Starting in the mid-1800s, indoor plumbing began flowing through homes in North America. Original piping was made from materials such as cast iron, steel, brass or lead (yikes!). Fortunately, copper piping was introduced in the 1930s as an alternative: thinner, bendable, heat and cold tolerant, and more resistant to corrosion.
Today, you can find copper pipes in both old and new residential homes and commercial businesses. Here’s what you need to know about maintaining your home’s copper piping and how to spot signs of trouble before serious water damage occurs.
What is copper plumbing?
Copper is one of several types of materials for use with indoor plumbing. Other materials include galvanized steel or plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) and polyethylene (PEX).
Copper started gaining popularity in the 1960s for a few reasons: it’s lightweight, easy to install, and it doesn’t rust. It’s also resistant to corrosion under the right conditions, and it can last for more than 25 years when installed and maintained correctly.
Copper was also appealing in the ’60s because it was a relatively inexpensive commodity at the time. Prices have risen steadily since then, particularly in the early 2000s. That’s why you might hear stories about the theft of copper pipe or wiring from construction sites and homes or businesses that are abandoned or being renovated. However, it’s not something homeowners need to worry about when occupying a habitable home.
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Types of copper plumbing
Copper pipes come in different sizes and are classified based on the thickness of the pipe’s walls. The choice of pipe depends on the job and its use. Local building code regulation will also play a part.
Type K: The thickest type of copper pipe. These Type K pipes can withstand the pressure of underground installation, so their use is often as an outdoor supply pipe to carry water into a home.
Type L: Commonly used for main water supply pipes in residential plumbing because it’s rated to withstand high water pressure.
Type M: Also used in residential plumbing, Type M pipes are slightly thinner than Type L pipes and have a lower pressure rating. Some building codes will allow both L and M pipes for indoor plumbing, while others will specify that only L can be used.
Type DWV: The thinnest type of copper pipe. The use of this type of pipe is or above-ground drainage and vent systems, which operate using gravity instead of pressure. DWV is also used for roof and building drains, but has been replaced by PVC plastic pipe in newer homes.
Copper can also be soft or rigid:
Rigid: Rigid copper is hard pipe laid in long sections used for water supply. Instead of bending, rigid copper is cut and fit in place, or used it in conjunction with soft copper.
Soft: Soft copper is more malleable and can be bent as needed to route around obstacles in the path of the piping. You can join soft and rigid copper together with the right fittings.
How to maintain copper pipes
With plumbing, you get what you put in—or what you flush down. Pipes made from quality copper can last at least 25-50 years, but there are a few things to look out for. Signs of trouble with copper piping include a sudden drop in water pressure due to pinhole leaks (see below), or teal stains in your shower or tub from pipe corrosion. Corrosion can also occur due to water stagnation from turning off the pipes and not draining them properly, or from water that has a low pH balance (too acidic).
When you apply for a home insurance quote, any history of leaks or burst pipes may affect your policy eligibility or home insurance premiums. Here are a few things you can do to maintain your copper pipes:
Test the water
You can test the pH balance of your water using a pH meter, pH papers, or litmus test strips. Acidic water is less of a problem in large cities and municipalities with extensive water treatment. It may be an issue, however, if you live in a smaller community or if your home relies on private well water.
Check your water pressure
Copper pipes are sturdy. But excessive water pressure on piping that’s too small in diameter, or with thin walls, can speed up corrosion. You can test your home’s water pressure with a pressure gauge. The gauge can be hooked up to your outdoor hose bib or washing machine faucet. Alternatively, or whatever is closest to your home’s main water supply line.
Check your fittings and supports
Corrosion happens with poor installation of fittings. For instance, a plumber not deburring a pipe of its rough edges. Using too much flux, a chemical cleaning agent to join metal when soldering the fittings together, will also create a connection failure.
How to prevent copper pipe leaks
Water that is acidic or contains high levels of dissolved oxygen, salt or rust can corrode copper pipes. It can also cause pinhole leaks, which are tiny holes that let the water slowly leak through. Pinhole leaks are very insidious and can go unnoticed for a long time until it’s too late, and water has damaged your wall or ceiling. One significant problem with pinhole leaks is the water will wick to its lowest point. In other words, a leak in your upstairs bathroom may appear in your basement.
One option to prevent leaks is to install a leak detection system, which is a device that uses sensors to monitor the presence of water. The new tech can send alerts to your phone or computer using Wi-Fi. You can place leak sensors under a household sink, by your washing machine, or water heater in your basement. You can also use a flow interrupter, a sensor that can shut off the water supply if it detects a suspect level of water pressure from leaking or burst pipes.
When a leak happens, you may turn to your house insurance to cover it, Fortunately, most home insurance policies cover burst pipes in their flood insurance policy. They often don’t include sewer backup, or overland water, so read the fine print, or call your provider to go through how your policy handles floods.
The bottom line
When you apply for home insurance, your insurer will want to know how old your plumbing system is and the type of piping material used. For the most part, copper pipes require more monitoring than maintenance. Installing pipes and fittings correctly is key. As is ensuring acidic water isn’t corroding the inside of the pipes, like acid reflux. Maintain your copper with these methods and it will keep doing its job for several decades.