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Polybutylene is a form of plastic resin that was used extensively in the manufacture of water supply piping from 1978 until 1995. Due to the low cost of the material and ease of installation, polybutylene piping systems were viewed as "the pipe of the future" and were used as a substitute for traditional copper piping. It is most commonly found in the "Sun Belt" where residential construction was heavy through the 1980's and early-to-mid 90's, but it is also very common in the Mid Atlantic and Northwest Pacific states.
These are typically gray or white in color with a dull finish. Most are shown with pipe attached.
The piping systems were used for underground water mains and as interior water distribution piping. Industry experts believe it was installed in at least 6 million homes, and some experts indicate it may have been used in as many as 10 million homes. Most probably, the piping was installed in about one in every four or five homes built during the years in which the pipe was manufactured.
How to Tell If You Have Polybutylene
Exterior — Polybutylene underground water mains are usually blue, but may be gray or black (do not confuse black poly with polyethelene pipe). It is usually 1/2" or 1" in diameter, and it may be found entering your home through the basement wall or floor, concrete slab or coming up through your crawlspace; frequently it enters the home near the water heater. Your main shutoff valve is attached to the end of the water main. Also, you should check at the water meter that is located at the street, near the city water main. It is wise to check at both ends of the pipe because we have found cases where copper pipe enters the home, and poly pipe is at the water meter. Obviously, both pipes were used and connected somewhere underground.
Interior — Polybutylene used inside your home can be found near the water heater, running across the ceiling in unfinished basements, and coming out of the walls to feed sinks and toilets. Warning: In some regions of the country plumbers used copper "stub outs" where the pipe exits a wall to feed a fixture, so seeing copper here does not mean that you do not have poly.
Will the Pipes Fail?
While scientific evidence is scarce, it is believed that oxidants in the public water supplies, such as chlorine, react with the polybutylene piping and acetal fittings causing them to scale and flake and become brittle. Micro-fractures result, and the basic structural integrity of the system is reduced. Thus, the system becomes weak and may fail without warning causing damage to the building structure and personal property. It is believed that other factors may also contribute to the failure of polybutylene systems, such as improper installation, but it is virtually impossible to detect installation problems throughout an entire system.
Throughout the 1980's lawsuits were filed complaining of allegedly defective manufacturing and defective installation causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Although the manufacturers have never admitted that poly is defective, they have agreed to fund the Class Action settlement with an initial and minimum amount of $950 million. You'll have to contact the appropriate settlement claim company to find out if you qualify under this settlement.
Problems With Polybutylene
Although some poly piping problems stem from improper installation, most complaints are with the integrity of the piping itself. Polybutylene pipe is known to deteriorate due to contact with oxidants normally found in public water supplies. The failure can occur in the plastic fittings or in the pipe itself. A main concern regarding poly pipe is that, since the oxidants are carried in the water, the pipe deteriorates from the inside. This makes it very difficult to determine if the pipe is truly in good condition. Most home inspectors cannot give a reliable assessment on the condition of poly piping unless there is a visible problem with the exterior of the pipe or its installation. In addition, when a leak occurs, it may be extremely severe because the deterioration occurs from within.
Poly pipe leaks are unpredictable and there are no symptoms to warn of an impending leak. Some factors that affect polybutylene piping adversely can include:
- Poor installation
- Water quality
- Pipe age
- Chlorine levels
- Deterioration of fittings (both metal and plastic)
When polybutylene pipe reacts with the oxidants in normal tap water, it becomes brittle, sometimes scaling or flaking. This results in a fracturing of the interior surface of the pipe, which allows for more deterioration. Eventually the pipe will begin to leak, causing damage throughout a home. Poly pipe with plastic fittings or with metal fittings will eventually incur damage; poly piping is not a reliable piping under any circumstances. If a pipe has been leaking for some time without the knowledge of a homeowner, severe structural damage to the home can result, making repairs extremely difficult.
Damage from polybutylene pipe leaks can be expensive, in some cases more than the original cost of the house. Insurance companies sometimes cancel or refuse policies for homes with known poly piping problems, and it is difficult to market a home that has such an unreliable plumbing system.
The most effective way of identifying polybutylene pipe is to have your plumbing inspected by a licensed professional. While inspectors generally cannot determine if there is deterioration in poly piping, licensed plumbers can confirm if you have poly piping installed in your home. Typical characteristics of polubutylene piping include:
- Blue, gray, or black color
- 1/2" to 1" diameter
Poly piping can be used anywhere in the home's plumbing system—usually its presence can be ascertained by checking the attachments under household sinks, near hot water heaters, or leading into toilets. Following is a list of common places you may inspect for the presence of poly piping:
- Entering the water heater
- Crossing basement ceilings
- Feeding sinks, toilets, and bathtubs
- Entering the home through basement walls, etc.
- Attached to your home's main water shutoff valve
- Attached to your home's water meter (often a copper pipe at a water meter will be attached to poly pipe somewhere underground, so it is wise to check both ends of the pipe)
Note: Not all polybutylene piping systems use polybutylene fittings; some use copper. Therefore, if you see copper fittings on a pipe, it does not indicate that you do not have poly piping.
Another important area where poly piping may have been installed is the incoming water supply line to you house. If this incoming pipe is a light blue plastic pipe, it is likely that you have a type of poly pipe informally called "Big Blue". This pipe is extremely prone to failure and unexpected bursting. If you have this type of pipe as an incoming water supply line, it is recommended that you have it replaced as soon as possible.
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