Polybutylene Pipes: A Ticking Time Bomb

"Poly" pipes or "PB" pipes gained popularity in the U.S. in late 1970's amidst economic recession for their affordability and flexibility. However, over time, these pipes fall apart. Here's how to find out if you need PB pipes replaced before they fail.

Imagine this scenario: Someone knocks on your door and says there’s an explosive device built right into your home’s plumbing system. But here’s the kicker: the countdown to when the device goes off is unknown; it could be one year, ten years, or if you happen to be among the lucky few, never.

Millions of homes across the United States are virtual ticking time bombs, courtesy of one specific feature of their internal piping system: i.e. polybutylene pipes.

We’ve consulted one of Georgia’s leading water supply experts and national authorities on polybutylene pipes, Greenlee Plumbing, for the all-inclusive guide as to why polybutylene can ultimately burst your pipe dreams of a safe and happy home.

Greg Greenlee walks us through the issue. 

What are polybutylene pipes?

“Poly” pipes or “PB” pipes gained popularity in the U.S. in late 1970's amidst economic recession for their affordability and flexibility. Formed from an inexpensive plastic resin and saturated polymer, these pipes could be bent into difficult shapes and hard to reach places, and were also hailed for their high resistance to extreme temperatures and corrosion.

Between 1978 and 1995, poly pipes were installed in millions of homes across the country.

Sounds great. So, what’s the problem?

Turns out, the polymer used to make poly pipes has an adverse reaction to sunlight, chlorine, fats and oils: all things found in common tap water. Contact with these water-soluble oxidants degrades the interior of the pipes, causing fracturing, splitting, splintering, flaking, pinhole leaks, and in some cases, complete collapse.

By the 1990's, polybutylene had gone from the “pipe of the future” to the pipe of future water damage. Thanks to a 1995 class-action suit against Shell Chemical Company and several other pipe manufacturers, homes across the U.S. were awarded a combined $11 billion settlement, including complete replacement of their polybutylene pipe systems.

(Note: The time for claims to be made under this settlement has expired). 

How to identity polybutylene pipes... 

First, locate the pipes around your water heater, underneath sinks, attached to toilets, running across ceiling beams in unfinished basements, and connected to the main water supply line.

Then, look for these features of PB pipes:

  • Color: shiny gray, white, blue or black
  • Size: ½ inch, ¾ inch or 1-inch diameter
  • Crimping: PB pipe fittings are held together by a clamped ring versus the soldering used in copper pipes or gluing in CPVC and other piping material. These crimps are made of acetyl, or in some cases copper and brass.

This is what you're looking for... 

Be aware! Just because you see a copper stub out, crimp, or even pipe attachment doesn’t mean it’s not attached to a polybutylene pipe behind the wall.

Warning signs of weakened PB pipes

The experts at Greenlee Plumbing abide by the simple, four-senses test:

Smell

  • Musty or moldy odor coming from areas where pipes are located.

Sight

  • Scaling, flaking, splitting of pipe
  • Warped floor tiles or floor boards
  • Wet carpet or glistening steam along baseboard
  • Unusually soggy spots near the outside main water line not caused by precipitation
  • Bubbling, popping, wrinkling paint
  • Baseboards separated from the drywall
  • Mold spots or wet stains on the wall or ceiling
  • Unusual spike in water bill for no apparent reason
  • Reduced water pressure; anything below 55 PSI

Sound

  • Hear water droplets, or spraying/running water

Touch

  • Cold/damp walls
  • Squishy drywall
  • Wet/damp rugs
  • Springy floor boards

Even if pipes pass the “four-senses test,” they still may be leaking!

Poly pipes are often “silent” killers. Much like a person with internal bleeding, the oxidants carried in the tap water begins to degrade the pipe, from the inside out. Ultimately, most failures occur in systems that look fine even to the trained eye.

For most cases, it’s not a matter of if a poly pipe will go bad, but when. And that when is usually in as little as 10 to 15 years after installation.

Leaking pipes can cause terrible damage.

Will replacing the pipes’ component parts remedy the problem and prevent future damage?

Common attempts to remedy future issues pertaining to PB pipes include:

  • Re-installing loose or improperly ensconced pipes
  • Incorporating a water softener to reduce, poly-eroding chlorine levels
  • Replacing the original plastic, acetyl clamps with copper or brass rings

Unfortunately, these are all temporary band-aids. As the experts at Greenlee Plumbing explain: “The only way to eliminate the possibility of problems that can come from deteriorating polybutylene piping is to replace the pipe itself.”

Potential water damage is just one disadvantage of keeping your PB system; others include: 

  • Revoked safeguards: Should a poly-related incident occur, many insurers will drastically increase their premiums or cancel their policies altogether
  • Lack of coverage: Many insurance companies and lenders will refuse home owner policies and/or mortgages for homes with poly pipes
  • Reduced salability: Homes with poly pipes are generally flagged in home inspections, leading to a decrease in value and increased difficulty in finding a buyer

How much does it cost to replace a home’s polybutylene pipe system?

For a typical, 2 ½ bath home, the average cost is $5,200. And the job usually takes no more than 2-3 days from start to finish.

What does replacement involve?

First and foremost, you want to find a licensed professional who guarantees a “turnkey” job versus a “rolling job.” The difference being: turnkey jobs are all-inclusive, covering labor, parts, removal and reinstallation of plumbing, repair and restoration of drywall and paint to a like-new condition.  

For interior replumbing

  • Everything in the home is covered with a tarps, and plastic sheeting to prevent the spread of dust and debris
  • Re-piping requires cutting holes in the walls and ceiling to access the poly system. The new pipes are usually ran as close to where they were as possible, with variations depending on style of home i.e. Slab, Crawl, Basement, 1 story, 2 story. CPVC may be used as well as copper and pex.
  • The drywall is repaired, and repainting is done with computer matched paint.
  • Any wall tile cuts are replaced and tile is then repaired, repainted, and restored, close to new as possible.

Tidal Wave identified the pipe's location and started to carefully cut away this homeowner's ceiling. 

For exterior replumbing

  • Slight excavation with a trencher
  • Boring under sidewalks and driveways
  • Possible landscape damage
  • Possible damage to irrigation wires
  • Possible concrete repair

In high-end cases, poly pipes can be replaced with the gold-standard of piping material: copper. In most cases, the black colored plastic pipe, polyethylene,  is used.


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Greenlee Plumbing
(678) 671-3065

Business overview

Greenlee Plumbing is a family owned and operated company local to the Atlanta area. We specialize in polybutylene replacement but handle all plumbing needs.

Gary and Greg Greenlee are both master plumbers with over 40 years combined experience. We have completed hundreds of Yard Line Replacements, House Re-pipes,...

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