Candid and sensible green living advice since 1999.
May 6th, 2011
Posted in: Green Remodeling, Health, Product Review, Water

PEX or Copper Piping: Which Would You Want in Your Home?

Plumbing has been on my mind lately—plumbing pipes in particular.  I’m shopping around for a new home and near the top of my “don’t want” list is cross-linked polyethylene (or PEX) piping—a controversial flexible plastic piping that is replacing copper in many re-pipe and new construction projects.

Copper piping is still the most common type of piping installed today, but PEX is becoming a popular choice within the trade. It’s easy to see why builders and plumbers are excited about this stuff—it’s cheaper and easier to work with than copper. But PEX’s installation benefits mean little to me:  I’ll be living with my plumbing, relying on it several times a day to deliver water to me and my family. I care primarily about a particular pipe’s effect on water quality inside the home.  And I care about how one pipe material versus another will affect the environment. PEX has me worried.

Independent studies have shown that PEX leaches ethyl tertiary butyl ether, a mildly toxic chemical, into water; also, pollutants and bacteria can pass through the pipe walls leading to water contamination. (Copper pipe is impermeable and bacteriostatic.) At this point, you probably have the same question I did upon learning this: why is PEX, a  material that leaches and invites toxins, approved for application in homes across the U.S.?  It’s for the same reason some other potentially harmful materials are permitted to come in contact with our food and water (e.g. BPA in beverage cans and PFOA in microwaveable popcorn bags)—officials approving these sorts of things are influenced by studies that differ in their results and—at the risk of sounding cynical—by industry propaganda. Some studies of PEX have shown that the chemical leaching decreases over time and eventually stabilizes to “within acceptable limits,” whatever that means. Deciding which studies and opinions to base decisions on is not an easy job, and sometimes it’s the cheerier findings that shape building codes that define which materials may be used.

PEX also hasn’t been around that long. We just don’t know how well this stuff is going to hold up over years and years of use. Copper piping, on the other hand, has been around for nearly a century, and has earned a trusted reputation. That’s not to say copper is infallible: like any metal, copper can corrode. However, copper is naturally corrosion resistant. Copper pipes only corrode when exposed to “aggressive” water that is too acidic or basic.  (A quick call to the water department can answer questions about water characteristics where you are buying or building a home.)

Then there are the environmental impacts of PEX pipe production and disposal. Plastic is made from petroleum, so its prolific use is not helping us reduce the environmental impacts of that industry, including drilling, refinery pollution, oil spills, etc.  Manufacturing plastic is also highly toxic to the environment and PEX is not currently recyclable, so it’s one more category of plastic for which we have to find landfill space.

Copper piping is hardly harmless from Mother Nature’s perspective. Mining, air pollution and solid wastes from copper production can impact the environment greatly. Impacts that are reduced, however, by using recycled copper. And where available, recycled copper is the preferred material since it’s cheaper to recycle copper than it is to mine and extract new copper.  Copper is also 100% recyclable without any loss of performance.

There are other pros and cons to PEX versus Copper, and you can read more at PlumbingNetworks.com.

As with most things, no choice is a perfect one when trying to do the right thing for your family and the environment. We can only gather the information and make the best choice we can. My choice is copper.

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6 Comments »

  1. PEX has an excellent reputation spanning 40 years in Europe. I’ve been using the Wirsbo expander system with the Milwaukee M12 rechargeable tool. It’s awesome! I’m sweating less and less copper because the PEX is more reliable, not subject to corrosion and pinhole leaks, is quieter, insulates better and doesn’t burst if it freezes during a winter storm. I would never use copper again even if copper were considerably cheaper.

    Comment by Harvey Middleton — September 14, 2011 @ 6:16 am

  2. I would like to see the citation for the independent studies that showed PEX leaches chemicals into the water it carries. I’ve seen dire warnings about this online in a few places, but nobody can show me the actual studies. “Studies have shown” is such an over-used, meant-to-impress/scare/convince phrase that I tend to disbelieve anyone who uses it without citation.

    Please . . . sources? We’re currently trying to make this very decision, and it’s frustrating to try to do so without real data. Thanks so much . . .

    Comment by Annalea — September 15, 2011 @ 4:02 am

  3. Click on the links embedded throughout the blog post. Regarding the leaching of methyl tertiary-butyl ether, if you don’t feel like reading the full report that this blog post links to, here is a news story that summarizes: http://www.calpipes.org/ProtectingCalifornians_PEX.asp

    Also http://www.chemaxx.com/polytube1.htm.

    Comment by admin — September 15, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

  4. I’ve used both piping systems and would honestly have to say that copper is the way to go for peace of mind. PEX is just too new and unproven by the true test of time. Many home buyers in the resale market will not want PEX in their homes, so there you go. If you want to save money now go ahead and install PEX, but this could be viewed as a negative at time of resale. Also, Harvey is a close friend of mine and I respect his opinion for the most part, but would you trust a guy named Harvey? Harvey is an average plumber at best, and tends to cut corners in his work.

    Comment by Bob the Plumber — September 27, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

  5. I was looking around the other day with this exact same question. We are building a home and asked my plumber what he would use and he said copper. The problem is I live in an area where frankly the water is too aggressive and the copper won’t last. I spent a bit of time searching around the internet for anything that would be considered a “green pipe” and actually came across polypropylene. My plumber had never heard of it, but after I did a bit of research I found out that it’s been used for a long time in Europe (just like pex), but they claim it doesn’t have the same issues of leaching that PEX does and that it should far outlast the copper. The guys at Aquatherm said that they have people in my are that would train my guy on how to use the stuff and that it even comes with a 10 year warranty against manufacturers defects. I heavily leaning towards giving this stuff a shot.

    Comment by J Kendle — February 6, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

  6. There are a few points that are missed here when comparing PEX to copper, the primary one being that copper is poisonous when it leaches into your water. Other problems include that while PEX is made from petroleum, copper production, including mining, smelting, and shipping, uses a far greater amount of petroleum than the production of PEX, and finally, the sweating of copper uses toxic flux which both puts fumes in the home and leaves residue inside the plumbing. There will be no new copper used in my home.

    Comment by Ted Mullen — April 15, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

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