Q. Our new house is framed, and we just noticed that our builder is using plastic instead of copper piping for the plumbing throughout our new house. This surprised me -- I hadn't seen this before. What do the pros think of plastic plumbing pipes? Is it as good or better than copper?
A. It is the piping of the future. Whether or not plastic is better than copper depends upon whom you ask. If you ask me, I'll say plastic. I'll tell you why. When piping water started out several thousand years ago the materials available were basicall y clay and/or lead. Hence the name of the person who installs pipe: a plumber, which comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum.
We went to iron which rusted then to galvanized iron which clogged up over time because it was more durable and cheaper than lead. We hit upon copper because it was relatively soft and workable, lightweight and had a longer service life than the ferrous piping. We didnít learn about leadís health issues until more recently.
Plastic piping came on the scene in the 1970s after having to jump through a lot of hoops to get code approval and it began to be installed throughout the land. Plumbers initially liked it because it was even lighter than copper and much easier and faste r to install.
But plastic in general got a bad name when a whole genus of plastic piping had a problem in the field-- polybutylene-- resulting in a huge class action lawsuit in the hundreds of millions of dollars of settlement funds (that really didn't cover all affec ted) and all the attendant bad press.
For a while the word "plastic" occupied the same negative place in the minds of the home buying public as does aluminum wiring. I still have people who freak out when they learn that the heavier gauge wiring used today is generally aluminum as is the hea vy service entry cable from the power company and the aluminum that had the bad reputation was single strand lighting circuit wire prior to 1972. Memories are long.
But along came CPVC or Chlorinated Poly Vinyl Chloride plastic piping which has had a very good performance record in the field. The simply stated reason I like CPVC piping for domestic water supply distribution systems is plastic is chemically inert to water and does not conduct electricity. If you think about those two qualities you'll understand the advantage plastic has.
Recently new and even older copper installations have gotten into trouble by showing up with pinhole leaks that have confounded the experts and caused homeowners all sorts of trouble. And should a live wire come into contact with a copper pipe the whole system becomes energized. I have tested pipes that have given folks a "tingle" to find house current running through them. Locating the source can be a real challenge. That wouldn't happen with CPVC.
Some old-time plumbers don't like CPVC plastic because they think it's too easy to work with. All you need is the pipe, the fittings, a tape measure, a hacksaw, a can of glue and you are a plumber. No more sweating joints and open flames. CPVC seems to have taken some of the mystery out of the whole process and the dinosaurs don't like that.
The only place that CPVC can be problematic in my experience is at shower heads and tub diverter faucets that seem to be loose when you grab them if they are piped in plastic. Some builders will have the plumber stub out a section of copper in those loca tions to get the fittings stiff while I have used foam insulation around the pipes to stiffen them up after the fact.
It didn't take long for me to learn to love the white PVC waste lines-- replacing cast iron and copper-- that have been standard for a generation and it wont take long for the general public to come to accept CPVC supply pipes.
With all of the new methods and materials used in construction like manufactured wood products or wireless communications systems to computer operated HVAC and remote controllers, construction continues to advance in ways we could not have imagined 25 or 30 years ago. CPVC pipe is just one of them.
When people say to me "They don't build 'em like they used to" my standard response is "Good". In so many ways they build 'em better.