Polybutylene pipe or, tubing was used extensively in new homes built between 1978 and 1995, the tubing and fittings were made from plastic resin made by Dupont, Hoechst Celanese and Shell Oil, Polybutylene was rapidly hailed as a miracle tubing for water supply piping in homes. Polybutylene was easy to install, low cost, wouldn’t corrode, and thought to be resistant to damage from freezing.
Companies such as Qest, Vanguard, Admiral, Wes Flex, and many others manufactured Polybutylene Tubing, as they rushed to meet the demand of Polybutylene being installed in 6 – 10 million homes and manufactured homes across the US. By the mid 1980’s the first of a series of lawsuits for Polybutylene failures were being filed as systems with Acetal fittings crimped with aluminum or, copper crimp rings. The manufacturers initially blamed improper installation, and excessive crimp pressures for causing failures of the Acetal fittings and installers switched to other types of fittings such as Qest compression fittings, and copper or, brass fittings. Before long another wave of lawsuits were hitting the courts this time involving failures of the Polybutylene tubing itself and the discovery that oxidizers in the water such as chlorine used for disinfection and keeping the water safe to drink were causing the Polybutylene to break down and fail. This lead to the largest lawsuit in plumbing history and one of the largest in US history with the Cox vs. Shell, et al. with a settlement in 1995 for $950 million. The deadline for claims on the Cox vs. Shell settlement expired May 1, 2009.
If you are wondering if you have Polybutylene pipes in your home there are a number of places you can look like in a basement or crawlspace if you have one where pipes are exposed, where the service line comes into the home, and probably the best being near the water heater where pipes are exposed even in slab homes. Polybutylene tubing was used for both water service lines coming into the home, and for distribution tubing throughout the homes. Lines used for distribution were typically grey, silver, or, black, and lines used for the service coming into the home were typically blue, grey or, black. Some service lines may be black polyethylene, which is not a problem.
If you have a home that has been identified as having Polybutylene pipes installed you are probably wondering what you should do. It has been said that there is only bad and worse when it comes to Polybutylene tubing with the early Acetal fittings being the worst. However, if you have not had any failures in your system you probably do not need to rush out and repipe your home. You may be on a well system without chlorine or, the water supplier in your area does not need to use heavy amounts of chlorine or, chloramines to disinfect the water supply system and you may have many years of service before a failure if you ever have one at all. But, if you have experienced failures of a Polybutylene tubing system you should consider a complete repipe of the home rather than a piecemeal repair approach. While an entire repipe is expensive, it will ensure that there are no more leaks and water damage from additional failures. Many times homeowners insurance will deny additional water damage claims for leaks in Polybutylene plumbed homes after the initial failure if the home is not repiped.
When you are have a Polybutylene tubing system that starts leaking sometimes you may need to temporarily patch the system to restore running water in the home until a repiping contractor can schedule the repipe of your home. Replacing the leaking portion of the Polybutylene tubing can usually be accomplished by using PEX tubing, which is another plastic tubing that is currently in use by plumbers across the US. There are a number of ways this can be joined to the existing Polybutylene tubing such as Qest compression connectors, and Polybutylene X PEX crimp adapters, Many plumbers use SharkBite connectors which when they have the grey plastic end are rated for Polybutylene tubing. Other SharkBite connectors that only have the beige ends are not rated for Polybutylene with the primary difference being the plastic reinforcing insert that is placed inside the plastic tubing when SharkBites are used with plastic tubing. Polybutylene is SDR-11 tubing and PEX is SDR-9 tubing, the outside diameter of the tubing is the same but the wall thickness of the two different tubes are different and so is the inside diameter so different sized reinforcing inserts are needed.
When considering contractors to repipe your home to get rid of the Polybutylene tubing while it is true that any plumber may be able to do a Polybutylene repipe job, it is often wise to consider a plumbing company that has specialized in work of this nature. Quite often they will have done this work enough times that they will have developed techniques where they are minimally invasive in terms of cutting holes in walls and ceilings, for the work to be done and they may also have contractors they sub out the wall and ceiling repairs to that will allow your home to be back to normal very quickly with a minimum amount of inconvenience.