Greenpeace condemns PVC pipe despite its widespread appeal in the building products industry.

By Scott Milano

PVC is everywhere. It's used in hundreds of products: automobile parts, packaging, home furnishings, and hospital supplies. But the single largest market for PVC is pipe. According to Bill Morris, technical sales manager for Charlotte, N.C.-based Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, about 70 percent of PVC production goes into construction and building materials--and 50 percent of that is pipe.

Even though PVC isn't the only pipe material available, many plumbers, contractors, and builders prefer it to alternative products because of its durability, ease of installation, and cost.

However, Greenpeace has launched a campaign against PVC. Bill Richardson, Greenpeace's national administration coordinator, asserts, "We're not anti-plastic, we're anti-PVC." Greenpeace believes that PVC is the most environmentally damaging of all plastics because of the toxic chlorine resin used and the dioxins released during its production.

Chlorine clamor

While Greenpeace disapproves of the chlorine used in PVC, Morris reminds us that, "Chlorine is a naturally occurring material. It's on the periodic table." He asserts that the potential for a chlorine leak in his PVC manufacturing facility is very small because PVC manufacturers take extraordinary safety precautions.

Greenpeace stresses that even if all safety precautions are taken during PVC production, there is still a threat to human health when PVC burns. Burning PVC pipe releases toxic compounds including hydrogen chloride gas and dioxins, which can be lethal if inhaled. Greenpeace says that burning PVC presents serious health hazards to building occupants, fire fighters, and surrounding communities.

Regardless of Greenpeace's attempt to phase out PVC, plumbers, builders, and contractors continue to install it. Robert Danley, president of Danley Custom Builders in Moorestown, N.J., believes PVC is the best piping material available for drainage applications. "PVC has a much cleaner look, and plumbers like it, too," says Danley. He cites availability and ease of installation as the best features of PVC. About 90 percent of Danley's drainage, waste, and venting (DWV) applications use PVC. Of the remaining 10 percent, Danley chooses copper or cast iron.

Channel choices

PVC is not a cure-all for the piping industry. Aside from the environmental and health issues that surround PVC, PVC pipe is restricted to certain applications. According to Morris, "PVC is a cold water product," which is why it's used primarily for drainage. It is against most regulations to install PVC pipe to distribute hot and cold water because it becomes volatile at high temperatures.

A sister product of PVC, CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride), is capable of handling higher temperatures and can be used to channel water throughout the house. However, CPVC has an even higher chlorine content than PVC, and "the extra chlorine makes CPVC less likely to bend under heat," says Allen Blakey, director of public affairs for The Vinyl Institute, which is based in Arlington, Va.

Other PVC alternatives include ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), a rigid black pipe used in DWV applications. "ABS weighs less than metal DWV systems" says Tracy Eaves, product manager for the Elkhart, Ind.[endash]based piping product manufacturer, Nibco. This, Eaves says, helps save installation time. But on average, ABS is slightly more expensive than PVC, and its thermal expansion rate is nearly twice that of PVC.

Because cast iron pipe weighs and costs more than PVC, many plumbers opt for PVC instead. According to John Biggers, regional manager for Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, a recent study found that the average installed cost of cast iron pipe versus plastic pipe was some $200 more per bathroom. However, cast iron has a coefficient of thermal expansion that is one-fifth that of PVC. Cast iron pipe also dampens sound, which is something PVC doesn't do.

According to Morris, "PVC transmits noise from falling waste water," which many homeowners don't want to live with. Installing cast iron pipe in sections of the house where PVC would otherwise transmit sound helps keep pipes quiet and homeowners happy.

Danley offers another alternative to combating noisy PVC pipes: He says that in noisy PVC situations, wrapping it with fiberglass insulation will help eliminate the sound of waste water.

Despite Greenpeace's efforts, PVC continues to be a dominant force in the pipe market. Most likely it will remain so if plumbers, contractors, and builders continue to praise PVC for its practicality. Granted, no one product satisfies everyone. There are, however, a number of piping products available that meet individual needs and applications. Whether the aim is to build green, increase margins, or improve reputations, selecting the right pipe is one more way to satisfy clients and be proud of the finished product.

Pipe down: The company offers an assortment of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PVC fittings for drain, waste, and vent applications. ABS is a lightweight pipe product that installs with a one-step, solvent-cementing process. According to the manufacturer, because ABS weighs less than other kinds of pipe, it installs easier and faster than competing products like cast iron. Nibco. 800-234-0227.

Water way: Made from CPVC, the FlowGuard Gold hot-and-cold water distribution system is designed for single- and multifamily homes, as well as commercial installations. The pipe and fittings are joined by solvent welding--a process that chemically bonds pipe and fittings to create one continuous piece. Noveon. 888-234-2436.

Cast effective: The Quiet House program employs sound-suppressing cast iron pipe in combination with PVC to create a quiet waste pipe system that is reliable and cost-effective. According to the manufacturer, cast iron pipe can reduce the noise level of drain, waste, and vent plumbing systems by as much as 700 percent over a plastic pipe plumbing system. Charlotte Pipe and Foundry. 800-438-6091.

Peter piper: Schedule 40 drain, waste, and vent pipe and fittings are made from PVC and available in a number of sizes and shapes for a variety of applications. The company also manufactures CPVC pipe and fittings designed for cold and hot water pressure applications from the water main to the home's fixtures. Genova. 800-521-7488.