For most of the history of plumbing, any homeowner taking on plumbing remodel or repair would have used galvanized pipe or copper pipe and fittings for water supply systems. Galvanized means learning complicated connection techniques; copper meant mastering the delicate art of sweating copper fittings (the various connection points of elbows and tees that join copper pipes) with a torch and solder. Even though both are learnable skills, many novice plumbers would balk at this point, preferring the competent but expensive work of a professional plumber.
With PEX plastic pipes and push-fit type fittings, plumbing is within reach of the amateur plumber. Not just plumbing supply stores but local home improvement stores—Home Depot, Lowe's, Ace Hardware—are well stocked with both colorful PEX piping and all of that gleaming copper pipe. What's going on here? Which one should you choose?
Copper and PEX Defined
- Copper pipe: Copper pipe and fittings are in millions of homes and are still used today, often by plumbers. About 66 percent more expensive than PEX, copper is readily available at all home improvement and hardware stores. Copper's higher cost is mainly due to the price of bulk copper.
- PEX: PEX is the shortened name for cross-linked polyethylene, a super-strong, semi-rigid plastic tubing. For convenience, it comes in red for hot, blue for cold, and white for any temperature. These colors are only in place to aid in installing the product and in subsequent repairs; they do not confer any temperature-related qualities on the pipe.
How These Fittings Work
SharkBite is a popular brand name for push-fit or stab-in plumbing fittings. With a bit of effort, the pipe pushes into the SharkBite and is held in place by tiny teeth. Between copper and PEX, SharkBite is the only connector that works either with copper pipe or PEX pipe.
Fittings for Copper
Fittings for PEX
Copper Pipe Pros and Cons
- Recycled: About half of the copper used in this country—which would include plumbing pipe and fittings—is created from recycled copper, according to the copper industry's trade group, Copper Development Association, Inc. (CDA).
- More rigid: PEX's flexibility is great when you want to go around corners but bad when you need to stub out to a toilet or sink. For that, you need to either use a copper stub-out (in fact, SharkBite even sells copper stub-outs) or buy special PEX fittings for his purpose.
- More heat resistant: PEX is heat resistant and can even be used for under-floor radiant heating. But to connect to high-heat services, like your water heater, you need to make that final run with copper or special stainless steel braided connectors.
- Will not give off toxic fumes: As CDA points out, PEX is plastic and will melt and emanate toxic fumes in the event of a fire. Copper has a far higher melt point and does not give off toxic fumes.
- Cheaper fittings: If you do decide to use copper fittings, they are vastly cheaper than SharkBites. For example, a half-inch copper pressure tee will cost about ten times less than a comparable SharkBite tee.
- Value of copper: The copper pipe that results from a demolition project can be sold because the material is typically valuable enough. This cannot be said for most building materials stripped from home and certainly not for PEX pipe.
PEX Pipe Pros and Cons
- Easy to join: With PEX, you do not need to learn how to sweat joints. You can use the SharkBite system, or you can purchase a crimping tool that uses either copper or steel rings that tighten the PEX onto brass fittings.
- Easy to cut: While copper is easy to cut with a rotating tubing cutter, PEX is even easier. A razor blade-equipped rotational cutter makes quick work of PEX in just a few turns. Or, even easier, you can cut it with a scissors-type of cutter.
- Low cost: PEX is substantially cheaper than copper pipe.
- Bendable: Half-inch diameter PEX can make 5-inch radius turns without the application of heat. On straight runs, it has moderate wiggle room without radius supports.
- More expensive fittings: No PEX fittings are as cheap as copper fittings. As noted above, SharkBite fittings are far more expensive than copper. But even the "cheap route," using barbed brass fittings for your PEX, is still more expensive than copper—about three times more expensive.
Recommended: PEX Over Copper
DIY home remodelers may wish to use PEX pipe over copper for most of their plumbing work. PEX is easy to work with and has almost no learning curve.
With copper, amateurs will find joints difficult to solder. Given the fact that most copper pipe corrosion occurs near joints, this is not an aspect of your plumbing that you want to get wrong. PEX joints are nearly foolproof.
Choosing PEX Connectors
PEX over copper is, for many amateur plumbers, a foregone conclusion. But the more difficult question is whether you should use SharkBite push-fit connectors or the barbed crimp/clamp connectors?
Throughout a large plumbing project, such as whole-house plumbing replacement, barbed crimp/clamp connectors will save you considerable money, even after taking into account the initial investment in a crimp/clamp tool.
If your working space is tight, SharkBites are easier to attach than crimped or clamped barb connections, due to the space needed to operate the tool.
If you are nervous about making tight connections, SharkBites will help—but they are not necessarily foolproof. Getting the PEX or copper stabbed into the fitting can be difficult. Surprisingly, PEX can be harder to stab in and remove than copper. As long as the pipe is round; is cut square, and is de-burred in the case of copper, and most importantly, is inserted at the correct depth—SharkBites will hold.