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.