Choosing Pipe


  • Some historians tell us that the Roman Empire ended as a result of the use of lead pipes in Rome's best homes. The theory being that such homes used the latest innovation - lead pipes for their drinking water systems. And thus, Rome's leaders suffered from lead poisoning.

    Luckily there are very few homes with lead water supply lines in US home's. But in selecting the pipe for your home, it may be possible to save $$$, have a more adaptable and reliable system and a quieter home.

    Here is an introduction to pipe materials for water supply, radiant heat and waste water systems.

  • Lead Pipe
    No longer in use and rarely found in US homes.

    In some older homes some lead pipe may be found in waste lines. As long as such pipes are functional they can continue to be used and don't pose a hazard. If problems arise or such pipes are found during remodeling, they should be replaced with ABS or PVC pipe.

    Note: some older water coolers, fixtures and old buildings may contain lead material in the drinking water system and this can be a health concern. Some older copper pipe may contain solder with a high lead content. Lead Pipe

    A lead pipe in an older home in use as a vent in a basement drain. The pipe has a dent that reduces air flow. Due to the relative softness of lead such damage is common.

  • Galvanized Steel Pipe
    Common in many older homes. It was used for both water supply and waste water lines. "Black-pipe" (non-galvanized steel pipe) is still used for gas piping.

    Rust tends to build up on the inside of the pipes. While this rust is reported to have few if any health consequences, it does reduce water flow and may also cause leaks in the pipes.

    In waste water lines, galvanized pipe has the disadvantage of having rough surfaces and thus clogging more easily.

    Galvanized pipe installation work usually requires threading tools or the purchase of specific lengths of pre-threaded pipe. Galvanized Steel Pipe

    Some galvanized pipe with some early signs of leaks.

  • Copper Pipe
    Copper pipe came into use after WWII and at times, was used for both water supply and waste water lines. Due to the high cost of the material, it has been used primarily for supply lines and even that is less and less common today.

    With few exceptions, copper pipe is a very reliable water supply line material. In some pre-1980 installations a high lead solder may have been used and this may result in higher lead levels in water supply.

    Installation of copper pipe is relatively easy and requires relatively inexpensive tools: a pipe cutter, cleaning brushes, a torch...And it is in the use of a torch that the installation of copper pipe has all too often resulted in house fires. Copper Pipe

    An example of water supply system with some newer copper pipe and some older and leaking galvanized pipe. When copper pipe is fitted to steel pipe a special fitting must be used in order to prevent corrosion.

  • Pex Pipe
    Pex or "crosslinked polyethylene pipe" is a relatively newer product on the market. It has been in use for over 10 years and is establishing itself as an industry standard.

    Lower cost and ease of installation are only some of the reason's for its popularity. Pex lends itself to the distribution of water supply be means of a manifold. This means that the water supply for any faucet or room can be controlled at a nearby location and not only at a main valve.

    Pex installation requires few tools and is arguably the easiest water supply system to install. With such ease of installation comes a tendency by some amateurs to be sloppy - not a good idea! Pex Pipe

    A Pex pipe manifold with several hot and cold lines going to different areas of the house. Courtesy of our sponsor

    Pex pipe can also be used for radiant heating systems.

  • ABS Pipe
    Acrylonitrite-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS) pipe is that standard for waste pipe in most modern homes. It has been in use for 30+ years and with few exceptions, has been a very reliable. Along with PVC it is a waste pipe system that is quite easy to maintain or modify.

    ABS (and PVC) pipe is very smooth on the inside and unlike galvanized pipe doesn't ketch debris or promote clogs.

    Almost any saw can be used to cut ABS pipe. Fitting are connected by means of a special liquid "glue".

    ABS Pipe

    The ease of ABS pipe installation promotes the use of such pipe by careless amateurs. Here is an example of a waste line with a clean-out fitting that was installed in the wrong direction!

  • PVC Pipe
    Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a white pipe material made from the same material as vinyl windows. It can be used for water supply lines, fittings and waste and drainage lines.

    In fittings it is threaded and usually intended to be install by hand-tightening. In water supply lines and waste lines it is joined with fittings and a special solvent. PVC Pipe

    Example of a defective PVC fitting installation (and a missing vent).

  • Cast Iron Pipe
    Cast iron was used as the standard material for the main waste line in homes and in most commercial buildings. It is a very durable material but requires some special skills for installation, modifications or repairs.

    In recent years, ABS or PVC pipe has replaced the use of cast iron pipe. But cast iron pipe can be used to reduce the noise from water flow. For example, in walls and ceilings under a 2nd floor bath. For example where such a bathroom is located over a living or dinning room and the noise transmission from the bathroom use is unwanted. Cast Iron Pipe

    A new clean-out in a waste line (see above) may be an indication of a need for frequent side-sewer cleaning the the possibility of damage. If seen during in an inspection, it suggest the need for a side-sewer TV camera inspection.