For a long time, galvanized steel was the material of choice when installing plumbing pipes. That is no longer the case though.
Copper, PEX, PVC and CPVC are the materials of choice in modern plumbing. By the way before galvanized steel, there was lead, polybutylene and even wood.
While galvanized steel pipes were better than their predecessors, they were prone to corrosion once the protective zinc coating peeled off. This resulted in low water pressure, brown water and even leaks.
Copper pipes solve that problem and that is why it is good choice for many people these days. However, PEX and PVC pipes are proving to be just as good for a fraction of the price.
So, are copper pipes good for plumbing? And what are their advantages and disadvantages?
The main advantages of copper pipes in plumbing is that they are durable, corrosion-resistant, lightweight, fire-resistant, eco-friendly and do not contaminate water. The disadvantages are that they are expensive, may add a metallic taste to water, may freeze and burst and are affected by acidic water.
In short, copper pipes are excellent for plumbing. They are durable, will not corrode, can withstand high temperatures, are not affected by UV light and will not contaminate the water. They are however costly compared to the alternatives (PEX and PVC) and can’t withstand acidic water.
Although, copper was the material of choice after galvanized steel pipes were found to corrode and leak, its use has slowed down or stopped in some areas after the introduction of PEX. PEX pipes offer most of the benefits offered by copper pipes for a fraction of the cost.
So, which material is better for plumbing pipes between copper and PVC?
PVC pipes are cheaper, easier to install, less noisy, resistant to impact damages (it’s thicker) and does not freeze easily. On the other hand, copper pipes are durable, have a higher resistance to chlorine, can be used outdoors, resists vibration damages and are resistant to bacteria growth.
Let us now look at the pros and cons of copper plumbing pipes in more details.
Advantages of Copper Pipes
Before looking at the benefits of copper plumbing pipes, how can you tell if you have old galvanized steel pipes? Check out that and the reason you should replace them in this post.
Another thing you should check is if you have lead pipes in your house, especially the main service line (from the street to the house). This is actually a matter of your health. Check the post here.
Now, the benefits of copper plumbing pipes are:
1. Copper Pipes are Durable
Unlike galvanized steel pipes, copper pipes do not corrode. Corrosion happens when iron (present in steel) comes into contact with oxygen to form iron oxide commonly referred to as rust.
Although galvanized steel pipes were initially coated with zinc, the zinc coating comes off after some years exposing the steel to oxygen. The pipes may look good from the outside buy from the inside they are usually badly corroded.
The main effect of corrosion in pipes is reduced water pressure as the internal diameter of the pipes is reduced by the rust. Other effects are brown water and leaking of the pipes as they become structurally weak especially around joints.
Since copper pipes are not affected by this problem, they can last for a long time. But how does it compare against PEX and PVC which are corrosion resistant as well?
You can expect copper pipes to last anywhere between 50 and 70 years while PEX pipes last for 30 to 50 years.
2. Copper Pipes Do Not Contaminate Water
Do you know why lead pipes stopped being used in water pipes? It is because lead could dissolve in the water which would ultimately end up in our bodies with severe side-effects which could even include death.
If you want to know how bad lead is, medical and public health experts have all come to the conclusion that there are no safe levels of lead in the human body. If your house was built before the 1950s check if you still have lead pipes in the house.
Galvanized steel pipes are not dangerous and pose no health risks but the brown water from these pipes (after corrosion) cannot be used for drinking, cooking or even bathing. It will also stain porcelain fixtures in the house and clog showerheads, faucet aerators and other fixtures valves.
And that is where copper pipes come in. Copper pipes are corrosion resistant and will not react with water meaning there is low risk of the pipes contaminating your water.
So, how does copper compare to PEX in this regard?
According to the Environmental Working Group (ewg), 150 contaminants have been found in water that runs through PEX pipes. Each of the more than 70 PEX pipes brands tested leached different chemicals into the water but unfortunately there are not enforceable federal regulations for homeowners to crosscheck.
An independent research tested 6 brands of PEX pipes and they found out that each type caused odors exceeding those set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The pipes also leached chemicals like toluene (neurotoxic) and MTBE (carcinogenic).
Another thing to remember is that bacteria can thrive in PEX pipes if there is bacteria in the water being supplied to your house. That will however not happen if you install copper pipes.
3. Copper is Eco-Friendly
Copper is a naturally occurring material. This means that there is minimal pollution to the environment during the production of copper pipes. This is assuming mining is done in a controlled process.
On the other hand, synthetic plastics like PEX and PVC release lots of emissions and chemicals into the environment during production which needless to say affects the environment negatively.
Old copper pipes can also be recycled, something that is impossible to do with PEX and PVC. Plastics are also not biodegradable which is another loss for the environment.
4. Copper Pipes can be Used Outdoors
Although most plumbing pipes are usually concealed in walls, sometimes you will need to install water pipes outdoors, where they will be exposed. If you are in that boat then copper is your friend.
In this case, I will also compare copper pipes to PEX pipes since that is what most people are likely to useas an alternative.
When subjected to Ultraviolet (UV) Rays, copper is not affected by them, unlike PEX pipes which will degrade over time.
5. Copper Pipes are Fire Resistant
Copper as a material has a higher thermal rating compared to the alternatives which are PEX, PVC and CPVC. That makes copper pipes fire-resistant if that is something that you are keen on.
Also, if subjected to fire/flames, copper will not emit toxic fumes, something that cannot be said about PEX, PVC and all the other plastic pipes.
Copper pipes are also excellent at handling heat compared to their competitors. This is why you will find that the water supply pipe running from most water heaters are made from copper.
6. Copper Pipes are Lightweight
One thing you will like about copper pipes especially when compared to other metallic pipes is that they are quite light but that doesn’t affect their durability or strength. As a matter of fact, copper pipes can withstand 1000 psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure.
The light nature of copper pipes reduces the labor costs during installation. You do not need to hire more people to lift and align the pipes. The pipes can extend for long stretches without requiring support.
7. Copper Pipes Resists Vibration Damages
Compared to PVC and PEX, copper pipes are more flexible around joints. PEX and PVC pipes are quite solid around the joints due to the process used to link them together.
If the area you live in is subjected to vibrations like the ones experienced during earthquakes, copper pipes are able to withstand the vibrations and resist damages more than the plastic pipes.
Disadvantages of Copper Plumbing Pipes
So, what are the cons of copper pipes? What would persuade you to consider the alternatives to copper as a plumbing material?
Here they are:
1. Copper is Expensive
One of the main reasons most homeowners choose PEX over copper pipes is the cost. If you are replacing the entire pipes in your house or installing pipes in a new construction, the difference in cost between copper and PEX will be very significant and some people will easily choose PEX.
The cost of copper pipes is between $2 to $4 per foot depending on your location. On the other hand, PEX pipes will cost between 50 cents and $2 dollars while PVC will cost 50 cents to $1 per foot.
A professional plumber will also charge more to install copper pipes compared to PEX or PVC. It takes longer to cut, prep and install copper pipes than PEX. This means more hours will be spent installing copper pipes and hence the high cost.
Another advantage when installing PEX as opposed to copper is that you don’t need to make many cuttings in walls. Their flexibility makes them easy to snake them through walls and ceilings.
When it comes to copper, it is quite solid (not flexible) and will therefore need several joints (elbows) which will ultimately need to be welded and tested for leaks. All that takes time and as you know time is money.
2. Copper Pipes React with Acidic Water
This will be a concern for folks who use water from a private well but not so much for those connected to the municipal water supply. If the water from your well is acidic, you will have problems with your copper pipes some years after installation.
I earlier mentioned that copper pipes are corrosion-resistant but if the water in the pipes is acidic, it will over time eat the copper away resulting in pinhole leaks.
3. Copper Pipes are Prone to Bursting
One of things that concern homeowners especially those who live in cold areas is the likelihood of their pipes bursting during winter. Copper performs poorly in this regard.
Compared to copper, PEX pipes can expand to accommodate more freezing water and the associated extra pressure and therefore prevent pipes from bursting.
Copper pipes just like other metal pipes are also not the best insulators. They loose heat to the surrounding way faster compared to materials like PEX. You can however install a hot water recirculation system to beat this problem.
4. Copper Pipes Installation is Not DIY-Friendly
If you like doing things yourself, you will be well advised to go with PEX instead of copper. To start with, copper pipes installation requires many connections compared to PEX.
You will also need to know how to use a torch to solder and seal fittings when installing copper pipes. With PEX, the connections are in most cases quick-connect fittings which do not need any tools to put together.
5. Copper Pipes May Add a Metallic Taste in Water
What some people have noticed is that copper pipes may add a metallic taste to the water. This is especially noticed if you have not used the water in your house for a while like when you have just returned from a trip.
The good thing is that the metallic tasting water is not harmful to your body. When such is the case you can contact a licensed plumber to install a good household water treatment.
And basically those are the pros and cons of copper plumbing pipes. I hope this guide was helpful.