What Is Polybutylene Plumbing?

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    Like any industry, plumbing has evolved over time. From the days of the first “indoor outhouses” to the 21st Century bathroom, trends have formed and dissipated, practices have been adopted and abandoned, and knowledge of the science of plumbing has continually expanded.

    While most of the advances in plumbing have improved our daily lives and made the craft more efficient, convenient, and cost-effective, not every innovation has worked out in the end. One particular trend that proved to be ill-fated in the long run was the use of polybutylene (PB) in pipe construction.

    What Is Polybutylene?

    Polybutylene was a prevalent plastic material used for creating plumbing pipes from 1978 through 1995. Polybutylene piping became so popular that it was referred to as “the pipe of the future.” Polybutylene pipes were seen by many as a permanent replacement for copper, which is expensive and comparatively inflexible.

    Polybutylene plumbing was widespread in the Sun Belt, Northwest Pacific, and Mid Atlantic. This is partly because so much home construction took place in those areas during polybutylene pipe heyday.

    Why Was Polybutylene So Popular?

    Poly piping became widely popular throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s for several reasons. First of all, the material was significantly less expensive than copper and other metal materials from which piping had previously been made.

    Polybutylene was also much more flexible than other commonly used materials, making it easier to work with and reducing the time, and therefore the cost, of installation and the number of fittings required for a plumbing system. 

    Poly pipe is also resistant to freezing temperatures, making them less likely to freeze in frigid climates.

    Because of these advantages over other typical piping materials, PB pipes were installed in roughly 10 million homes from 1978 through 1995.

    Why Was Polybutylene Discontinued?

    Unfortunately, the “pipe of the future” was destined to become the pipe of the past. Chlorine and certain disinfectants reacted with the material, causing it to flake and become brittle. Small cracks formed in the PB piping, leading to water leaks and, in some cases, complete system failure.

    Many households with PB plumbing systems suffered water damage and even structural issues because of the PB systems’ failure.

    Because of the widespread problems with PB plumbing systems, many households forced to replace those systems or suffer major damage are now eligible for financial relief.

    What Is a Good Polybutylene Substitute?

    Although polybutylene proved to be an ill-chosen material for plumbing pipes, that doesn’t mean homeowners are stuck using expensive, rigid materials like copper. There are several alternatives to PB that offer some of the same advantages without the risk of leakage.

    PEX, in particular, is a suitable substitute for PB. This highly flexible plastic is durable and cold-resistant. Like PB, it is cheaper than copper and requires fewer fittings.

    Our Final Say

    Polybutylene once seemed like an excellent alternative to more expensive materials used in plumbing systems. Sadly, that turned out not to be the case. Homeowners whose houses were built between 1978 and 1995 should ascertain that their plumbing systems are not made of PB to avoid the possibility of a complete system breakdown in the future.

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