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Pipe materials

The earliest known evidence of drain tile being used for plumbing was found in Mesopotamia and is estimated to have been made around 3000 BC.

Pipe materials


The earliest known evidence of drain tile being used for plumbing was found in Mesopotamia and is estimated to have been made around 3000 BC. The tiles were made from clay mixed with short lengths of straw. Both brass and copper pipes have been found in Egypt believed to have been made close to 2500 BC. The Romans made extensive use of lead pipe by joining sheets of lead into piping to carry their water supply and waste. During the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire, plumbing development virtually ceased for centuries except for isolated cases of plumbing installed in palaces and castles. In the 13th century, blacksmiths formed sheets of iron and lap welded the seam to create iron pipe. Though it is unclear as to when galvanized iron pipe was first used, a French chemist named Melouin is credited with developing the process in 1742. The earliest known use for cast iron pipe is for the water supply to a fountain in Langensalza,Germany, built around 1560. In 1819 the first cast iron pipe constructed in the US, was manufactured in Weymouth, New Jersey. Before that time, cast iron pipe and fittings had to be imported from Europe. It was not until the 1960's that the hubless cast iron pipe was brought to the U.S.

from Europe by way of Canada. During the early 1900's, heavy-walled copper joined with threaded fittings was in use, but limited to public buildings because of its' high cost. However, during the 1930's light-gauge Copper tube and fittings were developed which made copper economically feasible and increased it's popularity. Polyvinyl Chloride(PVC) was produced experimentally in the 19th century but did not become practical to manufacture until 1926, when Waldo Semon of BF Goodrich Co. developed a method to plasticize PVC, making it easier to process. PVC pipe began to be manufactured in the 1940's and was in wide use during the DWV reconstruction of Germany and Japan following WWII. In the 1950's, plastics manufacturers in Western Europe and Japan began producing acrylonitrile butadiene styrene(ABS) pipe. The methods for producing cross-linked polyethylene(PEX) was also developed in the 1950's. Plastic supply pipes have become increasingly common, with a variety of materials and fittings employed, however plastic water pipes do not keep water as clean as copper and brass piping does. Copper pipe plumbing is bacteriostatic. This means that bacteria can't grow in the copper pipes. Plumbing codes define which materials may be used, and all materials must be proven by ASTM, UL, and/or NFPA testing.




Galvanized steel potable water supply and distribution pipes are commonly found with nominal diameters from 3/8" to 2". It is rarely used today for new construction residential plumbing. Steel pipe has National Pipe Thread (NPT) standard tapered male threads, which connect with female tapered threads on elbows, tees, couplers, valves, and other fittings. Galvanized steel (often known simply as "galv" or "iron" in the plumbing trade) is relatively expensive, difficult to work with due to weight and requirement of a pipe threader. It remains in common use for repair of existing "galv" systems and to satisfy building code non-combustibility requirements typically found in hotels, apartment buildings and other commercial applications. It is also extremely durable. Black lacquered steel pipe is the most widely used pipe material for fire sprinklers and natural gas.


Most single family homes' systems typically won't require supply piping larger than 3/4". In addition to expense, another downside is it suffers from a tendency to obstruction due to internal rusting and mineral deposits forming on the inside of the pipe over time after the internal galvanizing zinc coating has degraded. In potable water distribution service, galvanized steel pipe has a service life of about 30 to 50 years, although it is not uncommon for it to be less in geographic areas with corrosive water contaminants.

Lead leaching


Generally, copper tubes are soldered directly into copper or brass fittings, although compression, crimp, or flare fittings are also used. Formerly, concerns with copper supply tubes included the lead used in the solder at joints (50% tin and 50% lead). Some studies have shown significant "leaching" of the lead into the potable water stream, particularly after long periods of low usage, followed by peak demand periods. In hard water applications, shortly after installation, the interior of the pipes will be coated with the deposited minerals that had been dissolved in the water, and therefore the vast majority of exposed lead is prevented from entering the potable water. Building codes now require lead-free solder. Building Codes throughout the U.S. require the use of virtually "lead-free" (<.2% lead) solder or filler metals in plumbing fittings and appliances as well.




Copper water tubes are susceptible to: cold water pitting caused by contamination of the pipe interior typically with soldering flux; erosion corrosion caused by high speed or turbulent flow; and stray current corrosion, caused by poor electrical wiring technique, such as improper grounding and bonding.


Pin holes due to poor plumbing electrical grounding and/or bonding


Pin-hole leaks can occur anytime copper piping is improperly grounded and/or bonded; nonmetal piping, such as Pex or PVC, does not suffer from this problem. The phenomenon is known technically as stray current corrosion or electrolytic pitting. Pin-holing due to poor grounding or poor bonding occurs typically in homes where the original plumbing has been modified; homeowners may find a new plastic water filtration device or plastic repair union has interrupted the water pipe's electrical continuity to ground when they start seeing pinhole water leaks after a recent install. Damage occurs rapidly, usually being seen about six months after the ground interruption. Correctly installed plumbing appliances will have a copper bonding jumper cable connecting the interrupted pipe sections. Pinhole leaks from stray current corrosion can result in thousands of dollars in plumbing bills, and sometimes necessitating the replacement of the entire affected line. The cause is an electrical problem, not a plumbing problem; once the plumbing damage is repaired, an electrician should be consulted to evaluate the grounding and bonding of the entire plumbing system.


The difference between a ground and a bond is subtle. See Ground (electricity), find the heading AC power wiring installations for a complete description.

Stray current corrosion occurs because: 1) the piping system is connected accidentally or intentionally to a DC voltage source; 2) the piping does not have metal-to-metal electrical continuity; 3) if the voltage source is AC, one or more naturally occurring minerals coating the pipe interior act as a rectifier, converting AC current to DC . The DC voltage forces the water within the piping to act as an electrical conductor (an electrolyte). Electric current leaves the copper pipe, moves though the water across the nonconductive section (the plastic filter housing in the example above), and reenters the pipe on the opposite side. Pitting occurs at the electrically negative side (the cathode), which may be upstream or downstream with respect to the water flow direction. Pitting occurs because the electrical voltage ionizes the pipe's interior copper metal, which reacts chemically with dissolved minerals in the water creating copper salts; these copper salts are soluble in water and wash away. Pits eventually grow and consolidate to form pin holes. Where there is one, there are almost certainly more. A complete discussion of stray current corrosion can be found in chapter 11, section 11.4.3, of Handbook of Corrosion Engineering, by Pierre Roberge.


Detecting and eliminating poor bonding is relatively straightforward. Detection is accomplished by use of a simple voltmeter set to DC with the leads placed in various places in the plumbing. Typically, a probe on a hot pipe and a probe on a cold pipe will tell you if there is improper grounding. Anything beyond a few millivolts is important, potentials of 200 mV are common. A missing bond will show up best in the area of the gap, as potential disperses as the water runs. Since the missing bond is usually seen near the water source, as filtration and treatment equipment are added, pinhole leaks can occur anywhere downstream. It is usually the cold water pipe, as this is the one that gets the treatment devices.


Correcting the problem is a simple matter of either purchasing a copper bonding jumper kit, composed of copper cable at least #6 AWG in diameter and two bronze ground clamps for affixing it the plumbing. See NFPA 70, the U.S. National Electrical Code Handbook (NEC), section on bonding and ground for details on selecting the correct bonding conductor wire size.


A similar bonding jumper wire can also be seen crossing gas meters, but for a different reason.


Note, if homeowners are experiencing shocks or sparks from plumbing fixtures or pipes, it is more than a missing bond, it is likely a live electrical wire is bridging to the plumbing and the plumbing system is not grounded. This is an electrical shock hazard and potential fire danger; consult an electrician immediately!



Plastic pipe is in wide use for domestic water supply and drainage, waste, and vent (DWV) pipe. For example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC), polypropylene (PP), polybutylene (PB), and polyethylene (PE) may be allowed by code for certain uses. Some examples of plastics in water supply systems are:


     PVC/CPVC - rigid plastic pipes similar to PVC drain pipes but with thicker walls to deal with municipal water pressure, introduced around 1970. PVC should be used for cold water only, or venting. CPVC can be used for hot and cold potable water supply. Connections are made with primers and solvent cements as required by code.


     PP - The material is used primarily in housewares, food packaging, and clinical equipment, but since the early 1970s has seen increasing use worldwide for both domestic hot and cold water. PP pipes are heat fused, preventing the use of glues, solvents, or mechanical fittings. PP pipe is often used in green building projects.


     PBT - flexible (usually gray or black) plastic pipe which is attached to barbed fittings and secured in place with a copper crimp ring. The primary manufacturer of PBT tubing and fittings was driven into bankruptcy by a class-action lawsuit over failures of this system. However, PB and PBT tubing has returned to the market and codes, typically first for 'exposed locations' such as risers.


     PEX - cross linked polyethylene system with mechanically joined fittings employing barbs and crimped steel or copper fittings.


     Polytanks - plastic polyethylene cisterns, underground water tanks, above ground water tanks, are made of linear polyethylene suitable as a potable water storage tank, provided in white, black or green, approved by NSF and made of FDA approved materials.


     Aqua - known as PEX-Al-PEX, for its PEX/aluminum sandwich - aluminum pipe sandwiched between layers of PEX and connected with brass compression fittings. In 2005, a large number of their fittings were recalled.


Fittings and valves


Potable water supply systems require not only pipe, but also many fittings and valves which add considerably to their functionality as well as cost. The Piping and plumbing fittings and Valves articles discuss them further.

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