3 Reasons to Use Copper for Drinking Water Pipes

3 Reasons to Use Copper for Drinking Water Pipes
16 May 2018

Two years after the Flint Water Crisis made international news, thousands of lead service lines are still buried underground across North America. Faced with two main material options to consider, plastic or copper, municipalities, utilities, developers and homeowners must weigh health implications, costs and environmental impacts for their lead service line replacements that will have effects on future generations.

Health Implications

Copper leaching is understood; plastic leaching isn’t. Copper service lines are completely impermeable, preventing outside chemicals, such as petroleum products that may be spilled on nearby streets or insecticides and fertilizers that are intentionally spread on yards, from contaminating the water system. The conditions that may cause copper leaching, as well as the potential health effects of copper, are long-established and well-known.*

The same cannot be said for plastics. Recent studies indicate that plastic materials can leach chemicals that affect taste and odor, but are difficult to identify, inconsistent between type of plastic and manufacturer and, most importantly, have little to no information on how they might affect human health. In underground installations, plastics have been known to allow organics, pesticides, petroleum products, and other contaminants to penetrate through the wall of the piping and into the water being delivered through the system.

Copper on the other hand is an essential micronutrient for human life and development and exists naturally in most water supplies. In addition to supplying dietary copper, it kills pathogenic microbes and does not leach potentially harmful chemicals or organic substances that can provide a food source for the growth of microbes in the piping systems.

*Unlikely Health Effects – 1 in 30,000 people in the U.S. are affected with the genetic condition, Wilson’s Disease. These sensitive individuals cannot automatically regulate the levels of copper in the body. However, the amount of copper in drinking water that can result in an acute effect is well above the regulated level allowed in drinking water; 4 to 5 times higher.

Material Costs

The decisions made on purchasing and installing underground water infrastructure today are borne out in service for decades in the future. Make a bad decision now and the cost to rectify it can multiply drastically when you have to dig up streets and lawns, shut off water service and disrupt customers’ lives. When selecting a material, it is wise to assess the full life-cycle costs that can be expected over the life of the service line and any salvage value left at the end of the service life.

Since the beginning of its use in the 1930s as a service line material, copper has proven to deliver a 75 – 100 year lifetime of use. It is highly corrosion-resistant in most underground environments. Because of its superior strength, this durable and malleable metal can also withstand high pressures and stresses without failures, while other materials crack, rupture and leak, such as in underground applications where freezing and thawing and other natural occurrences cause the ground to settle and move. Copper can be exposed to UV rays and oxidizing disinfectants (chlorine, chloramines, chlorine dioxide, etc.) without risk of cracking or failure.

Meanwhile, plastic pipes have shown a lifetime of approximately 25 years. The material has exhibited an above average risk of premature failure due to oxidative degradation in underground potable water systems treated with an oxidizing disinfectant, like chlorine.

Over the course of 75 years, the copper system would only have to be installed once, while the plastic system would need to be installed and then replaced twice, at years 25 and 50. Furthermore the copper service line can be sold for scrap at the end of its life, typically at 80 – 90 percent of the value of new copper (based on the weight of the copper).

Environmental Impacts

When it’s time to replace the line, copper can be recycled into another pipe or product without any loss to its beneficial properties. Its long life cycle, combined with its ease of recyclability back to the same metal purity (not downcycled to a lower purity or lesser use), makes copper a truly sustainable piping material. No matter how long it has been buried underground or in service, copper maintains its value – returning 80-90 percent or more of its original cost when it is reclaimed and sold for recycling.

Any way you look at it, the choice is clear. Copper offers a significant advantages over plastics over the lifetime of a service line. Visit www.CopperServiceLines.org to learn more about why copper is the preferred material for lead service line replacements.


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