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Our plumbers at Black Diamond Experts have encountered polybutylene pipes in several homes in Salt Lake County, Utah County, and surrounding areas. Polybutylene is an especially troublesome pipe material and we want to make sure that you are informed about it and know what to look for and what to do if you find it in your home.

Polybutylene pipe received a lot of media attention in the 1990’s because it became brittle quickly (often within 10 years of being installed). This pipe was no longer made after 1995 and was the subject of a $1 billion class action lawsuit. Many homeowners have already had their homes repiped, or have dealt with leaks from these pipes failing prematurely.  

Kathryn from Durham, North Carolina wrote on Jun 6, 2015 on trulia.com, a home buying/selling site about her experience with polybutylene pipes.

  • “I have polybutylene pipes with metal fittings in my home in Cary, NC. We have had three leaks in the line that exits the hot water heater. All of the leaks were a result of the pipe itself cracking, not the fittings failing. The first leak caused $30,000 worth of damage and took 6 months to get everything repaired. Fortunately the other 2 cracks were much smaller, but still caused significant drywall damage. Many houses don’t have issues, however, many do. Three houses in our cul de sac have had leaks. One neighbor did not have a proper dry out service come in and had a huge mold problem subsequently; the house ultimately went into foreclosure. The neighborhood was built in 1993. I would never purchase a house with polybutylene pipes ever again. There were no leaks prior to our purchase in 2008.”

Polybutylene has proven to be such a disaster of a pipe, especially when exposed to elements, such as temperature change and disinfectants, like chlorine, found in treated water that some areas banned the use of polybutylene pipes. In 1994, the Washington Suburban Master Plumbers’ Association believed that “polybutylene “is literally a time bomb.” They advised “getting it out of a house as quick as you can.” (Mariano) Polybutylene pipes deteriorate from the inside out leaving the resident unaware that a problem is happening. Leaky pipes can go undetected for quite a while if the leak is behind a wall or under the floor and can cause serious property damage as was the case for Kathryn.

What is polybutylene pipes and why should you be concerned?

Polybutylene pipes were marketed as “the pipe of the future” when they were first introduced in 1978. The manufacturers claimed that the pipe would last a lifetime. However, a class action lawsuit in 1995 (Cox vs. Shell Oil) basically put a lifespan on the pipes of approximately 16 years.  It is now more than 20 years past the discontinuance of polybutylene pipes. If your home still has polybutylene pipes, there is a very high chance that your pipes are becoming very brittle and susceptible to breaking or leaking .it would be seriously advisable to consider repiping your home.

The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors references two studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago that “have shown that certain disinfectants can react with the polybutylene and cause it to flake apart at any location within the PB piping system.” (Gromicko) Several court cases (i.e. Amstadt v. U.S. Brass, Cox vs. Shell Oil) have referenced the disinfectant chlorine, which is commonly used to destroy harmful bacteria in our drinking water, as a likely contributor to the deterioration of polybutylene pipes and their connection fittings.

Areas with higher levels of chlorine in the water (closer to 2 mg/L) have seen higher polybutylene plumbing failure rates. In Maryland, The Washington Suburban Master Plumbers’ Association (WSSC) banned polybutylene pipes prior to the manufacturer’s halting production.

“The ban on polybutylene was imposed after the agency saw a letter written by a Shell Chemical Co. official…saying polybutylene should not be used in systems where it would be exposed to more than 2 parts per million of free chlorine, WSSC officials said. This level of chlorine is not unusually high, but WSSC supplied water occasionally exceeds this amount, said the commission, and thus made the ban on polybutylene pipes necessary.” (Mariano)

How does chlorine levels in Utah compare to the rest of the country?

Below is a table that shows how areas in Utah compare to other areas throughout the country on Chlorine levels in their treated water. The higher chlorine level in the water may mean a shorter lifespan for polybutylene pipes.

City Measurement Source
South Jordan, UT .02 – .99 mg/L 2014 Water Quality Data
Orem, UT 0.05-1.51 mg/L City of Orem Annual Water Quality Report Reporting Year 2015
Salt Lake City, UT Salt Lake City does not list the amount of Chlorine disinfectant present in the water in their 2016 consumer confidence report but states in it “The primary disinfectant used is chlorine”. (2016 Consumer Confidence Report) The Salt Lake City Consumer Confidence Report can be found at the following link http://www.slcgov.com/ccr.
Raleigh, North Carolina 0.2 – 3.8 parts per million 2015 Consumer Confidence Report.
Orange County, Florida 0.21-2.90 parts per million Eastern Regional Annual Drinking Water Report 2016.
Dallas, Texas 1.92 – 2.46 parts per million City of Dallas 2016 Water Quality Report.

So what does this mean to Utah property owners?

The short answer is be aware. The relatively lower level of chlorine used in the drinking water here in Utah might have delayed many disasters that are waiting to happen with polybutylene pipes. So if you have polybutylene pipes in your home, you should have your pipes inspected and seriously consider having your home repiped.

InterNACHI, the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors “believes it is far cheaper to replace polybutylene pipes before they fail and release their contents onto floors, appliances and furniture”. (Gromicko) And there is the possibility of mold growth if the water damage is not discovered immediately. If you elect to have your home repiped, this is an investment that can range in price depending on the size of your home and how accessible the pipes are. A conservative estimate would be between $2,500 to $5,000 for an average size home. A typical repiping could be done in 1 to 3 days. If you are considering a remodel at any time, having your pipes inspected would be wise, when your plumbing is more accessible.

If you are in the process of selling your home or are looking for a home to buy, you will definitely want to check to see if polybutylene pipe is present in the home. This can greatly affect home value and insurability. A typical home inspection does not inform the homeowner of the condition of the polybutylene pipe (as the deterioration typically happens from the inside) but you will likely be told to have a plumber inspect it further.

Do you have polybutylene pipes? Here is what to look for.

If your home was built or remodeled between 1978 to 1995, there is a good chance that it contains polybutylene pipes. This pipe was commonly used in tract homes. Polybutylene pipes are “most commonly grey in color, but they can also be white, silver, black or blue.” (Gromicko)

InterNACHI provides the following description to help identify polybutylene pipes. “Polybutylene pipes are

  • usually stamped with the code “PB2110”;
  • flexible and sometimes curved, unlike rigid piping materials such as copper;
  • not used for waste, drain or vent piping;
  • most commonly grey in color, but they can also be white, silver, black or blue. Blue PB is used primarily outdoors and should only be used to carry cold water. Inspectors should be aware that black or white pipes might not be polybutylene (they might be polyethylene or PVC, respectively). Also, PB color is somewhat region-dependant. For instance, experienced home inspectors in California might never come across grey PB, while it is quite common elsewhere;
  • ½” to 1” in diameter.” (Gromicko)
Polybutylene Pipe is often identified by its grey color and its ability to bend.
Grey flexible pipe is often an identifier of Polybutylene Pipe

Works Cited

2014 Water Quality Data. N.p.: n.p., n.d. South Jordan Utah. Feb. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://www.sjc.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/1.4-Water-attachment-1.pdfnt-1.pdf>.

2015 Consumer Confidence Report. Raleigh, NC: City of Raleigh, 2015. City of Raleigh. City of Raleigh Public Utilities Department. Web. <https://www.raleighnc.gov/home/content/Departments/Articles/PublicUtilities.html>.

“2016 Water Quality Report.” Wsscwater.com. Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <https://www.wsscwater.com/wqr>.

2016 Consumer Confidence Report. Rep. Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2017. <http://www.slcdocs.com/utilities/PDF%20Files/Annual%20Reports/CCR.pdf>.

City of Orem Annual Water Quality Report Reporting Year 2015. N.p.: City of Orem, 2015. City of Orem. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://www.orem.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Water_quality_report_2015.pdf>.

“City of Dallas 2016 Water Quality Report.” City of Dallas, 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://dallascityhall.com/departments/waterutilities/DCH%20Documents/pdf/WQR2016_eng.pdf>.

“Cox vs. Shell Oil Company (Polybutylene Pipe) | Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.” POGO’s FCMD Admin Panel. Project On Government Oversight, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://www.contractormisconduct.org/misconduct/1035>.

“Eastern Regional Annual Drinking Water Report 2016.” (2016): n. pag. Orange County Utilities Department. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://www.orangecountyfl.net/Portals/0/Library/Water-Garbage-Recycle/docs/2016%20Drinking%20Water%20Report.pdf>.

Gromicko, Nick, and Kenton Shepard. “Polybutylene for Inspectors.” Polybutylene for Inspectors – InterNACHI. InterNACHI, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <https://www.nachi.org/pb.htm>.

Laliberte, Monica. “Poor Plastic Pipes Lead to Class-action Settlement.” WRAL.com.  Capitol Broadcasting Company, 16 July 2008. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://www.wral.com/5onyourside/story/3216357/>

Mariano, Ann. “Homeowners Face Choice on Pipe Removal; Plumbers Call Polybutylene A Time Bomb’; Agency Disagrees.” The Washington Post (pre1997 Fulltext), May 28, 1994, pp. e01, US Newsstream; The Washington Post.

“Water Quality Results.” Water Quality Results–Seattle Public Utilities. Seattle Public Utilities, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2017. <http://www.seattle.gov/util/MyServices/Water/Water_Quality/WaterQualityAnnualReport/WaterQualityResults/index.htm>.

To check to see if you have polybutylene pipes in your home, go to the mechanical room in your house, the room where the water heater is located, and see if your pipes are made of copper or plastic (especially grey ones). You might have to look into the ceiling or inside insulation to find your pipes. If you find mostly plastic pipes and few copper pipes, you might have polybutylene pipes in your home. To be sure, you will want to call in a licensed plumber from Black Diamond Experts to verify.

Our Plumbers are licensed, trained and experienced at identifying polybutylene pipes and have the expertise and skills to repipe your home properly. If you suspect that you have polybutylene pipes or have experienced leaks in your home, give the plumbing experts at Black Diamond Experts a call.