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  • Writer's pictureHandsome Hank

The Difference Between Copper and PEX Piping.


Often I get asked which type of water pipe should I use when building or renovating my home, cottage, or building. This is a simple question with a not so simple answer. There are several factors we must consider when choosing our material. Each type of piping system comes with its own pros and cons, and it is up to you the consumer to make an informed decision that best suits your needs. Here is a quick look at a few factors to consider when choosing a product:

PEX vs. Copper pipe. Photo Credit: TurboMart



What IS PEX Piping?


As Per the official SharkBite website:


SharkBite® PEX pipe is a cross-linked polyethylene tubing that provides an excellent option for plumbing, radiant and hydronic systems in both residential and commercial plumbing applications. When combined with our push-to-connect fittings, manifolds, valves and other supplies, PEX pipe offers the fastest way to plumb any project. PEX pipe is made from cross-linked HDPE (high density polyethylene). The HDPE is melted and continuously extruded into a tube to form a high-performing pipe suitable for a variety of potable and non-potable plumbing applications.

Here is a link to their website should you want to read more about it and the different types of PEX and the different fittings etc. https://www.sharkbite.com/ca/en


Cost


As with all projects cost should be a factor. If I had a money tree, I would pipe everything in gold pipe, but that is not reality. Fact is PEX pipe is less expensive per ft than copper pipe. And by a lot! Copper pipe can be up to three times more expensive than PEX! The fittings are comparable in price. PEX fittings come in both brass and plastic. Pipe supports are similar in price and you require rings on each fitting. You will also need to purchase crimping tools if you choose to install PEX. The real cost savings with pex is time. Time is valuable and if you are paying per hour for a job, PEX pipe and Wirsbo pipe will save you countless hours on labour. PEX pipe installs in next to no time ,and does not require the ability to solder and there is no fire hazard from an open flame.


Local Building Codes


PEX and Wirsbo (Wirsbo is PEX but a different classification and used primarily for commercial settings) plastic pipe is legal in the Canadian building code as well as local state building codes. The determining factor is application. In a residential water pipe application, there are no limitations. In a commercial, or multi person dwelling you should check local authorities for fire regulations. More often than not, PEX is not acceptable in a commercial space, Wirsbo is possibly required. In any space where noncombustible material is required (return air plenum), PEX is not acceptable. Bottom line is check with your local municipality or trusted plumber before installing your new system. You can read our blog about how to find a reliable and trustworthy plumber here: https://www.megandrewplumbing.com/post/how-to-find-a-trustworthy-and-reputable-plumber-near-me


Speed of Installation


PEX and Wirsbo pipe as stated previously, is by comparison to copper, incredibly fast to install. The challenge is making it look good. If you are the type who takes a great deal of pride in the final appearance of a piping system then you might want to consider using copper. Plastic pipe is incredibly hard to make look good, and this will often make mechanics change their rough in, or customers complain about appearance, forcing more time and effort to improve the install. I personally prefer the look of copper pipe to plastics but if it's hidden inside a wall it's not really an issue.


Application of Piping


I can’t state it enough, please check with local building authorities before building any sort of plumbing system. Material choice is critical. A favorite saying of mine is “if you think it is expensive to hire a professional, wait till you have to hire a professional to re-do a project." The building department is there to ensure compliance, and most inspectors are happy to take the time to speak with you regarding your projects and there are loads of resources online. Lack of knowledge is no longer an excuse. Consider exposure to mechanical damage. Could your pipe be damaged by doors opening? Vehicles in a garage? Kids sports equipment and bikes? Perhaps iron pipe or copper is a better choice.

Temperature variation is also a consideration, water freezes at 0 Celsius .32 Fahrenheit, which means if there is water in your system and the temperature drops your pipe could freeze and split. PEX pipe doesn't usually split when it freezes, it will expand and possibly save you from a big flood. Copper on the other hand, splits easily when it is full of water and freezes.

In Floor Heating done in PEX pipe. Photo Credit: By H. Raab (User:Vesta) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

For that reason, copper is never used for in floor heating. All in floor heating is now done with plastic, usually Wirsbo. It is quick and the plastic will withstand the acidic effects of the concrete.


Traditional rad heating is still typically done with iron pipe. If I was building a cottage or system which would be exposed to a wide range of temperatures, I might choose PEX over copper. Often I will transition any exposed pipe thru walls to copper for cosmetic reasons , an example might be the visible portion of the toilet supply pipe. Terminations in copper can be purchased ,and look much better than plastic.

Transitioning Copper to PEX. Photo Credit: Pipe Restoration Inc.


Expected Demand


Through good building practices we can ensure a longer life expectancy in everything we build. Clean cut pipes, properly laid out and supported will no doubt last longer than something that is slapped together and looks terrible. It is also the mark of an exceptional mechanic, not only should a system function well but it should look very neat. In fact, plumbers and fitters used to put steel name tags on everything they installed, a sign of pride. I have worked with, and practice myself signing my installs.

Plastic pipe can withstand the same usage as copper and iron pipe. It faces the same rigorous tests when installed and if properly done should give you years of worry free service. PEX pipe and Wirsbo will also reduce water hammer under heavy use, or places where solenoids are applicable (dishwasher).


Conclusion


Like everything else today, technology is making our lives easier and safer. Gone are the days of galvanized steel piping or better yet, lead pipe water services. The plastic pipes offer a great many benefits to home owners and contractors alike. It is becoming cheaper, quicker, and safer. The important take away is understanding your application, interpreting the local building codes and choosing the correct material to get the job done correctly, the first time.


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