The Sneaky Danger of Polybutylene Plumbing

hands holding plastic pipe with pencil
  • 1-80 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 50-15,000

Like all home materials, plumbing supplies have changed throughout the years, with mixed results. Copper is still a premium, clean, and long-lasting choice. Other options include PVC or galvanized pipes. Somewhere in the mix a less expensive option became popular, called polybutylene pipe, and many houses were built with this less-than-optimal option. In fact, it can be quite dangerous and, depending on the time of installation, it’s likely reaching the end of its usable life, bringing the risks of leaks and floods.

What is Polybutylene Pipe and Does My House Have it?

Check out replacement plumbing parts on Amazon.

These plumbing materials are made from plastic resin. However, not all plastic pipes are polybutylene. Most polybutylene plumbing is marked with code PB2110. It’s most commonly grey, but may also be blue or black. PBP is typically ½” to 1” in diameter and appears flexible.

PBP was developed as a solution to the housing boom in the mid to late 1970’s and was commonly used across the southern, Pacific Northwest, and Mid-Atlantic states, among others with an estimated 10 million homes receiving PBP plumbing between the approximate years of 1975-1995.

Why is Polybutylene Plumbing Dangerous?

It’s not dangerous in the way you may be thinking. It’s safe to handle and work with. It’s also safe for carrying your water supply. The problem with PBP was discovered in the 1980’s when the plumbing began to fail, causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property damage. Many lawsuits resulted in a class action suit against the manufacturer. Although the company never publicly admitted a problem, they did pay out $950 million as a result. Note, the opportunity to make a claim on that payout ended in 2007.

pipes running into a ceiling with heavy water damage

The PBP materials break down unusually fast under regular operating conditions. Chlorine and other oxidants in the water supply have been associated with the accelerated degeneration. As water passes through the pipes, it begins to weaken the surface from the inside out. This causes scaling, flaking, and brittleness. Eventually the pipe degrades to the point it results in leaks, typically around the connectors.

Leaks in pipes are never a good thing, but there are particular problems with PBP. The first is that the plumbing materials were expected to last 30 years. That means a house built in 1995 should still be flowing problem free. Yet, the majority of houses with PBP failures experienced problems at the 10-15 year mark.

Of course leaks and floods seem to happen suddenly, but often problems go unnoticed for months or years, and prevention is difficult with PBP. Even a professional inspector may miss the problem because the decay happens on the inside of the pipe, keeping it hidden from view. Also, there are very few visible spots to inspect PB plumbing, so unless the problem area is near the toilet or water heater, it’s probably behind a wall where it can drip for a long time before it’s discovered.

Another big issue with PBP is that many insurance companies won’t cover damage on your policy. At this point, while it’s not guaranteed PBP will fail, the incident rate is high enough that insurance companies don’t want to be part of the equation. That can mean tens of thousands of dollars in potential damage you’ll have to cover out of pocket, should it occur.

Should I Replace Polybutylene Plumbing in My Home?

metalic plumbing supply hoses for a sink

That’s not an easy question to answer. Depending on the age of your house, sections may have already been replaced. So if you just need to update supply hoses between fixtures and valves, that’s an inexpensive and easy fix that will put your mind at ease.

However, if the piping was installed as a supply line to the house, the job is much larger and may require professionals to complete the task. Completely replacing all the plumbing lines in your home is the most comprehensive and expensive solution of all.

You’ll have to evaluate your own situation and balance the risk, reward, and budget pyramid to make the decision about whether to replace the PBP in your home or not. At the very least, it’s something to be aware of, especially when buying or selling a home.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commissions at no cost to you.