Copper or PVC: which is better for your facility?

Among facility managers and maintenance engineers, there is an ongoing debate over whether copper or PVC piping is superior. Each type of piping has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. We’ll look at both types of piping so you can weigh the pros and cons to get a better idea of what piping best suits your facility.

01/21/2015


Among facility managers and maintenance engineers, there is an ongoing debate over whether copper or PVC piping is superior. Each type of piping has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. Here we’ll look at both types of piping so you can weigh the pros and cons to get a better idea of what piping best suits your facility.

Copper and PVC piping: an overview

Even though copper and PVC can do many of the same jobs, they each have a very different set of characteristics. Copper has been used in industrial settings for more than 70 years. Made from 99.9% copper with a maximum of 0.04% phosphorus, copper is available in several thicknesses, with tubing diameters that range from 1/8 in all the way to 12 in. Copper fittings are normally brazed together, although there are a variety of threaded copper fittings and flanges to suit whatever specialized applications your facility may need.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) have been around for the past 50 years. Despite being a relative newcomer to the plumbing industry, PVC is the most widely studied plastic in the world. It’s available in sizes from 1/8 in diameter up to 24 in, and there are even special products such as double-walled PVC pipe for acid handling. Most PVC fittings use a chemical welding process to create a fast, leak-proof bond, but there are also threaded and flanged fittings available for special applications.

Using copper piping

There are many reasons to use copper throughout your facility. It is a strong yet lightweight material that comes in both rigid and semi-rigid forms, which makes it easy to design a piping system in difficult areas. Copper can also handle extreme heat or air pressure, and it’s a good conductor of heat, which makes it ideal for cooling systems. Other advantages include:

  • Copper is a biostatic material, which means it will not support bacterial growth.
  • Copper’s high melting point makes it extremely fire resistant.
  • It’s universally accepted by all major building codes around the world.
  • Copper is one of few materials that can handle the heat and pressure of boiler lines.

In some scenarios, however, copper has a few drawbacks. For instance, under normal use, copper is both corrosion-resistant and scale-resistant, however, when used with hard water, the interior walls of the tubing tend to collect calcium deposits. In addition, copper is not well suited for acid handling.

Another drawback is that copper is not compatible with very many other forms of piping. It can be used with brass or plastic fittings, but you’ll need to use special measures if you plan to use copper with any other piping material. While this may not seem like a huge concern, in an older facility that has seen years of upgrades and repairs, it is quite common for piping systems to be made of several different materials.

Using PVC piping

PVC also comes with many advantages. It is almost as durable as copper, and in certain applications, it is more durable. PVC is also far less expensive than copper, in both the cost of the materials and the installation costs. Like copper, PVC is antibacterial. Here are several more advantages to consider:

  • PVC will not corrode, and there is no danger of pitting or scale buildup.
  • Rather than conducting heat and cold, PVC is an insulator, which saves energy costs.
  • PVC is ideal for salt water, non-organic chemicals and acids.
  • It’s a non-reactive material, meaning you can mix it with any other type of piping.

PVC does have a couple of drawbacks. You’ll need to check with code enforcement agencies before installing PVC piping. In most areas, PVC is approved for use, but since it is a relatively new piping material, there are a few places that disallow it.

PVC, while regarded as a fire-resistant piping material, is not as fire-resistant as metal plumbing. PVC will burn when exposed to direct flame, however, it is known for not contributing to the spread of existing fires.

Which is better?

Between PVC and copper, there is no clear winner — one material is not superior to the other. Rather, you should base your decisions on your unique circumstance and application. For instance, PVC is the better choice for chemical handling, but in high-heat situations, you’ll need to use copper or another more heat resistant material. Both materials have an extremely long service life. Copper lasts well over 50 years, and PVC is rated to last at least 50 years and up to 100 years with proper maintenance.

In other words, the best strategy for choosing a piping material is to analyze several factors, including costs, use scenarios, and the availability of specialized fittings in order to choose the right material for your facility.



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