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Healthy Home Plumbing - Which Pipes To Choose?

Healthy Home plumbing 
Which pipes to choose?

When building a home there is something that most people completely overlook – plumbing pipes. In 2004 when we built our home the only options available to us were copper pipe and PVC.

At the time we decided to chose copper pipe with lead-free solder, as PVC pipe had been found to leach toxic chemicals into the water supply – not something we would want in our drinking water. We were aware that there could be issues with copper especially if the pH of the water is not correct or if you happen to run into pipes that may have been manufactured with an inferior grade of metal. Both could lead to copper leaching into the water supply.

Several years after moving into our home we started noticing green staining on the plumbing fixtures - which is a tell-tale sign of copper leaching.  However, after numerous laboratory tests and visits from “water experts” we were unable to pinpoint the cause of the problem. The pH of the water was fine, there was no evidence of electrolysis (when copper pipes pick up an electrical current due to its conductivity) and there was no apparent source of copper from our 350 ft artesian well. We even had a whole home water filtration system installed by a professional, but that still did not solve the issue of the green staining.

As time marched on the green staining did not go away and sometimes it worsened. My husband and I had a Tissue Analysis completed which showed that we both had a higher than normal level of copper in our bodies. We thought about removing the copper pipe many times, but due to the fact that we were not having any pinhole leaks – a sure sign of leaching – we let them stay. But as the situation was appearing to get progressively worse, we decided to do some of our own testing and start replacing pieces of the copper pipe to see what would happen.

My husband borrowed a length of super-pex (black lined pex) from a friend for the first test, but when I entered the basement where he was going to replace the pipe, I was exposed to a noxious chlorine/plastic smell that appeared to be coming from the uninstalled pipe. Our testing was put on hold until I did some additional research on the options for plumbing pipes for inside our home.

Over the years there have been many different materials used for residential plumbing pipes including galvanized iron and steel, cast iron, clay and even wood. One of the first plastic pipes to enter the residential plumbing scene was something called polybutylene pipe (PB) which was used from the late 1970s into the early 1990s. It was popular because of its low cost and ease of installation and was touted as safe and effective by its manufacturer. However, later studies revealed that it was prone to break down with exposure to water and dissolved solids. Studies also showed that PB may possibly leach toxic chemicals into drinking water. Over the years there were a number of class action suits, primarily in the United States and it's no longer permitted for use.

While not used in residential situations, glass and stainless steel pipe - generally used in laboratories - proved interesting but cost prohibitive. And the likelihood of finding a certified plumber to install them in a home would probably be quite difficult.

So after completing some extensive research I found the following options for modern residential potable water pipes.

One of the safest plumbing materials as long as lead-free soldier is used. It is naturally antibacterial, has a long lifespan, handles both hot and cold water without loosing strength or shape and is resistant to corrosion and high water-pressure. And it is easily recyclable. However, it can leach copper into the water supply if the water source is acidic or has high turbidity (sediment) and it can also leach in the presence of an electrical source (galvanic response).

Leaching of copper can cause green water staining on fixtures and laundered clothing. Copper is a heavy metal and while small amounts may have health benefits, large amounts can have the opposite effect. Some health effects can include: mineral imbalance; lowering iron and zinc; liver and kidney damage; gastrointestinal upset and neurological issues.
The grade of copper used in the pipe is important when considering leaching with Type K being the thickest and least likely to leach.
While a water filtration system to correct pH and reduce sediment can generally reduce/resolve copper leaching, in some cases (such as ours) it did not work as the actual cause of the supposed leaching was not diagnosed.

As replacing our current copper pipe with more copper pipe is not really a sound alternative, I decided to explore the other available options - all of which are plastics. Historically, plastics have not proven to be a vastly healthy choice as many contain toxins which may leach into the water supply. As I did not want to replace one toxin for another I needed to dig a little deeper into the world of plastic pipes.

A common plastic used in many new home construction plumbing projects and renovations. It is inexpensive, long lasting, easy to install and is great for the DIYer as no soldering is required. Generally PEX pipes are made from cross-linked polyethylene plastic, but there are three different manufacturing methods that produce different types of pipe: PEX-A or “safe pex” (Engel or peroxide method), PEX-B (Silane method) or PEX-C (Electron beam or radiation method). Each method uses slightly different additives with 2.4-di-tert-butyl-phenol and methyl-tert-butyl ether (MTBE) being two of the more commonly occurring substances detected in water flowing through PEX pipes. From my research it appears that PEX-A is the safest alternative of the three.

However, research has shown that all PEX pipes can have an impact on the taste and odor of tap water. It was found that PEX released organic carbon as well as volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds into water. Both regulated and unregulated contaminants were found in the three PEX plumbing pipes. More specifically, drinking water odors were attributed to toluene, ethyl-tert-butyl ether, and some unidentified contaminants according to the study. It is estimated that more than 150 contaminants have been found in water that has flowed through PEX piping.
This version of PEX is the one I have personally found to emit a noxious smell. While PEX piping is made from cross-linked polyethelene, the manufacturer of SuperPEX indicates that it is also made with "TempRiteTM Resine compounds". While the components of the actual compound is unclear, it appears to be manufactured from a CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) composite. The manufacturer claims these compounds are safe, yet some studies show that CPVC can also cause health issues.

As I found the smell of the pipe to be noxious, coupled with the possible health risks, I ruled out SuperPEX for our home without further research.
The main difference between CPVC (Chlorinated Polyvinyl Chloride) and PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is the range of temperatures each is capable of withstanding. CPVC can handle temperatures up to 200° Fahrenheit, while PVC peaks at 140° Fahrenheit. Above those temperatures, both CPVC and PVC will begin to soften which increases the risk of joint and pipe failure. PVC pipes also require bonding adhesives not required in other plastic piping.

PVC is a plastic with added chlorine and stabilizers that prevent oxidation and degradation. CPVC is a thermoplastic made from the chlorination of the polyvinyl chloride resin that effectively increases the chlorine content of the material. Leaching studies commissioned by the State of California and conducted by UC Berkeley found that PVC and CPVC plumbing pipes leached potentially toxic chemicals such as chloroform, tetrahydrofuran, methyl ethyl ketone, acetate into drinking water – all of which may cause cancer and ozone pollution.

Additionally, the synthetic adhesives used to join PVC and CPVC pipes (such as epoxies, polyurethanes, cyanocrylates and acrylic polymers) contain nasty ingredients including benzene, toluene, xylene, styrene, acetone, methanol, phenol and dichloromethane.

I also ruled out PVC/CPVC as an option for our home.
Polypropylene (PPR): 
Polypropylene is relatively new to the United States and Canada, but has been used in Europe for over 30 years. Touted as being one of the safest plastics, polypropylene has been found to be less likely to leach chemicals into water than any other type of plastic piping. As heat is used to join polypropylene pipes, instead of chemical solvents or soldiering, it is considered a healthier pipe even though the melting plastic will likely release some VOC’s until it hardens. As a result of the heat joining PPR is more labor intensive to install than PEX.

While polypropylene is considered a low-toxin plastic, one study did find that polypropylene plastic ware used for laboratory studies did leach at least two chemicals.
As the bonding of the pipes requires heat fusion, it is not something I would want done in my living space and may be more appropriate for new home construction. Therefore, I vote no for PPR for my home retrofit.
For those looking for it in North America, I found a company named Aquatherm.

(Polyethylene of Raised Temperature) As far as plastics go, polyethylene is one of the safer plastics, the problem with PEX is that it's cross-linked and contains additives. PE-RT is the alternative. PE-RT is a PEX-like pipe without the cross-linking chemicals.

PE-RT is easy to install and uses the same connection fittings as PEX so it is great for the DIYer. Manufacturers claim that it is stronger, greener, more flexible, and generally outperforms PEX. As PE-RT does not need to be cross-linked, it eliminates the need for additives which resulting in a more pure product. According to the manufacturer it is the first flexible plastic hot and cold potable water tube that is 100% recyclable and since there are no chemical additives it is tasteless and odorless.

Nevertheless, it is plastic and polyethylene can possibly leach into food and beverages.
After comparing all the pipe options I decided I wanted to give PE-RT a try as a higher density polyethylene will tend to leach less than those tested in the study above, coupled with the claim that PE-RT is 100% pure polyethylene without any additives and it is DIY friendly and completely recyclable. And PE-RT tubing is around the same price and PEX.

I had absolutely no luck in finding PE-RT locally after contacting just about every large and small plumbing supply company in my area. I went to the internet and found a company called Legend Valve. I reached out to them on their Facebook Page to request a sample of their pipe for testing, they obliged. When it arrived I was pleasantly surprised that it did not have any detectable noxious odor that I found with the other pipe. 

So I've decided to do the plumbing tests in my house with Legend HyperPure™ PE-RT.
And with Legend Valve providing a 100 year warranty on its HyperPure tube, it should last for quite a while.
Essentially what it boils down to is this: 
For the modern convince of running water you have to pick your poison and choose what is convenient and affordable. If money were no object I would look deeper into stainless or glass.
If considering new home construction I would likely choose between a higher grade copper or Polypropylene (PPR). However, since we are retrofitting an existing home, HyperPure PE-RT is our safest and most economical option.

In the coming months we plan to replace a large section of copper pipe running to the master bath with PE-RT. As the “water experts” were unable to come to a definitive answer to what is causing the green staining I am a little apprehensive to re-plumb the entire house right away. If the copper is actually coming from our water source and not the pipes, then the installation of the PE-RT to the master bath will not impact the green staining. However, if the copper is indeed leaching from the pipe we should notice an improvement. And if the pipes are indeed the cause, and I do not find I am having any negative reactions to the PE-RT, we will then take on the task of re-plumbing our home with PE-RT and sending the copper for recycling.

Stay tuned...

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