The Worst Plumbing Pipe Materials That Still Exist

If your home was built before the mid-1990s, your plumbing pipes might be made of risky materials from prior eras. Below, we’ll provide more information about three of the worst types of piping that can still be found in U.S. homes today: polybutylene, galvanized steel, and lead.

Polybutylene Pipes

Builders installed polybutylene (or poly) piping in an estimated 10 million U.S. structures between 1975 to 1996. Unfortunately, this piping material had a significant flaw that ultimately resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in water damage. If you still own this type of piping in your home, you could suffer water damage from polybutylene pipe failure as well.

Polybutylene Pipe Failure

Though not everyone realizes it, public water treatment plants add disinfectants to water to purify it. When the chlorine in treated, municipal water interacts with polybutylene, the pipe material becomes brittle and leak-prone. Within years after its initial installation in homes in the 1970s, weakened poly piping resulted in numerous leaks and cases of water damage across the nation. This widespread pipe failure ultimately led to several class-action lawsuits (most notably Cox vs. Shell Oil).

Polybutylene Piping in Your Home

If you own a home built between 1975 and 1996, it may contain polybutylene piping. These plastic pipes are often gray, but they can also be white, black, or blue. Even if your poly piping appears to be solid and crack-free from the outside, this is, unfortunately, no indication of the piping’s interior condition. It’s better to replace the piping before any leaks and water damage occur.

It’s also important to speak with your prospective home insurance company if you plan on buying a home with polybutylene piping. Some insurers will charge you higher premiums or restrict your coverage. Others won’t even insure your home--that’s how lousy polybutylene’s reputation is.

Galvanized Steel Pipes

If your home was built before the 1960s, there is a chance that it contains galvanized piping. This material is constructed of steel coated with zinc to keep it from rusting.

Galvanized Steel Pipe Failure

Galvanized pipes start to fail as their zinc coating erodes, allowing the interior walls to rust, corrode, and develop calcium deposits. The buildup restricts water flow through the pipes, which then increases water pressure on the compromised pipe walls. Eventually, the pipes can break or collapse, causing a leak.

Galvanized Steel Piping in Your Home

As with polybutylene piping, it’s impossible to tell how far gone one of these pipes is just from looking at its exterior. Because of their average life expectancy (40 to 50 years), if you have not already replaced the galvanized piping in your vintage home, you are probably already experiencing water pressure and water quality issues. Not sure if you own this type of piping? You can check for rust around the pipe joints and scratch the metal to see if its a silver or gray color underneath.

Lead Pipes

Whereas plumbing issues are the main concern with polybutylene and galvanized steel pipes, lead pipes pose a different and much more serious threat. Lead is a toxic material to ingest. If your home is equipped with piping or plumbing fixtures that contain lead, this poison can end up in your drinking water.

Lead Poisoning and Children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that there is no safe blood lead level for children and that there are well-documented adverse effects of lead poisoning on children’s health. When exposed to lead, children can suffer damage to their brains and central nervous systems, which can result in problems with learning, development, behavior, hearing, and speech.

Lead Piping in Your Home

According to the EPA, the most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures. The material enters your drinking water due to corrosion, particularly if your water is very acidic or has low mineral content. If you own lead pipes, they will be a dark gray metal and easy to mark, but if you're still not sure, hire a plumber to inspect your pipes and fixtures for you.

The Best Piping for Homes

When it comes to repiping your home, copper and PEX are the materials of choice due to their durability. Which one you’ll need will depend on several factors, such as the piping’s location. For instance, PEX piping will not stand up to sun exposure, making it unsuitable for many outdoor areas.

For the best results and long-lasting pipes, work with our Gilbert repiping experts at EZ Flow Plumbing.

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