A COALITION OF SPECIALTY CONTRACTORS IS alleging that the chloramine compounds California uses to treat its water is causing pinhole leaks to develop in copper pipes. The group is calling on the state to allow builders to use plastic pipe alternatives, which would resist corrosion and save the state $100 million a year.

“California is the only state in the U.S. that promotes copper piping by restricting the use of plastic piping alternatives,” says Tom Price, a board member of the California Professional Association of Specialty Contractors (CalPASC).

The debate over which piping material is better for residential plumbing is ongoing between the copper industry and the manufacturers of plastic alternatives such as chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC), polybutylene (PB), and cross-linked polyethylene (PEX).

COPPER TOP

Copper has been the primary piping material for the past 70 years because it is least likely to cause household problems, says the New York City–based Copper Development Association (CDA). It requires no maintenance, meets or exceeds building codes in all 50 states, won't burn or break down, and can last for the life of your home, the group states. More than 20 years ago, California made the decision to ban the use of polyvinyl chloride, fearing the material posed a threat to human health and the environment.

The Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association, in Glen Ellyn, Ill., however, says that CPVC—an improved version of old polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—is environmentally friendly, corrosion resistant, and cost effective. Easy to install and handle, it can be installed at least 25 percent more quickly than copper or iron systems, the group adds. Still, California's rule assured that copper would be the predominant material used for houses in the state.

Assuming it is true, the corrosion controversy has far-reaching implications for other states besides California, since almost 70 percent of all residential plumbing is done with copper. Moreover, as the EPA has tightened its water regulations, more municipalities are switching from chlorine as their primary disinfectant and using chloramines, which keep water bacteria-free longer than chlorine. But chloramines—produced by combining chlorine and ammonia—are believed to erode copper.

EROSION CONTROL The CDA says that studies done on the connection between copper erosion and chloramines are inconclusive. “I have not seen any studies saying that chloramines do cause corrosion,” says Andrew G. Kireta Jr., national program manager for the CDA in Franklin, Ind. Chloramines by themselves do not cause corrosion of copper piping systems but may do so in the presence of aluminum, which could be left over from the water treatment process or from concrete piping—cement-mortar linings on iron piping used for water mains. These may contain relatively high amounts of aluminum, which studies have shown can leach into the water, says Kireta. “Municipalities [experiencing corrosion issues] need to address their corrosion control systems,” Kireta states.

The EPA does not have an official position on the use of plastic vs. copper piping in homes, but the agency does confirm that states have some control over corrosion. “The presence of pinhole leaks in copper piping can be the result of excessive corrosivity of drinking water and the quality of the copper pipe,” says a written agency response to BUILDER. “Water utilities can adjust the chemistry of their treated water to reduce its corrosivity and can also add chemicals that will help to coat the interior of the pipes and reduce corrosion.”

Though it may seem strange that CalPASC—whose members include various trades, such as roofers and electricians—wants the option to use any type pipe the job calls for, Price says there is a reason.

“It has to do with liability,” he says. “If there is a construction liability case, builders in California name every trade involved in the project as a party in the lawsuit.” Builders want to spread the blame around, so specialty contractors want to protect themselves. In addition, CalPASC says contractors are likely to make more money using plastic systems because they are more cost effective and take less time to install.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.