The Case for Copper Plumbing for Water Distribution

January 21, 1997


By The Copper Development Association

Copper for plumbing tube and fittings is the material of choice for hot- and cold-water distribution piping in more than 85 percent of American homes. Leading contractors, engineers and their clientele benefit from the strength, dependability and long-term economy of copper for residential and commercial plumbing, heating and cooling, fire sprinkler systems, and application in natural and medical gas systems. Copper has set the standard for more than 70 years.

In recent decades, plastics were introduced for selected piping applications. Through trial and error, failures and successes, certain plastics have survived the test of the marketplace. Indeed, some CPVC and PEX plastic tube products may be a better choice for some extraordinary commercial and residential applications.

So now, more than ever before, plumbing engineers, contractors, tradesmen and code officials need to know the qualities and advantages of both copper and plastic materials so they can help homeowners, building owners and buyers make sound decisions in the face of today's competitive marketing.

A recent study of residential plumbing contractors throughout the country conducted for the Copper Development Association reports the overwhelming majority prefer copper, and more than 9 out of 10 plumbers use it in their own homes.

An article written by Scott Marshutz in the May 1996 issue of Reeves Journal had this headline: "Vast Majority Pick Copper over Plastic." The text began, "Although manufacturers are spending more money promoting the benefits of cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) and chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) for use in residential potable water distribution systems in western states, the vast majority of contractors still specify and install copper pipe, according to the results of a Reeves Journal pipe materials survey conducted earlier this year. "Allowing for multiple responses, 98 percent of the respondents picked copper over plastic materials."

Advising Your Customers
Here are some questions you should encourage owners and buyers to consider when comparing plumbing materials:

  • Does the plumbing material you're buying have long-term, proven performance in your location and for the specific application to which it will be put?
  • Is it permeable (can anything penetrate its walls)?
  • Are the joints reliable?
  • Will it withstand pressures up to 1,000 pounds or more?
  • Will it perform equally well in hot and cold weather?
  • Does it resist punctures and abrasion?
  • Can health-threatening germs breed in it?
  • Does it burn, or give off toxic smoke, when exposed to fire?
  • Will it withstand the weather and the sun's ultraviolet rays when used with a swimming pool or other outdoor applications?
  • Does it have relatively low long-term cost, without maintenance?
  • Are you confident about it; will it increase your home or building's investment value?
  • Does it have widespread approval among building inspectors and engineers?
  • Is it false economy, or does it have inherent quality and long-term value?
Nine out of ten times, the answers point to copper.

The May/June 1995 issue of This Old House, Thomas Baker says in his article, Soldering Copper Pipes, "Since its introduction in the 1920s, copper plumbing has been the preferred material for supplying water to your home. Copper doesn't taint the water. It is accepted by all building codes in the United States. It doesn't corrode (unless you have well water with an extraordinarily high level of sediments, acids or alkalis)."

Essential Advantages
Copper tube and fittings are continually selected for all kinds of residential and commercial buildings. Here are several important reasons why:

Economy: An all-copper plumbing system costs little more than other, less reliable materials. In some cases, the final installed cost for a copper system is even less. Easy handling, forming, and joining save installation time, material and overall costs, especially when you factor in long-term reliability. Long-term reliable performance reduces the number of possible service callbacks, thus adding to overall cost effectiveness. Real estate agents confirm that all-copper systems add value when it comes time to sell.
Safety: Copper tube and fittings do not burn or support combustion and, therefore, will not decompose to create toxic gases in a fire. Installation does not require solvents which contain volatile organic compounds. Copper systems maintain pressure when subjected to flames. Fire temperatures can reach in excess of 1,500°F. Copper's melting point is well beyond that, at nearly 2,000°F. And, as plumbers know, it's virtually impossible to melt a soldered joint with water in the system. Copper will not carry fire through floors, walls or ceilings. That's why it's preferred for fire sprinkler systems.
Easily Joined: Copper tube with capillary fittings yields smooth, neat, strong and leakproof joints. With its dependable lead-free solder connections, copper can outlast the life of any building, and it requires virtually no maintenance. Because of copper's superior thermal conductivity, electrical-resistance heating can be used for joining where the use of an open flame may be of concern. Properly made joint fittings don't break down or pull apart. No extra thickness or weight is needed to compensate for material removed by threading.

The article in This Old House also said, "The best way to join copper tubing . . . is by soldering or "sweating" the fittings together to form a metal-to-metal bond. Soldering is not difficult. Once you get the hang of it, it takes less than a minute to make a strong, leak-free joint that will last indefinitely. And it's a satisfying process.

Easily Formed: Because copper tube can be easily bent and formed, you can frequently eliminate joints and elbows. Smooth bends let the tube follow contours and corners of almost any angle. Soft temper tube, especially in renovation or modernization, requires much less wall and ceiling space and eliminates the need for joints in inaccessible areas. Mechanically formed tee connections allow branches to be formed faster and usually result in a lower installed system cost.
Lightweight: Copper tube does not require the heavy thickness of threaded pipe with the same internal diameter, such as in natural gas distribution systems. Thus, copper costs less to transport, handles more easily, and takes less space when installed.
Easily Installed: Plumbers know how to install and test copper systems year-round, at virtually any temperature. Since copper is light and rigid, it doesn't sag over long runs, and it requires few supports.
Corrosion Resistant: Well established resistance to corrosion and scaling assures long, trouble-free service - and satisfied customers - in almost the entire country. Overly aggressive water, not properly treated, may cause copper corrosion.
Dependable: Copper tube is governed by established product standards and marked with permanent identification. Contractors and inspectors always know what the material is and which company made it. Copper is accepted by virtually all plumbing codes. And, copper is not synthetic; it's a natural, environmentally friendly material that won't crack or crumble years after installation.
Extreme Environments: Copper can handle extreme conditions - more than 1,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, even though normal system pressure is about 50-80 psi. And it can withstand repeated freeze-thaw cycles, although, of course, no plumbing should be allowed to freeze. Easy, open-flame or electrical-resistance heating can be used not only for joining, but also to melt frozen water in copper tubing - because of copper's superior thermal conductivity. Copper is impermeable and biostatic: contaminants cannot penetrate it, and it actually inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

Some Examples
Rusher Air Conditioning, Inc., Torrence, California, is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, and George Rusher, president, said, "We have designed and installed radiant heating, air-conditioning, and hot- and cold-water distribution systems for 50 years - and have never had one failure or complaint involving copper."

The company has supplied tubing in luxury homes for scores of actors, politicians, entertainers, manufacturers, architects, federal agencies and the military throughout California and other western states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and American Samoa.

"Copper is a noble metal that has never changed, and I have never had a failure. Copper tubing is copper tubing is copper tubing. Unlike other materials, copper's composition never changes," Rusher said.

Consider another company, which works throughout California. Cal-Coast Repiping, Inc., (Brea, California) uses only copper to retrofit residential and commercial buildings. Chuck Vershaw, president and owner, who has 20 years of experience in the field and is a director-at-large, PHCC-GLAA, said, "We're not even considering other materials, because the manufacturers won't accept liability."

Sarasota, Florida's Ace Plumbing Inc. has tried a CPVC plastic over the last three years and has had to reject it. "That's because of all the failures in its fittings, not to speak of the difficulty of dealing with the suppliers," said Richard Baron, the company's president and a third-generation master plumber.

"In a motel installation in our city, fittings failed on the cold side, where of course, there is no insulation. And they failed on the hot side, where we used three different insulation products. All three failed. We had to replace the entire installation with copper."

Todd Iocco, a plumbing contractor for the last 15 years in Missouri City, Texas, is installing all the piping for a home built as a one-year showcase for Professional Builder magazine in a Houston suburb. Mr. Iocco, past president of the local PHCC, uses copper exclusively for water distribution systems, and says, "I'd never use anything else. We've never had a failure or complaint."

Murphy Homes, Inc., headquartered in Ocala, Florida, approximately 60 miles north of Orlando, has been in residential construction for almost two decades. It has successfully built more than 600 homes and uses only copper plumbing for interior water distribution.

Years of trouble-free service have proved that copper plumbing systems are unsurpassed in their fundamental values: they are light, strong, durable, easily formed and installed, economical and cost effective.

Don't be driven by competitive marketing to cut costs and accept inferior alternatives. Sort through the facts and claims. Stick with the facts. Stick with copper's proven track record of more than 70 years of successful service experience.

When contractors and plumbing engineers take the prudent view, they consider what is tried and true for the number of years their customers must rely on their plumbing system. Nine out of ten times their choice is copper.