What Are The Problems With Polybutylene Pipes?

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Mark: Hi, it’s Mark from Top Local Lead Generation. We’re here today with Mr. David Fairbairn of Fairbairn Inspection in Vancouver. He’s Vancouver’s mold expert and a fantastic home inspector, how’re you doing today David?

David: I’m great Mark considering I’m in a crawlspace.

Mark: So, we’re broadcasting right from someone’s crawlspace. I want to talk about the problems with polybutylene piping. What’s the deal?

David: I’m glad we’re in a crawlspace today Mark, because this is a great opportunity for us to see, I want to show you exactly what it looks like and some of the problems with it. So if you’re not familiar with polybutylene pipes, it’s a grey plastic pipe that was extremely popular back in the ’80’s and the first half of the ’90’s particularly in our area, in Vancouver, you seen a lot of these in homes built anytime after 1980. So what I’d like to do is go through the pros and cons of it and what to expect if you’re buying a house that has polybutylene pipe in it. I don’t fee like saying polybutylene every time, so I’m going to say PolyB – that’s the name that everybody refers to it by – so we’re talking about PolyB pipes.

So what we’ve got here, is a house that was build in 1985 and if you look, we’ve got some great plastic pipes here in the crawlspace, these are polybutylene plastic. These were invented in 1978, so any house built after 1978 could have it. It largely replaced copper for most homes where cost was an issue and ease of installation. You know, PolyB was supposed to be the next big thing and the reason they like it is there’s no soldering involved. You could just assemble it, it’s very easy to put together on site and the big thing here is that it’s flexible. When you’re dealing with plastic pipe, you can bend it around different angles, it’s not like rigid copper where you have to create elbows everywhere to work it around obstructions. So from an installation standpoint this is a very cool back in the time. So what we’re looking at here is a polybutylene with plastic fittings. We have plastic fittings at all the connection points, all our T’s and straight fittings are all plastic. This is known as a bit of a problematic type piping.

The house I’m in right now has actually had a pinhole leak, so the owner of this house, they had at their hot water tank, they actually had a leak already and that’s because PolyB has had a history of failure and that’s why we don’t use it anymore. So after they developed it, they put it out in a lot of houses, there was a lot of bursting at fittings, we had the pipe itself splitting and eventually there was a class action lawsuit. So when there was the class action lawsuit, the piping got a really bad name for itself – and of course, it’s no longer manufactured. I’d like to show you the there generations of polybutylene pipe and which ones to look out for and which one are not as bad.

I’d like to screen share with you, just let me know when it comes up. We’ve got some photos to share of what the different types of PolyB look like. So what we’re looking at here, this is a very early generation polybutylene fitting – which is a compression fit style. So what they would do with these compression nuts, they would tighten them, they’re also called grip fittings. This is something you would see in a very old PolyB installation, probably very early 80’s. If you see this type of pipe, there is a pretty good chance that you either had failure already or a leak already. Usually you don’t even see this type of piping because it’s already been, the house has already been re-piped. So this is the early generation of the stuff.

If you go to the next generation, that’s actually the same stuff we’re looking at in the crawlspace here. This is our plastic fitted polybutylene. You can see at the T’s where they connect, you’ve got these metal rings here and they are a crimp fitting. So you have these plastic fittings, you would slide the pipe overtop of the fitting and with a crimp tool you would crush down these rings and they would grab onto the fitting and compress it down. So this is what we have right now in this house from 1985. So you see the plastic fittings, they’re not great, they have a history of bursting and splitting. This would be your high risk style as well. If you see this in your house, there is a pretty good chance it at some point in the future, you’re going to have to re-pipe your house.

So on to the third style. This is something you’d see a bit later on – more in the 90’s with this style of pipe which is the metal fittings. So the metal fittings were introduced in response to some issues with the plastic fittings, so they’re a little bit more robust. What I usually like to say is it’s the least bad kind of PolyB to have. It’s not perfect, there still can be some problems with it but it’s of the three, if you had to pick one, this should be your top choice. So those are the three types of PolyB.

Mark: So that second one was more of a white colour. The PolyB isn’t always just grey?

David: PolyB came in a few different colours. Sometimes when you have your service entry piping coming in from the city they did use some different colours. I have seen where it actually looks like a different product altogether. The best way to determine if you have PolyB is to take a look on the actual pipe. I’m just going to grab my flashlight and show you.. you may not be able to see it on the video feed, but over here we have, it’s actually stamped with some letters and numbers… PB and 2110. That’s a dead give away if you see PB on the pipes. PB 2110, probably the most common stamp that you will see on these type of pipes – so that’s what you want to check for. Usually the give away is the grey plastic is present because modern piping, such as PEX, they use different colours. They don’t use grey because they don’t want it to get mixed up with the polybutylene, they don’t want to look like a bad product. So if you see grey plastic, or you see PB, even if you have a different colour, if you’re buying a house from the 80’s or 90’s you’re going to want to check for that stamp and make sure that you’re not fooled by the colour.

Mark: So are there any insurance problems with this product?

David: Yeah, there were a number of insurance problems that have recently gotten a lot worse. I’ve seen, you know as a home inspector, in the last couple years, the insurance companies are getting more and more sort of resistant to insuring properties with it. For instance, if we were to buy this house and we went to get insurance, the first questions they’re going to ask us when they see the build date on the house is what type of pipes do you have? If I tell them I have original polybutylene, they ask what type of fittings we have, do you have the plastic fittings or the metal fittings. If we tell them we have the original plastic fittings, they may either quote us a really high water damage deductible or they may actually request that we re-pipe the house in extreme cases. So I’ve seen both happen. Sometimes they’ll grandfather the insurance from the existing owner but that’s a best case scenario. You could run into insurance problems so you should always check with your insurance company when you’re purchasing a house with this type of piping about how they’re going to approach it and if they want you to actually replace any pipes.

Mark: So you mentioned there’s like splitting, pinhole leaks, fittings bursting… any other problems with this? I guess some other stuff can happen in areas where you’re not necessarily going to see it.

David: That’s correct. Luckily this house is a rancher, it’s a one story on crawlspace so all the piping is very visible and that’s how they found the leak. But in some cases you’ve got it behind drywall, sometimes it’s in a concrete slab, so unfortunately if it is hidden, you want to be pretty careful with the stuff. Some of the other problems are, sometimes they burst when these plastic hangers, they used to use, a lot of these are broken by now especially in crawlspaces. So you see these plastic hangers and the thing is just hanging down and it puts a lot of strain on the connections. So we’re not going to want to have these hanging down too much, we’re going to want re-support them at very least. That’s going to help us out a lot. One thing you’re going to want to check is your hot water tank, you know polybutylene tends to burst within the first maybe twenty feet of the hot water tank. It’s very common for us to go in, take a look at a hot water tank and go there’s actually new piping just in that one area and that’s where the actual burst happened and the concept there was that the hot water accelerates the deterioration in the pipe.

Mark: Thermal cycling just stresses it too much and the plastic can’t take it.

David: Yeah the plastic becomes quite brittle and the theory here is that since the city’s water is chlorinated, the chlorine can actually break down the pipe structure, which when they developed it they didn’t take into account. They should of figured that out but unfortunately we found out the hard way.

Mark: So how do we repair this?

David: In most cases you’re going to want to re-pipe. This house, because we’re on the crawlspace, it should be pretty easy to re-pipe. We have this nice big crawlspace we can go through and replace it with a better product such as PEX. So PEX is our newer plastic, we’re going to see that in almost all new installations around here. PEX is basically a cross lined polyethylene plastic which has been in use in Europe for a long time, but we only recently brought it over here and it functions very well. It’s not subject to the bursting problems of the polybutylene so we would probably want to go through and replace the PolyB. That’s going to be the best case scenario or our best option anyways. There are a couple other tricks you can do, you can lower your water pressure. We have seen that in a couple townhouse complexes where the entire townhouse complex is done with PolyB. What you can do is dial back your water pressure a little bit and that will actually reduce the impact on the connections and will reduce your chances of getting a problem. But aside from that a re-pipe is really your best option. If you’re having problems with it, in some cases you’re going to want to take a wait and see approach, which if you’ve got a more modern metal style you could hold out and see if you have any issues but the second it starts to leak you’re probably looking at a fairly good repair bill.

Mark: Great, so with that good news and after we finish this I’m going downstairs to check…

David: You have to check your pipes Mark, let me know what you have.

Mark: I know that the place that we had in Richmond it was definitely the second one that you showed with the plastic and crimp fittings and we had issues. We didn’t re-pipe the whole place but we definitely did around the hot water tank. So been through this, know this game.

David: Yeah absolutely and you have to be careful, you know a water leak can cost a lot more than a re-pipe. You know, a house like this, you could probably re-pipe it for around $3000 maybe even $4000 for really high quality re-pipe. You want to weigh that against what a water leak would cost you and also the jump in your insurance premiums as well. A lot of home owners are choosing to take that route.

Mark: Awesome David. So we’ve been talking with David Fairbairn of http://www.fairbairninspections.com – you can reach him at 604-395-2795. They are extremely busy so give them a call right away if you need something they can book you in the future. Thanks David

David: Thanks Mark, have a great day.

Mark: Thanks, bye.

About the Author DavidFairbairn

Author David Fairbairn is a certified, licensed home inspector serving Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. He has been featured in the media and has contributed to "24" Newspaper, and Global TV. He has spent years working with residential and commercial building projects, and holds a Power Engineering License in BC. Why not give him a call for your next Home Inspection? Call 604 395-2795 or email david@fairbairninspections.com today!

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