So you're going to buy a home and it just so happens to be between the years of 1978 and 1996, well the water distribution pipes may be of concerns for you. Read along and I will explain why.
Above photo was taken from a home here on the treasure coast. This a typical distribution manifold to feed the rest of the home from the main water supply.
Polybutylene tubing is a resin-based material which was solely made by the Shell oil corporation and was widely used from 1978 to 1996 during the housing boom, from band new construction to manufactured homes. This was a very economical alternative to copper and saved thousands on installation times and material costs. Problems began to arise from this material about the mid to late 80s but by then it was too late. This material is known to rupture for no rhyme or reason. Summer, fall, drier climates and high humidity climates, there was no pattern, but studies have shown higher chlorine content in supplied water showed more deterioration on interior of piping.
Above photo shows copper "collars" used in joining materials at a junction
There are telltale signs when polybutylene is being used in a home and I will give you my list of signs, and what I look for as an inspector.
#1 "Collars". Copper bands that are used for making crimps at a junction or splice. They can also be galvanized but this is less common.
#2 Grey color! Hands down are the quickest way to tell if you have polybutylene in a home. Not all grey piping is "polybutylene but it is typically stamped with PB2100.
#3 Painted piping. If all the visible piping has been painted and you can see the copper bands, out comes my pocketknife to scrape off the paint and see the true color. Some, and I emphasize, SOME homeowners will paint these to cover the pipes up in hopes that it will be missed.
#4 New plumbing in home that is not "pex" or pvc.
Just because you looked under the sinks and saw copper does not mean there is 100% copper tubing. I personally have seen "retro fits" where homeowners or "flippers" have updated visible areas to pex or cpvc material and the area they cannot readily gain access to still remains polybutylene.
below photo is a water supply line from outside coming into home and starting its distribution to feed the rest of the home.
So as a buyer what does this really mean to you and your potential purchase with this condition?
Just because the home has polybutylene, it does not mean run! This CAN be a bargaining chip in your favor. But it does come with some cons associated with it...
First off, the biggest hurdle is obtaining homeowners insurance. Some carriers will give you coverage on everything but the plumbing or damages from plumbing in certain instances with a conditional agreement that the structure will be replumbed.
Second are costs associated with a replumb or repiping a home, why yes this can be a costly update. Using newer materials such as pex and cpvc, installation time and cost can be greatly reduced. If renovations were already in the plans, putting fixtures in new places or moved during this time frame could also reduce costs in the long run.
Lastly, the time it takes to find a qualified professional or plumber could be greater than anticipated. Recommendations from family and friends are always nice to have, but don't forget to do your homework. Looking up a license status on the state agency websites or Google reviews are two good starting points.
Author: Ryan Spear your native Floridian home inspector at Precision property inspections.