Is Copper Pipe Better Than PVC

I’ve been planning to remodel and learn about the different kinds of pipes used in plumbing systems. I wondered whether copper pipes are better than PVC pipes. Based on my research and the opinion of experienced plumbers, here’s what I found.

You can not use PVC pipes and copper pipes for the same purpose. Therefore neither is better than the other overall. PVC pipes can not be used for hot water and can only be used for cold water plumbing, typically the main water supply pipe. Copper pipe works for both hot and cold water. However, it is more expensive to purchase and install compared to PVC pipes.

There is also CPVC, which is very similar to PVC and can be used instead of copper pipes. It’s also much easier to install copper pipes. CPVC can work for both hot and cold water.

Below, I will explain the significant differences between copper and PVC pipes, which one is better to use for plumbing, and the difference between the major types of pipes used in plumbing – copper, PVC, CPVC, and PEX.

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What is the Best Pipe for Plumbing?

Different kinds of pipe material are suited to specific purposes, whereas others can work for an entire plumbing system. But, which is the best overall?

As a general rule, PEX pipes are the best to use for plumbing. It can be used for hot and cold water and is the cheapest to install. Other plumbing pipes, such as copper, are significantly more labor-intensive to install than PEX or CPVC.

PVC pipes can only be used for cold water lines and aren’t suitable for hot water. CPVC and PVC are similar to PEX. However, PEX is flexible, making it easier to install and requires less labor than PVC or CPVC.

Here’s a table that shows the significant differences between the different types of pipes commonly used in plumbing:

Type of pipeMain disadvantages
CopperLabor-intensive to install and can be expensive to buy
PVCIt can’t be used for hot water and isn’t flexible like PEX
CPVCIsn’t flexible like PEX
PEXNone as compared to the other types of pipes

A known disadvantage of PEX is that you can not leave it in direct sunlight. However, this is also true for PVC and CPVC. Therefore, in my opinion, it isn’t a drawback compared to the other types of plumbing pipes.

Copper requires a lot more extra equipment, technical skill and is more labor-intensive. Here’s a brief rundown of the steps involved in installing copper pipes.

Labor involved in installing copper pipes

First, you cut copper pipes using a special tool, then the spurs of copper on the end of the pipe need to be removed using another special tool. After that, you need to sand the pipe end to make a clean and exposed surface. Finally, you’ll need to solder the copper pipes together with a copper coupler.

Soldering is a specialist skill that requires a bit of training to do it safely. Also, when soldering, you need to use a blow torch type of tool, which poses a very significant fire risk. And as a result, it’s much simpler and less hassle to use plastic pipes for plumbing.

PEX is flexible unlike PVC and copper

Interestingly, PEX pipes have the added advantage of holding up to what’s called a water hammer. Water hammer occurs when water flows through a pipe. As water flows through the pipes, it pushes against the pipe sides like an ocean wave causes vibrations.

When that happens, the pipe moves around a lot because copper pipes are very rigid and flexible. As a result, the screws and nails holding the copper pipes in place can loosen, and it also increases the amount of noise the pipes make as water flows through them.

PEX, on the other hand, as water moves through the PEX pipes, the pipes move and absorb the force created by the water. PEX pipes are quieter because the force spreads out over a wider area. Rather than concentrating the force of the water in certain areas in the copper pipe.

What is Better for Plumbing: Copper or Plastic?

Plastic is considered cheaper to install than copper and is very similar in how you use it for plumbing. I was curious about which one is better for plumbing. Based on the opinion of qualified plumbers, here’s what I found.

As a general rule, plastic is better for plumbing than copper. The major types of plastic pipes used are PVC, CPVC, and PEX. PVC and CPVC are similar to copper in that they are generally rigid, whereas PEX is flexible. Therefore, it’s easier to install, whether for a remodel or a new build.

Copper has been used for a very long time, and for that reason, plumbers and builders have trust it for 80 to 100 years. Read the What Is the Difference Between L and M Copper Pipe article if you consider using copper pipes despite the additional cost. It covers the different types and uses of copper pipes. 

Plastic pipes for plumbing, on the other hand, began being used in the 1960s. So, exactly how long they last haven’t been proven yet. However, many laboratory tests have proven it’s strong and durable. Because it’s much cheaper and easier to install than copper, it’s popular despite its limited lifespan of 25 to 40 years. 

Some sources say that over 50% of homes in America use PEX pipes for their plumbing. People in the plumbing industry say that PEX began being used widely in the USA from the 1980s to the 1990s, where previously plumbers only used it in Europe.

Copper or plastic for a new build versus a remodel

It is relatively easier to install plumbing in a new build than it is to replace existing plumbing. With a new build, you can plan when you install plumbing pipes so that it’s easy to get them in at a time when it’s easy to access where it needs to go.

But, a remodel often needs to work around existing walls, pillars, and wiring. Rigid materials like copper, PVC, or CPVC are more challenging to install because you can’t easily thread them into spaces and around corners.

PEX is flexible and much easier to work with than PVC, CPVC, or copper pipes on a new build. Therefore, overall, it’s cheaper to install because it takes less time.

Plastic or Copper Pipes for a Shower

Showers and bathrooms have a lot of water flowing through them, so you may be wondering whether plastic or copper pipes are better for a shower. Here’s what I found.

Specifically, PEX plastic pipes are best to use for bathtub and shower pipes. PEX is a plastic material superior to PVC or CPVC pipes because of its flexibility and ability for hot and cold water. It’s also widely used for residential and commercial plumbing.

The labor costs if you’re getting a contractor in, or the time it takes you to install it if you’re doing it yourself, is considerably less when using plastic when compared to installing the same plumbing using copper. 

However, plastic pipes like PVC and CPVC are rigid and more challenging to work with during installation. PEX, on the other hand, has all the good qualities of copper, PVC, and CPVC but is easier to install.

The building codes of certain jurisdictions can require you to use only certain types of pipes to meet building standards. And therefore, it’s always best to make sure you can use a specific kind of pipe for your plumbing. With that said, PEX is suitable for remodeling or new construction.

Sources

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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