A Primer on Copper Plumbing

May 20, 1996


Homeowners Who Know, Choose Copper

Quick! What single piece of equipment in your house is the least likely to cause you any problems?

No, it's not your VCR clock, frequently blinking its reminder to watch "High Noon." It's your plumbing - but only if it's copper plumbing. Up until the mid '70s, virtually all hot and cold water distribution plumbing was made of copper, much as the plumbing in the palaces of the Pharaohs had been, 5000 years ago.

For example, most homes in Larchmont, New York, a suburban community just north of New York City, were built before the '70s. Nearly all these houses have copper piping, and virtually none of them has ever had to have its plumbing replaced or repaired because of problems with the metal. The same is true throughout the U.S., where water quality meets U.S. EPA standards. Why? Because, except for highly unusual circumstances copper simply lasts for scores of years. Homeowners with copper plumbing correctly believe their piping is the one thing they never have to think about.

So, why is there an issue? Well, over the last decade or two, plastic manufacturers have entered the home plumbing market, mainly because plastic can cost less - at least initially. Plumbers may find some plastics easier to install, since it bends so easily or can be joined with solvent cements. And untrained, inexperienced plumbers or their helpers may not have even learned how to solder copper tube and fittings. Also, some builders are driven by competition to cut costs and accept inferior alternatives, especially where it may take years of use or a fire to prove their lack of wisdom.

So, before you unknowingly accept what you haven't seen in a new home, or make a hasty decision based on what appears to be a lower initial cost, you would do yourself a great favor if you reviewed the following questions. And remember, you do have a choice. Builders and plumbers will respond to your preference.

The 12 Point Plumbing Test

  1. Does your plumbing material have a long-term, proven performance record?
  2. Is it impermeable; can it block contaminants from penetrating its walls?
  3. Are the joints reliable; will they withstand rapid pressure and temperature changes?
  4. Will it perform well in hot and cold weather; is it easily thawed, if necessary?
  5. Does it resist punctures and abrasions and not embrittle with age?
  6. Can it inhibit the breeding of harmful germs?
  7. Will it not burn, or give off smoke or toxic fumes, when exposed to fire?
  8. For use with swimming pools and other outdoor locations, will it withstand the weather and the sun's ultraviolet rays?
  9. Is it virtually maintenance-free; does it have a low lifetime cost of ownership?
  10. Are other homeowners confident about it; will it increase the home's investment or resale value?
  11. Does it have nationwide approval of building inspectors and engineers?
  12. Does it have inherent quality and value, or is it false economy?

The Facts About Copper

It should come as no surprise to you that copper is the best - actually, the only plumbing material that can answer "yes" to all of those questions. Copper is used in more than 85% of all U.S. homes. And for good reason - with its dependable lead-free solder connections, it virtually outlasts the life of your home. Copper piping requires no maintenance, because the joint fittings don't break down or pull apart. Copper meets or exceeds building codes in all 50 states. It's governed by strict, long-established standards and is permanently identified for home inspectors. It's a natural, environmentally friendly material - not a synthetic. Plumbers know how to install and test it, year-round, through a wide range of temperatures. Since copper is rigid, it doesn't sag over long runs and requires few supports. It can handle extreme conditions; it will withstand more than 1,000 pounds of pressure, even though normal system pressure is about 50-80 pounds per square inch.

Copper won't embrittle with age, so it can't crack or crumble years after installation. And it can endure repeated freeze-thaw cycles; although, of course, no plumbing should be allowed to freeze. If, somehow, it does, application of open flame or electrical resistance heating for a brief time can be used to melt frozen water in copper tubing, because copper has superior thermal conductivity.

Copper tubing is non-flammable. It won't melt, or burn, or give off toxic fumes in a home fire. In houses tragically destroyed by fire, many times the only thing left intact is the copper plumbing.

Fire temperatures can reach 1,500EF, but copper has a melting point of nearly 2,000EF. It even maintains pressure when subjected to flames. That's why copper is preferred for fire sprinkler systems. Even better, in terms of safety, is that it doesn't "pipe" flame through walls or floors, a phenomenon which often causes fire to spread.

For today's health conscious consumer, copper is almost the perfect material. It is impermeable and biostatic: contaminants cannot penetrate it, and it actually inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

Finally, the cost for copper quality and reliability is surprisingly low. An all-copper plumbing system costs about the same as other, less reliable materials. Any, usually minor, higher cost will be quickly eliminated when you find you don't have to keep calling the plumber to repair it. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, your local real estate agents will confirm that all-copper systems add value when it comes time to sell your home.

In a 1996 study conducted for Copper Development Association, the overwhelming majority of residential plumbing contractors throughout the country said they preferred copper. More than 9 out of 10 said they have it in their own homes.

Copper is the Answer

Copper has proved itself in American homes for more than 70 years. Not only do the vast majority of homeowners and plumbers prefer copper, so do commercial building owners, builders and remodelers, plumbing officials and suppliers, mortgage lenders and real estate agents. Don't ignore what's hidden behind the wall until it's too late. When you insist on the choices now available to home consumers, do what 94% of plumbers do. Use copper in your home - and enjoy worry-free plumbing.