What is Polybutylene Pipe?

Polybutylene pipe was a type of water pipe that was extensively used in residential construction for approximately 20 years.  Blue or gray in color, the pipe was used on hot and cold water lines within the homes, as well as water service lines running into the home from the water main.  The pipe was highly regarded as viable and cost effective alternative to traditional copper piping.  

Due to substantial problems with the product the pipe is no longer used, but still may remain in homes.  The problem with polybutylene pipe is how the pipe reacts with chlorine, which is found in virtually all-domestic water supplies.  As a result of a chemical reaction with the pipe and chlorine, the polybutylene deteriorates from the inside out until the pipe ruptures.  Once the problem became widespread, a large class action lawsuit was filed.  As a part of the settlement, the manufacturers were required to replace the pipe and remove it from the market.  The resulting repairs cost the manufacturers billions of dollars due to the widespread use of polybutylene, which was used in home construction from 1970 until approximately 1995. 

Polybutylene pipe continues to be found in homes built during this time frame, due to the inability to identify everywhere it was used.  Although there are no longer any remedies available to homeowners impacted by the product, the only repair possible is the replacement of all polybutylene pipe inside and outside of the home.  One thing is for certain a home with polybutylene pipe will experience a catastrophic rupture at some point.

Posted on behalf of Find Local Plumber

What is Polybutylene Piping?

Millions of American homeowners have polybutylene piping in their homes, and may be unaware of the problems that these pipes can cause. In the 1970s, polybutylene pipes were lauded as “the pipe of the future,” due to their relatively low cost when compared to copper piping and how easily they could be installed. By the 1980s, it became apparent that polybutylene or “plastic” piping could actually be quite problematic.

Why is Polybutylene Piping a Problem?

Water supply line pipes made of gray plastic polybutylene can begin to break down and flake apart over time due to a manufacturing flaw. Chemicals like chlorine, which is found our water supply, can exacerbate the issue and compromise poly pipes even further. When polybutylene piping failure occurs, it can be unexpected and can cause significant damage to your property and cherished possessions. Faulty installation can also contribute to the failure of polybutylene pipes, which tend to degrade more as time passes. If you don’t know how old your polybutylene piping is, you may be in for quite an unpleasant surprise, as older pipes are far more likely to fail as they age. Problems from a compromised poly pipe structure also occur inside the pipe, making it difficult to predict simply from examining the pipes’ exteriors.

Polybutylene and Homeowners Insurance Complications

While not all polybutylene pipes are guaranteed to fail, they are significantly more likely to degrade to the point of causing property damage over time than piping comprised of other materials. They’re so likely to cause trouble, in fact, that some homeowners insurance companies have a policy of canceling coverage upon discovery of polybutylene piping or refusing coverage to those homes outright.

Problems With Polybutylene Pipes

If you own or are currently in the market for a new home, you’ve probably been warned about polybutylene piping at some point during the process. While some unsolicited advice may not be wholly worthwhile, warnings about poly piping are. There are a variety of reasons why you’ll want to make sure that all polybutylene piping in your home is replaced, most of which boil down to expensive and potentially serious property damage.

What’s Wrong with Polybutylene Pipes?

Polybutylene piping was used during the construction of millions of American properties in the 1970s and was quite popular due to its ease of installation and relatively low price in comparison to copper pipes. Over time, however, it became apparent that the structural integrity of polybutylene pipes could be easily compromised. To further complicated matters, poly pipes degrade from the inside, making it almost impossible to spot potential problems by simply examining the exterior. Degradation of polybutylene pipes can lead to significant property damage, and failures can occur with little to no advance warning.

Polybutylene Pipes and Your Homeowners Insurance

Because of the extensive damage that polybutylene piping failure can cause and the likelihood of sucha failure occurring, many homeowners’ insurance companies will deny coverage on properties with poly pipes or even cancel existing policies upon discovery of them. The problem of polybutylene pipe failure was so widespread that a class action lawsuit was settled in 1995, allowing involved homeowners to replace their pipes with money from a settlement fund. A full polybutylene pipe replacement is a big job and is serious enough that only licensed plumbers with extensive experience and a specialization in performing them should be hired to complete the work.

Polybuylene Pipe Replacement Options

If you own a home plumbed with polybutylene pipe, you should consider your options before contacting an experienced plumber for a residential repiping.  Polybutylene pipe was installed in millions of homes built after 1970.  By the early 1990’s it became clear that polybutylene pipe that was exposed to chlorine found in the drinking water of many homes would fail and begin to leak and it was taken off the market.

Class action lawsuits were filed against the manufacturers of polybutylene pipe and homeowners who joined these suits received settlements to pay for the replacement of their plumbing.  Unfortunately, it is probably too late to file a claim if you haven’t already done so.

Homeowners have essentially three options for dealing with polybutylene pipe.  The first option is to do nothing and wait to see if the pipes begin to fail.  For some homeowners, this option may be the best route.  Polybutylene fails due to exposure to chlorine and if your drinking water has a very low level of chlorine, your pipes may provide good service for years.  Homes that use well water or that are connected to a municipal water supply that uses a low level of chlorine may not have the plumbing problems typically associated with polybutylene pipes.

If your pipes have begun to leak, then your choice is whether to replace all of the pipes now or to fix the leaking pipes and replace them later.  In most cases it does not make good economic sense to fix a leaking polybutylene pipe.  Your plumber may be able to repair a leaking section of pipe, but a leaky polybutylene pipe is a sign that the rest of the plumbing will fail soon.  Your plumber can help you make the decision, but generally the best course of action is to have all of the plumbing replaced.

Replacing Polybutylene Pipe

Are you one of the millions of Amercans whose homes were plumbed with polybutylene pipe?  Maybe you’ve known about the pipe for years or perhaps you just got a great deal on a foreclosure home and discovered the polybutylene piping.  In either event, a whole house repiping is in your future, and not very far off either.

Polybutylene piping is blue or gray semi-flexible piping that was installed in millions of homes built up to 1995.  This pipe was discovered to have a defect that causes it to deteriorate and split over time.  In some homes, the pipes last for many years before they start to split but once it starts, all of the pipe needs to be replaced.

Attempting to repair polybutylene pipe is a waste of time and money.  Even if your plumber can successfully repair a burst pipe, it won’t be long before another pipe bursts.  The only effective solution is to have all of the piping in your home replaced with copper, PVC, CPVC, or PEX piping.

A whole house pipe replacement is a big job that involves locating all of the existing polybutylene pipe, removing it and installing new pipes.  In some areas such as Florida where homes are commonly constructed on a slab, the process is further complicated by the fact that the original piping is under the slab.

You can take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone.  Millions of homes have undergone polybutylene pipe replacement including homes built on slabs and there are some plumbing contractors who specialize in replacing polybutylene pipes.

If you have split or leaking water lines, or you suspect that your home is plumbed with polybutylene plumbing, schedule an appointment with a polybutylene pipe replacement specialist.  They will do a complete evaluation and explain your options to you.