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High copper prices have plumbers thinking plastic


A few years ago, most of the plumbers I know would have recommended copper pipes for your home’s plumbing because they’re long-lasting and durable. Today, plenty of plumbers still swear by copper, and it’s still the choice among homeowners and plumbers for about 85 percent of new home construction.

But it’s not your only choice.

Plastic tubing is nipping at copper’s heels as a plumbing favorite because copper has gotten so expensive. The price of lightweight plastic pipe, which includes an alphabet soup of variations, including PVC (polyvinyl chloride), ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) PE (polyethylene) and PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) is relatively stable. Plus it resists corrosion and is easy to work with.

Some benefits of plastic plumbing pipe: It’s strong and flame-retardant. Plastic pipes are flexible, so there’s rarely a problem with “water hammer” – that banging and knocking noise you sometimes hear in metal pipes when you turn the water on or off. Some plumbers report fewer complaints with pressure leaks at solder joints. And plastic is easier for the handy do-it-yourselfer to repair and install.

Not everyone loves plastic pipes, though. Critics complain that they give drinking water a plastic taste, and that the inside of the pipes are more susceptible than copper to growing bacteria. And some homeowners are turning their backs on plastic building products in general, citing health concerns.

The traditional favorite, copper, on the other hand, has proved to have long-term durability in areas where the water isn’t highly acidic. It’s fire-resistant and even earthquake-tolerant. Every building code accepts copper plumbing, and plumbers like it because its joints aren’t bulky and its small external diameter means it can fit into tight spots. Plus, it could increase the resale value of your home.

Still, it’s expensive because its price fluctuates with the demand for raw materials. Some homeowners report a metallic taste to their drinking water. And plumbers say the biggest drawbacks are the pinhole leaks copper pipes can spring when a home’s water is too acidic. Copper is best suited for use when the pH of the water is between 6.5 and 8.5. Copper also can be more difficult to install, especially if the job requires a gas torch.

Which one is right for your home? Your best bet is to ask a plumber to help you decide. Your choice will depend on your budget, the acidity of your water, how long you intend to live in your home and which material your trusted plumber has the most confidence in.

If your home already has copper pipes, the plumber might advise you to stick with copper for repairs. Same with plastic replacements if your home already has plastic pipes.

And if you live in an older home with galvanized steel pipes, your plumber almost certainly will advise you to leave repairs to a pro. As one of my plumber friends likes to say, homeowners who tackle galvanized pipe problems on their own are “treading where angels fear to go.”

Same goes if you live in a house with a polybutylene plumbing system. That’s one you want to replace, not repair. If it isn’t leaking yet, it’s just a matter of time before it does. If your home’s PB plumbing was installed between 1978 and 1995 and it leaks, you may qualify for free replacement as the result of a class-action lawsuit. Visit pbpipe.com for more information. Hurry, though: The filing deadline is May 1.

Rosie Romero has been in the Arizona homebuilding and remodeling industry for 35 years. He has a radio program from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KNST-AM (790). For more do-it-yourself tips and for Arizona’s most-trusted contractor referral network, go to rosieonthehouse.com or call (888) ROSIE-4-U during the show. The Rosie on the House column appears every Friday.


Copper prices have plumbers thinking plastic

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