Modern plumbing owes a debt of gratitude to the civilizations of days gone by. According to Ivey Engineering, India used copper pipes as early as 4,000 B.C., while the ancient Egyptians “developed copper pipes that were used to build elaborate bathrooms inside the pyramids [as well as] intricate irrigation and sewage systems.”
For their part, the Romans are credited with developing the most sophisticated and advanced ancient plumbing systems, featuring underground sewer systems, aqueducts and public & private baths. Unfortunately, their engineering success is a cautionary tale, all because they used lead pipes, which we now know, present a health risk.
Lead Pipes in Homes
It’s possible your home may have lead pipes if it was constructed prior to the mid 80’s. That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “lead ban” wasn’t enacted until June 1986 (via the Safe Water Drinking Act Amendments of 1986), which required that plumbing be “lead free.”
In a nutshell, the Safe Water Drinking Act was amended because the consumption of lead can be very dangerous, with children especially susceptible to the dangers of lead contamination. As the EPA notes, “Even at very low levels of lead exposure, children can experience reduced I.Q. levels, impaired language and learning skills, loss of hearing, and reduced attention spans and poor classroom performance. At higher levels, lead can cause damage to the brain and central nervous system, interfering with both learning and physical growth.”
And while Nashville’s drinking water does not contain lead when it leaves treatment plants, Nashville.gov advises us that “prior to the mid 1950’s it was common for plumbers to use lead pipe for service lines to connect a residence to the public water main. Additionally, lead soldering was used on copper pipe until 1988 and brass fixtures may contain lead as well. Insufficient historic record keeping prevents us from knowing an exact number of lead service lines remaining in our system and the type of plumbing material and fixtures utilized within a private residence is unknown to us.”
Lead Contamination in Nashville
To be sure, concerns about lead contamination remain very real in Davidson County, with lead contamination recently reported in the water supply of some Nashville public schools. In fact, NewsChannel 5 Investigates recently aired a special report (“Toxic School Water”), which looked back at the news outlet’s “year long investigation of lead contamination issues in the drinking water of Nashville schools.”
If you’re concerned that your home’s pipes or fixtures are exposing you and your family to lead —or if your plumbing simply isn’t performing as well as it should—you should know what options exist for updating your pipes. In particular, two pipe materials dominate retrofits and new installations while one newer material is making a name for itself. As you may know, copper is viewed as the “gold standard,” but PVC and its cousin CPVC are widely used and safe. Meanwhile, PEX is flexible, and widely used in retrofits and new construction alike.
Why is Copper Pipe Used for Water Line?
Copper has a long and celebrated history in the plumbing industry. It’s sturdy, it’s safe, and it can last a half-century or longer. In fact, the Copper Development Association reminds us that copper is “the only plumbing material available with a 50-year warranty.” So while it’s expensive, longevity may make it a better value than any other material.
However, copper pipes not only cost more than any other option, the skill set of plumbers who install it is also at a premium. Copper pipes are soldered together for strength and a low incidence of leaks, and it takes an experienced plumber to do the job well.
PVC Water Pipe Remains a Dependable, Accessible Choice
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, has a lot going for it. The material is lightweight, affordable, and its flexibility helps resist breaks and tears, which explains why it’s widely used in American homes. Furthermore, installation skills are less complicated to master and require fewer tools than the ones required to solder copper.
PVC usually gets its watertight joints from primer and glue, which enable design, retrofit and installation freedom. If you can reach it and glue it, you can install it. So it can be a smart choice for a retrofit job where space is limited.
Can PVC Pipe be Used for Hot Water?
Know too that PVC installations require CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) pipes for the hot water supply. Where PVC can handle temperatures up to 140° F, CPVC is rated for temperatures as high as 200° F.
As for the potential drawbacks of PVC and CPVC, both materials are more brittle and fragile than copper, and in freezing weather they can burst. Moreover, glued joints might not survive as long as the pipes.
PEX Pipe Isn’t Really Pipe at All
PEX, more properly known as cross-linked polyethylene, is the new kid on the block. If flexibility is your goal, this is your material. PEX is flexible tubing, not pipe. It’s as bendable as a garden hose, which makes it great for a number of applications. Flexibility may also help it to resist bursting in freezing weather.
And with the right plumber on the job, PEX installations are fast, especially in new construction. But it’s also worth consideration for retrofits; because it’s flexible, it can go where copper, PVC and CPVC can’t.
Pex Water Line
Better yet, according to Family Handyman, PEX is unaffected by highly acidic water, so it’s a better choice in areas with acidic water. And because PEX uses compression fittings instead of glue, ventilation isn’t an issue. It’s also commonly used to complement existing plumbing.
Plumbing Questions? Jewell Mechanical Can Help
If you have questions about installing new pipes or replacing existing plumbing, Jewell Mechanical can help. Our licensed and bonded team of technicians repair, replace and install new pipes and also handle regular maintenance, inspections and drain cleaning. We work on pre-plumbed houses, additions, new construction and commercial buildings.
Contact us online to make an appointment with a technician, or call us at (615) 469-5965.