Getting to know Poly-B plumbing

Do you know what kind of plumbing your home has? It’s not something you think about a lot, as long as it’s working properly. But if your home has Poly-B (or Polybutylene) plumbing, you may have had to make some repairs or replace the plumbing entirely. You’ve probably discovered that some insurance companies won’t insure your home if it has this type of plumbing material. So, what is Poly-B plumbing, what does it look like, and why is it such an important issue?

What is Poly-B (Polybutylene) Plumbing?

Poly-B is a gray plastic pipe used as a water supply line in your home. This type of pipe was installed extensively in the early-1970s until the early-1990s. It was thought to be a great material at the time, and much cheaper than copper. However, around about the mid-1980s, homes with Poly-B plumbing began to spring leaks. This was definitely not a good situation. Some Poly-B plumbing would leak behind drywall and not be discovered until it was a huge issue; not just water damage, but also mold. It’s estimated that there are in the neighbourhood of 700,000 homes across Canada with Poly-B plumbing.

If you’re not sure whether or not you have Poly-B plumbing, look for gray plastic pipes anywhere there is exposed plumbing (under the sink, connected to the water meter, or maybe the hot water tank).

One of the problems with Poly-B is that the pipe may look fine from the outside, but it’s slowly deteriorating from the inside and could rupture at any moment. There’s just no way to tell.

Originally, the problem with Poly-B seemed to be the fittings. The fittings, used to connect one pipe to another, were sometimes made of plastic which cracked and leaked over time. In some cases, the pipes were improperly installed, and the fittings were too tight causing small cracks leading to problems with leakage. Water pressure was also an issue. If you lived in an area with high water pressure, this could cause an already weakened joint to rupture. Plumbers began using copper fittings, which were great, but there were still problems with leaking. It turns out that Poly-B pipes don’t handle hot water or chemicals, like chlorine, very well, and begin to break down quite rapidly. They should not be used in or near high heat areas, like the hot water tank.

What should you do when something goes wrong?

It’s very difficult to tell what condition Poly-B piping is in. Home inspectors can look for obvious signs, such as visible repairs or improper installation. But damage to the pipes begins from the inside where you can’t see it.

Inter NACHI (International Association of Certified Home Inspectors) advises that as leakage can happen without any warning, plumbers often recommend replacing Poly-B pipes with something else (such as PEX or copper). Not only may you have difficulty getting insurance, but Poly-B plumbing can discourage potential buyers from purchasing your home, should you decide to move.

There are things you can do to extend the life of the Poly-B pipes, but most experts say that the best solution is usually to replace the entire system.

Take a look at Jon Eakes’ website. He has asked Canadian homeowners to write in if they’ve had issues with their Poly-B plumbing. This is quite an eye-opener.

What can you do to maintain your Poly-B plumbing?

If you have Poly-B plumbing in your home, it is almost inevitable that you’ll be replacing it at some point. But there are a few things you can do to extend the life of the existing Poly-B:

  • Replace plastic fittings: As mentioned above, in the early days of Poly-B piping, the fittings in some areas were made of plastic, and tended to fail over time. This is less common in Canada than in the U.S. If your fittings are plastic, you might consider getting a plumber to replace these with copper or brass fittings.
  • Don’t over-crimp: You’ll notice that the pipes are held in place with metal bands. If these are crimped too tightly, hairline fractures could result. With fractures, come leaks, so this is an important step.
  • Lower the pressure: Pressure-reducing valves are available and are designed to reduce the water pressure in your house, allowing for less stress on both the pipes and the fittings. Most experts recommend between 40 and 60 psi. High water pressure can actually cause damage to the home’s fixtures, as well as cause the pipes to rupture.
  • Reduce the chlorine: High levels of chlorine in the water can speed the deterioration of poly-B pipes. Most regions of Canada don’t have an issue with chlorine, but if your home is in an area with high levels of chlorine, you may want to consider installing a filter to remove chlorine right where the water comes into the home, not just where it comes out of the tap.
  • Cool down: Hot water causes Poly-B pipes to deteriorate quicker. You may want to turn down the temperature on your water heater, but be careful; turning it too low can cause bacteria to grow. And Poly-B pipes should not be connected directly to the hot water tank. BC Hydro recommends setting the tank to no lower than 55 degrees to prevent bacteria forming in the tank. If you have small children in the house, setting the water to a lower temperature has an added bonus of helping to prevent scalding. See Hot water tanks.

What is the life expectancy of Poly-B plumbing?

There are many reports that Poly-B piping began to leak around 10 to 15 years after installation. Most experts recommend replacing Poly-B plumbing with the much more durable copper variety. Poly-B is no longer an approved plumbing material under the National Plumbing Code, so is not used in any new plumbing installations. It may seem expensive to replace the plumbing in your home, but you are investing in your home’s resale value, as well as giving yourself some peace of mind, knowing you won’t be facing burst pipes causing damage to your home, as well as your valued possessions.

What will your home insurance company want to know?

Your insurance company will want to know what type of plumbing your home has, especially if it was built between the early 1970’s and the early 1990’s. Losses from ruptured Poly-B plumbing can be enormous, so insurers are understandably nervous about taking on a home where Poly-B plumbing is lurking. You may find that insurers won’t insure you at all, or they’ll insure you but either at a higher premium or with a greater water damage deductible.

If you already have insurance on your home, and have a water loss due to the Poly-B plumbing leaking or rupturing, you could face a huge increase in premium or deductible on renewal. Even worse, the company may not offer you a renewal, and you will then be faced with trying to find a company willing to insure your home. This is never an easy task, especially if the loss you suffered was a large one.

If you’re just purchasing a new home, make sure you know what type of plumbing it has. A home inspection should give you that information. It’s important to know exactly what type of plumbing is in the house before you buy, and before you start looking for insurance. Some homes may be partially updated, and if so, insurance companies will likely want to know the percentage of each type of plumbing.

If your home has Poly-B piping, please discuss it with one of our agents, and we will do our best to assist you. Remember, if you’re not sure, look for flexible, grey-colored plastic pipes in areas with exposed plumbing such as near your hot water tank, water meter, or under a kitchen or bathroom sink. The material designation should be “PB2110”.

If you have any other questions, you can always contact Square One at 1.855.331.6933 for more information.

image of poly-b (polybutylene) plumbing
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