 fitting due to corrosion.”

Additionally, the suit offers relief for claimants who can demonstrate a significant decrease in flow (more than 50%) between the hot and cold lines of the system. For its part, Zurn denies that the product is defective, but has set aside funds to pay claims on the product through 2020.

In many cases, the product is installed behind a wall, where it may be difficult to detect a leak until major damage has already been done. Some claimants have reported that they have experienced multiple leaks as a result of the use of PEX in their properties. More troubling to some is the knowledge that a potentially defective product is in use in a property, but has not yet failed.

It’s impossible to know how many claimants could be involved because the F1807 fitting at the center of the suit was used for 14 years. It’s also important to note that Zurn is not the only manufacturer of PEX, and that while Zurn PEX is the subject of the suit, millions of Zurn installations have been trouble-free.

The lawsuit does not cover the cost of replacing affected PEX products that have not yet failed. If you have Zurn PEX in your home (or PEX of any kind) and want it replaced, you’ll have to do so at your own expense. Many claimants have reported spontaneous catastrophic failures, but others have reported flow rate issues in affected lines prior to the development of leaks.

In any case, if you notice a substantial decrease in water flow or a major difference in the flow rate between the hot and cold water lines of a fixture, you may have a PEX line in the early stages of failure. Stop using the affected fixture immediately and inspect the line for leaks or other signs of damage. If you can’t see the line or would prefer to have a plumber evaluate your situation, please give us a call at Boston Standard Plumbing at (617) 288-2911 anytime. If you would like more information about the Zurn PEX settlement, please visit www.plumbingfittingsettlement.com.

Photo Credit: Krzysztof Szkurlatowski, via FreeImages.com