Polybutylene pipes were the pipes of the future in the 1970s. They were cheap, light and easy to produce. By the early 1990s, there were about 10 million homes with these pipes especially in the Mid-Atlantic States, Pacific Northwest and American Southwest.
The production and use of polybutylene pipes (poly b or PB as they are commonly known) was however stopped (banned by the building code) after a class-action lawsuit, Cox vs Shell Oil Co., which was settled for $950 million. The case is however long settled so if there is still polybutylene pipes in a house it is all on the homeowner.
So, what happened to the pipes of the future in such a short time that they ended up paying almost $1 billion in a lawsuit and stopped production of the same pipes?
It turned out that after continued exposure to elements in water like chlorine, polybutylene pipes become brittle and microfractures starts to develop from the inside of the pipes. Once enough microfractures have formed, the pipe will suddenly rupture causing a leak and water damages.
Not all houses with polybutylene pipes have experienced leaks though. There are still many houses in the United States that still have these pipes and are still “going strong”.
Homeowners are very hesitant to buy a house once they find out that it still has the dreaded polybutylene pipes. Should this be a big concern though? Should you still go ahead and buy a house with these pipes.
Presence of polybutylene pipes should not discourage you from buying a house. If you really like everything about the house apart from the piping, you can always ask the owner to replace the pipes before you buy it or negotiate a lower price and repipe the house yourself.
If you have a house with polybutylene pipes you should replace them with PEX or copper. Not only will that prevent sudden water leaks, but it will also make it easy for you to sell the house should you decide to. You will also sell it at a good price.
There is no law prohibiting selling of a house with polybutylene pipes. It will however be harder to sell one because of the bad press the pipes have receive. You will also sell for less than houses with modern piping.
The bad news is that homeowners insurance does not cover houses with polybutylene pipes. Majority of the homeowners insurers are well aware of the polybutylene pipes failure rates and therefore opt to steer clear from them.
Why You Should Buy a House with Polybutylene Pipes
Despite their problems, I don’t think you should give up on a good house just because it has polybutylene pipes. If the house checks out on all the factors you have always wanted in a house save for the type of piping, I really don’t see a big problem why you shouldn’t buy it.
Here are the reasons why I believe you should buy a house despite it having polybutylene pipes:
1. All Pipes Fail
That’s correct! All pipes fail and leak, only that polybutylene pipes fail at a faster rate than the others. There is therefore no guarantee that if you buy a house with any other type of piping you are safe from leaks and water damages.
So, what would be your options if you decide not to buy a house with polybutylene pipes? Galvanized steel pipes, right? Most houses in the United States have these type of piping.
Galvanized steel pipes are far from perfect and my advice is a replacement as I wrote in this post. The problem with galvanized steel pipes is that they are susceptible to corrosions and clogs which will reduce your water pressure, clog and stain fixtures as well as discolored water.
Few houses have copper pipes due to its prohibitive prices. Those who have repiped their houses have done so using PEX which is what you should also do after buying a house with a polybutylene pipes.
2. Eventually All Pipes Will Be Replaced
Needless to say, water pipes will not last forever. Here is how long it will take before replacing different types of pipes:
- Copper Pipes: 70-80 years
- Brass Pipes: 80-100 years
- Galvanized Steel Pipes: 80-100 years
- PEX: Over 100 years
This is just an approximation and some pipes will need a replacement sooner. What I am saying here is that even if you don’t buy a house with polybutylene pipes you will need to replace your house’s pipes sooner or later.
If you buy the house with polybutylene pipes and replace them with PEX (or even copper), it will give you piece of mind for the next almost 100 years (if you live that long).
The thing with new pipes is that once installed you will no longer have to deal with reduced water pressure or discolored water.
3. Location is Everything
The thing about houses with polybutylene pipes is that they are built in great suburban areas close to good schools and shopping facilities, have good walk scores and also very safe. Because these houses were built in the 1980s, they also have big trees which improve the overall aesthetics of the area.
Now, are you going to give up on a dream home simply because you don’t like the type of piping installed? I think there is so more to a house than just it’s plumbing.
Replacing the polybutylene pipes with PEX can take even 2 days while the same will take about a week with copper. The cost will also vary between $5000 and $15000 depending on the material being used and location.
If you can manage to talk the house seller down to an agreeable price, you can use that money to repipe the house with modern pipes and move in to the new house in like 10 days.
4. The Houses are Cheaper
Anyone selling a house with polybutylene house knows the liability that comes with that type of piping and will list it for a lower price than that with other types of pipes. This is an opportunity for you to own a house at a relatively lower price.
Granted, plumbing is not the number factor that influence the cost of a house. The seller will however be ready to negotiate once they find out that you know the problems that comes with those type of pipes.
How to Tell if a House a Polybutylene Pipes
If you are looking to buy a house, the home inspector should inform you the type of pipes installed in the house. Apart from that, they should also be in a position to tell you the status of the plumbing as well.
If you would like to see for yourself, there are several clues which will help you to identify the type of pipe you have. Here are some of them:
- Polybutylene is plastic. If you see pipes that are not plastic you most likely have galvanized steel, copper or even lead pipes
- Polybutylene pipes are mostly blue in color but could also be black or gray.
- Check for the letters “PB” followed by a series of numbers on the pipe.
So where can you spot these pipes in your home?
- In the basement or crawlspace near the water heater.
- Main house shut off valve connection.
- The main water meter located at the street. You should however be careful with this as there are several instances where a copper pipe enters the home only to be connected to a polybutylene pipe.
- The ceiling of an unfinished basement.
- Connection to sinks and toilets. Be careful here as well since in some instances plumbers use copper stub outs where the pipes exit the wall to connect to a fixture.
PEX as Replacement Option for Poly butylene Pipes
When it comes to repiping your house, copper and PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) are the 2 best options to consider. PEX has several advantages over copper.
- Copper has less tensile strength and will burst easily when frozen. PEX expands and contracts under the same conditions without a problem.
- PEX has lower thermal conductivity compared to copper, therefore reducing the loss of heat from the water to the surrounding, and also higher resistance to freezing.
- PEX is cheaper.
- PEX pipes can easily be snaked through a house walls. With copper, you will need to cut through the wall since the pipes are solid. This is why PEX pipes are cheaper to install since the repiping takes fewer days and there are only small holes left to patch up.
- PEX lasts longer that copper.
There is so much to a house than just its plumbing, which is something you can replace. A lot of the fears concerning houses with polybutylene pipes are just blown out of proportion in my opinion.
Do not let bad pipes which you can replace in a week stand between you and you dream house. Replace the pipes and enjoy living in an area with all the amenities you love.