Feature Article

Piping in Perspective: Selecting Pipe for Plumbing in Buildings

The production of copper at Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah, the largest excavation in the world, contributes to copper piping. The impacts of that resource extraction, as well as the use of fossil fuels in producing all types of piping, and numerous other life-cycle impacts from manufacturing to disposal, weigh heavily in environmental choice of piping.

Photo: Spencer Musick
Indoor plumbing is closely associated with advanced western civilizations such as Rome as well as withmodern industrial economies. Bringing clean and reliable supplies of freshwater into homes and workplaces and safely transporting wastewater from buildings to treatment facilities have been credited with taming outbreaks of infectious disease that remain tragically commonplace in many parts of the world. The use of lead in pipes and pipe solder—the word

plumbing derives from the Latin word for lead,

plumbum—made many advances in plumbing possible but also illustrates the potential downsides of choosing the wrong material. Some historians credit lead poisoning from plumbing and dishware with contributing to the fall of Rome.

Natural materials like bamboo and bored logs have been used to carry water, but manufactured materials, including metals, vitreous clay, and, more recently, plastics, have long been preferred for their durability. However, these materials require the extraction of raw materials; the processing and transport of those raw materials; and the manufacturing, transport, installation, use, and disposal of the product. Each of these processes consumes energy and exacts environmental and human health costs. Choosing the most environmentally friendly piping often requires weighing costs and benefits to identify the least offender.

This article primarily addresses piping choice for potable water supply as well as sanitary drain, waste, and vent (DWV) plumbing systems in both residential and commercial buildings. Although the article addresses piping choice for heating and cooling systems only in passing, many of these systems rely on the same choices of piping as potable water supply, and many of the same considerations apply. Not addressed is piping in water supply and sanitary waste infrastructure—which is most common in underground municipal systems but also appears inside larger buildings. Also not addressed is piping in sprinkler systems.

Published April 5, 2007 Permalink