Copper: a viable alternative for your plumbing needs

Up until the 1980s, nearly all of the hot and cold water supply and distribution pipes in homes were made from copper, just as they were 5,000 years ago in the Egyptian palaces of the Pharaohs. Today, other materials have gained in popularity mainly due to a lower cost and easier installation for the DIYer, but copper still remains a viable alternative for your plumbing needs.

Read on for an overview of copper, its uses, types, and what to consider when choosing between copper pipes and plastic for your next plumbing project. [photo credit: iStock.com: Highwaystarz-Photography]

Copper: a viable alternative for your plumbing needs

Common uses

Copper pipes and fittings can still be found in a number of areas in your plumbing system, particularly if you have an older home. Copper material may be found in:

  •   Hot and cold water supply lines.
  •   Gas pipes.
  •  Final connections for boilers and furnaces.
  • HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems.
  • Sprinkler systems.

The properties of copper lend themselves to being safe with heat, which is why the final connections on your boiler, furnace or hot water tank are almost exclusively copper.

Good to know!

Copper pipes are often referred to as "copper tubing." The terms are used interchangeably.

Benefits and drawbacks

Pros:

  • Copper is durable and reliable.
  • Copper has superior corrosion resistance.
  • It is non-permeable — it doesn't absorb any other substances it may come in contact with, making it ideal to use for drinking-water pipes.
  • It is bacteriostatic, meaning it is resistant to bacterial growth.
  • Copper pipes tend to have lower installation costs because they can be soldered or brazened together without needing other fittings.
  • Copper tubing can handle the heat without losing its strength or shape.
  • Copper water pipes can stand up to high water pressure.
  • Copper fittings keep their value and can add to the resale value of a house.
  • Copper is recyclable and usually manufactured from recycled material.

Cons:

  • Copper piping typically requires soldering, a skill not everyone has or is comfortable performing.
  • Copper tubing and fittings are typically more expensive than plastic.
  • Because it is more expensive, copper is often vulnerable to theft.
  • Copper is susceptible to water acidity —it's usually suitable for water having a pH level between 6.5 and 8.5, which means it may not be appropriate for homes serviced by well-water.
  •  Copper pipes can burst if water freezes during the winter.

Copper versus PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) and CPVC (Chlorinated Polyvinyl Chloride)

While copper has been used in plumbing systems for thousands of years and is familiar to most people, plastic materials, such as PEX or CPVC have slowly been replacing copper pipes and fittings in the last two to three decades. Consider the following when making your choice:

  • PEX and CPVC are less expensive than copper pipes.
  • Copper does not expand or contract under pressure or temperature changes like PEX or CPVC.
  • Copper is very durable with a proven lifespan of 80 to 100 years.
  • Copper is less flexible than PEX.

 
Good to know!

When choosing plumbing material to replace or install new pipes, always check with your local building and plumbing codes. Copper is favoured by most authorities for carrying drinking water, while PVC and CPVC are not yet universally accepted.

Types of copper tubing

There are three major types of copper tubing, known as Type K, L and M. The type you use will depend on the application, internal or external fluid pressure, the installation method to be used, and – most importantly – local building and plumbing codes.

Type K copper tubing

  • Available in both rigid and soft types.
  • Usually used for water distribution, fire protection, HVAC and many other industry applications.
  •  Not approved for the distribution of natural gas as the gas environment can damage the joints.
  • Can be used with both flared and compression fittings.
  • Recommended for underground installation and main water lines.

Type L copper tubing

  • Typically used in interior plumbing jobs.
  • Type L can be used with sweat, compression and flared fittings.
  •  Also available in hard or soft types, although hard is preferable as it is more durable.
  • Type L is often used outside the home where the copper piping is exposed.
  • The walls of type L are thicker than type M.

Type M copper tubing

  • The walls of type M are thinner than either type K or L walls.
  • Type M is used with flared fittings only.
  • Available in both soft and hard tubing.
  • Typically used for domestic water service.
  • Type M is popular due to its lower price.

Good to know!

There are often municipal restrictions on which type can be used for a specific purpose. Check your local codes before choosing a type of copper piping.

While plastic varieties are gaining in popularity and new technology brings more plumbing materials, copper tubing and copper fittings are still the standard when it comes to plumbing applications. Now that you understand the different types and the advantages of copper piping, you'll be better prepared when a pipe in your home needs to be repaired or replaced.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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