Comparing 4 Types of Common Home Plumbing Options

Reviewed by Joseph Wood
Updated April 18, 2022
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A plumbing emergency requires immediate attention, but hiring an unqualified or unlicensed plumber can lead to costly mistakes.

Highlights

  • The most common plumbing pipes are glavanized steel, copper, PVC, and PEX.

  • Galvanized steel pipes are rarely used in residential homes thesedays.

  • More homeowners are replacing copper pipes with PEX.

  • PVC pipes are best for drainage but pose environmental concerns.

  • A local professional plumber can help you determine the best type of pipe for your home.

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Let’s be honest: When you lie in bed awake at night, chances are you’re not thinking about your plumbing pipes. In fact, your home’s plumbing may be the last thing on your mind. Until something goes wrong, that is.

But understanding what kind of plumbing pipes are in your home can help tremendously when it comes to maintaining your system and troubleshooting and repairing issues when they arise. So before you indulge in your next luxurious bubble bath, take a little time to learn about those handy-dandy tubes that keep the water flowing.

Galvanized Steel 

Was used for: Drainage and venting in older homes

Pros

Galvanized steel pipes are very common, especially in older homes. These are thicker and heavier than other commonly used pipes, making them very durable.

Cons

Galvanized pipes are coated with a metal layer designed to corrode before the pipe itself does. But once the protective coating has ebbed away, the steel pipes themselves may begin to rust. If you notice discoloration or particles in your water, this can be a good sign that your galvanized pipes are failing.   

Because steel pipes tend to be heavier and more unwieldy than other types, they can also be more difficult to repair or replace. This can drive up the labor cost if you hire a local plumber to do the work. Plumbers may charge a flat fee per service or they may charge an hourly rate, generally ranging from $70 to $160 per hour. Telling your plumber your home has galvanized steel pipes can help you get a more accurate estimate on your service call.

Copper Pipes

Best used for: Hot and cold water

Copper pipes are also very common in U.S. homes. They first appeared in the 1930s, but they really gained popularity starting around 1960. 

Pros

Copper is lighter, thinner, and generally smaller in circumference than their steel counterparts. Newer copper pipes, of course, have that signature reddish hue, but over time, oxidation can lead the pipes to turn a green or dark brown color. 

Like steel, copper pipes are also very durable.

Cons

Copper can corrode, especially at the joints, where pipe segments meet and are joined by soldered fixtures. If you have copper pipes and you find that your water has a green or bluish hue, that can mean your pipes are corroding.

If you have an older home, signs of corrosion in your copper pipes (and your steel ones, for that matter) can pose a particular risk of lead contamination. Soldered elements in your pipes may contain small amounts of lead, which may leach into your water once pipe corrosion begins. This can result in significant health hazards, particularly for young children.

If your copper pipes were installed after 1986, when the EPA banned the use of solder and other plumbing elements containing lead, then lead contamination shouldn’t be a concern. But copper, though it’s very durable and lighter than steel, is also very expensive. You’ll pay more for parts replacement and repair if you choose copper piping, but the tradeoff in longevity may be worth it.

PVC

Best used for: Waste drainage

Most homes today have at least some PVC piping. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, has been used since the 1950s. 

Pros

It’s a very popular alternative to traditional steel or copper because, unlike the latter, PVC doesn’t rust, corrode, or degrade over time. It’s also lighter, significantly less expensive, and generally easier to install, maintain, and repair than copper and steel. 

Cons

PVC pipes look like a hard, white plastic with markings along the side. These markings indicate the pipe’s diameter and the temperature ratings for that particular grade of PVC piping. And that leads to the one significant downside of PVC: it’s generally not suitable for hot water supply lines, which means you’ll need to limit your use of PVC to waste drainage and allow copper or steel to do the hot water work.

Additionally, PVC outgassing poses a health and environmental concern. Over time, PVC releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. Consider switching to copper or galvanized steel plumbing as an alternative to PVC if you’re concerned about outgassing.

PEX

Best used in: New residential homes

When it comes to common plumbing types, PEX, or cross-linked polyethylene, is the new kid on the block. But since its emergence in the late 1990s, it’s become something of a superhero in the residential plumbing world because of its affordability, durability, and functionality. 

Pros

Unlike copper and steel, PEX doesn’t rust or corrode. In addition, PEX is packaged in a coiled tube, which means it can usually accommodate the twists and turns of your system without needing to be segmented, spliced, and joined. And without those joined elements, you have less risk of damaging leaks and line breaks

PEX looks a lot like the hard plastic of PVC. Like PVC, it includes markings that show the pipes’ sizes and temperature ratings. PEX pipes can come in most any color, but are typically red and blue to indicate hot and cold water supplies. 

Cons

Though PEX pipes may be a rockstar of the plumbing scene, they’re not without their limitations. PEX is generally suited for hot and cold water supply lines, while PVC works better for drain lines. Also, PEX is a pretty new technology, so we don’t know exactly how long they can be expected to last or what unexpected drawbacks there may be. Unlike copper, steel, and even PVC, PEX hasn’t had time to build a reliable track record. And while it’s looking good so far, it will still take some time for PEX to really show its stuff!

Things To Consider When Choosing the Best Pipe for Your House

  • Your budget: The ease of installation, the size of your home, and required maintenance affect overall plumbing pipe costs.

  • Your water type: Depending on where you live, your water may be corrosive (e.g. coastal areas).

  • Your exposure to sunlight: Ultraviolet (UV) rays deteriorate the quality of plastic pipes over time, decreasing their lifespan and quality. 

  • Your soil characteristics: Soil with excess rocks, moisture, and other materials can degrade pipes that are less durable.

  • Your desired water pressure: Wide, durable pipes, such as plastic, are best for high water pressure.

Understanding your plumbing system and, in particular, the kinds of pipes in your home can help keep the water flowing smoothly and safely, whenever and wherever you need it! Enlist the help of a local plumber to help you determine which pipes are your best option.

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