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Choosing Piping for Your New Construction: Copper or Plastic?

By: | Tags: | Comments: 0 | February 1st, 2017

In the past, the most important decisions you made regarding new home construction or renovation centered around lighting fixtures, hardwood flooring, and bathroom tiles — the cosmetic features of the home.

However, homeowners are increasingly more concerned about the components of the house that are hidden from sight, particularly the pipes.

As consumers and builders become more aware of quality, budget and green building, they’re now exploring the pros and cons of the various types of pipes used in construction. Here are some of the attributes related to the two main types of piping, plastic, and copper:

Plastic Piping (PVC, PEX, HDPE and cPVC)

Plastic piping, which made its debut in American construction projects in the 1980s, has been lauded over the decades because of its convenience and ease of installation. It continues to be one of the most cost-effective options for piping. It also gets high marks for longevity since most plastic pipes last 50 years or more.

Here are a few more things you should consider when determining if plastic piping is right for your home construction or renovation:

  • Plastic piping is resistant to freeze. If you live in a climate zone that is susceptible to freezing temperatures, plastic piping may be a better option, because the material expands as the water pressure increases. However, plastic can become brittle in freezing conditions, some types more than others. For example, PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) is more resistant to freezing than PVC.
  • Plastic pipes come in several materials. Unlike copper, you can choose from several different materials when choosing pipes. The options include rigid and relatively thick PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and CPVC (post-chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) and PEX, which is more flexible. Plastic is under scrutiny for possible contaminants. While plastic pipes are ideal for many pipe applications, researchers have raised some concerns recently about chemicals from the plastic leaching into
  • Plastic is under scrutiny for possible contaminants. While plastic pipes are ideal for many pipe applications, researchers have raised some concerns recently about chemicals from the plastic leaching into the water. One study pointed to the presence of contaminants and unregulated VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in PEX pipes, for example. The collaborative study by Andrew Whelton, University of South Alabama and Purdue University revealed the presence of VOCs in the water of eight PEX pipes during a 30-day period. The report also revealed that, in some cases, VOCs were higher during the beginning of the test period and no longer present toward the end. Experts indicate that more research is needed in order to determine the extent of the health concerns.

Copper Piping

Copper was used in piping for decades before plastic was introduced as an alternative in the 1980s. The majority of homes in the United States are equipped with copper pipes primarily because the construction pre-dates the introduction of plastic pipes.

Here are some considerations when using copper pipes:

  • Copper is a natural resource. Since copper is naturally found in the environment, it is considered antimicrobial and, as a result, does not possess the same risks to VOCs and other contaminants as plastic pipes do. For some, copper is considered a more environmentally friendly choice for pipes.
  • Copper is naturally superior to other metals. Unlike other metals, copper is more resistant to corrosion and is lead-free. It is also lightweight, making it an easy metal to work with, and resistant to wear, lasting more than 50 years.
  • Copper is a heat conductor. Copper is a better conductor of heat than plastic. As a result, copper piping is considered more effective for use in situations where it is used to supply water from indoors to the outdoors. To enhance that benefit, one should insulate the pipe to ensure it doesn’t freeze in subzero temperatures.
  • Copper does pose some risk. Copper can leach into the water — a risk that can lead to health issues, such as gastrointestinal problems, kidney disease, and liver damage, depending upon the level of exposure, according to the EPA.

Under federal regulations, steps have been taken to limit the amount of exposure to copper. For example, water treatment plants use corrosion inhibitors to minimize the deterioration of copper.

When copper pipes are involved, let the water run for about 60 seconds before drinking or cooking. The use of filtration devices can also minimize the exposure to copper that leaches through pipes.  For many homeowners, deciding between copper and plastic and how comfortable they are in understanding potential risks.

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