by +Ben Vaughn
Is copper plumbing right for you?
Historically copper is one of the most common and useful plumbing materials. It is also a highly valued commodity metal that has always been able to fetch a high retail price.
Copper tubing is most widely used as a hot and cold water line, as well as a refrigerant line in HVAC systems. Copper has historically been used in indoor plumbing systems and up until the 1970s copper tubing and galvanized pipes were the standard for hot and cold water supply systems.
The last few decades have seen the emergence of plastic tubing in home plumbing systems as a cheaper alternative to copper. The initial lower cost of plastic PVC and PEX pipe makes it an attractive material for plumbing.
This, however, does not mean that copper is not widely represented in many homes, just that the rising costs of copper have made some builders reconsider it as the best option. To give an idea of the price disparity between copper tubing and a material like PEX, consider this: ⅜”-1” PEX runs from $0.38-$1.26 while the same sizes in copper run from $4.87-$13.38. Clearly copper can get expensive fast.
Copper has numerous advantages as a plumbing material. In the short term, copper costs more than plastic, but the long term benefits can be greater than with plastics or even galvanized tubing.
The first thing to consider about copper is that it is highly resilient and dependable. Copper is impermeable, can keep contaminants out, withstand sharp temperature changes, and is almost entirely maintenance free.
Since copper is generally not welded along the length of the pipe, the tubing can last beyond the life of the house. A solder connection is the most reliable fitting to keep out leaks. It is also faster and cheaper than compression or flare fittings. Consequently. the joints and fittings should never pull apart or breakdown and should resist abrasion and corrosion over time.
The building standards governing the use of copper plumbing are high and well established and because of this dependability, copper has the benefit of contributing to the resale value of the house. These are some of the reasons why copper has experienced a sustained value as a building material commodity.
Beyond the long term economic benefits, copper tubing has health and safety benefits as well. Copper is resistant to the buildup of harmful bacteria and contaminants since it is natural, impermeable material.
It is also rigid and can handle temperature extremes and is an excellent thermal conductor. Copper can even withstand enormous pressure--some one thousand pounds per square inch. Because of this resistance to heat and high pressure threshold, copper is routinely used for fire sprinkler systems.
Although copper plumbing is a highly reliable and corrosion resistant material, it is a material like any other and subject to problems over time. Many problems associated with copper tubing can be reduced to improper installation, but corrosion can still occur under certain circumstances. Things like cold water pitting happen when the pipe’s interior becomes contaminated. Erosion corrosion occurs from high, turbulent water flow through the pipes. For electrical work, stray current corrosion can occur from improper bonding or grounding of electrical wiring.
Pin hole leaks can also occur in copper tubing due to improper bonding or grounding. This is often something that happens when original plumbing has been modified. This problem is widely known as stray current corrosion and is an electrical deficiency rather than a plumbing defect. The grounding and bonding of both the plumbing and electrical system should be thoroughly evaluated to prevent these leaks. An electrician can use a DC voltmeter with probes on a hot pipe and a cold pipe to detect improper grounding. If a problem is detected, a copper bonding jumper kit can resolve the issue and prevent leaks.
You may also want to reconsider copper tubing if you live in very cold environments or have acidic water as copper can build up mineral deposits that resist water flow, corrode in acidic water conditions, and burst because in extremely low temperatures. For certain environments, plastic tubing may be better suited for your home plumbing needs.
Despite the wide use of plastic PVC tubing for home plumbing, copper remains a popular standard. The prices for a copper plumbing system are comparable to systems using other materials--especially once installation and long term maintenance costs are factored into the overall cost. Many plumbing contractors also prefer using copper since it is a more lasting, reliable material with which to work--though it can take longer to install, thus inflating labor costs on top of the higher material price tag.
The long term resilience and performance of copper easily make it a preferred material and still the most common in homes and buildings. While many homes feature galvanized and PEX pipe in the plumbing systems, a greater investment may be to upgrade to copper plumbing. A well installed, quality copper tubing system can last up to 100 years and require minimal maintenance. While copper can be initially costly, consider it a lifelong investment.
Ben Vaughn writes on plumbing systems, the benefits of copper plumbing, and finding the best water heaters in Utah.
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