Why Copper

Copper is the best material for lead replacement. In fact, the history of copper delivering water goes back over 4,000 years. Ancient Egyptians used copper as a conduit material to distribute water around 2150 B.C. The ancient Romans used copper for water pipes and cisterns By the 1940s, copper became the most used material for plumbing in the developed world.

Lead Service Line Replacements

The U.S. is entering what many are referring to as the "Replacement Era," a time where much of the nation's drinking water infrastructure needs to be replaced. The decisions that city officials and homeowners make and the materials that they select will have consequences long into the future. They could choose the "short-term money saving option" that has the potential to leach small amounts of contaminants that do not offer any health benefits, or they could choose to make an investment by selecting what nearly 80 percent of all utilities choose for service lines, copper.

A small break or leak in a water service line could mean the loss of many gallons of water; cause a sinkhole in a lawn, driveway, parking lot or street; and it could be a potential entry point for contamination into the water system. Even a fully functional water service line can pose various risks to the safety and health of water and the public water system. Poorly selected materials can allow hazardous chemicals from fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and petroleum products to leach into the water system, causing problems from taste and odor to other more serious health problems. Old lead service lines can be a significant source of elevated lead levels in drinking water, a contaminant for which there is no safe level of exposure.

So, while you’ve probably never thought about your water service line before, it is worth thinking about now. Since it is usually buried well underground, it is not easy to access or replace if there are problems, and problems can be quite expensive in terms of not only the cost of repair, but also the quality of water and its effect on health. Poor choices here can mean costly replacement later.

Benefits of Copper

Copper tube

Copper has been used to deliver safe drinking water for thousands of years because of its corrosion resistance, formability, join-ability, dependability, recyclability and safety. As many of copper's competitors are quick to point out, copper is an ancient material. They say this like it's a bad– like new technology always beats old technology because it's new. They say that their products are cheaper, and that cheaper equals better, but new and cheaper do not necessarily equal better. Better equals better. When it comes to piping materials for underground water service lines better means copper – and it has 2,500 years of successful use to prove it.

Lead-free: Copper tube and fittings are the original lead-free piping materials. Solders and fluxes have been lead-free since 1978. Lead in brass components for plumbing has been steadily reduced—today's new components mandated to contain less than 0.25 percent lead content (weighted average) of surfaces exposed to water. All copper alloy plumbing components have had to pass the NSF 61 criteria for drinking water safety for many years. Today, with no-lead brass valves, fittings and components, lead-free solders and flameless, solderless joining systems copper piping systems represent the best option in reliable, long-lasting, lead-free service line installations. To learn how to properly solder copper tube and fittings to the newer, no-lead, brass and bronze copper alloys, check out our Do It Proper with Copper video series.
  • Impermeable: Unlike other materials used for service lines, copper is completely impervious—it keeps outside chemicals from contaminating the water system. Chemicals such as petroleum products may be spilled on nearby streets and insecticides and fertilizers intentionally spread on yards—places where service lines are located—can permeate through the walls of plastic service lines, weaken them and contaminate the water within 1. In underground applications where freezing and thawing and other natural occurrences cause the ground to settle and move, copper can withstand these stresses without failure, while other materials crack, rupture and leak. When designed, installed and operated properly, copper water services keep the water in the tube, and contaminants out because it doesn't allow chemicals to penetrate the tube wall, and doesn't leach organics from the tube. Copper tube is made from 99.9 percent pure copper.
  • Long-lasting and Reliable: Copper's extensive use has allowed researchers to study, understand and apply the material appropriately to ensure long-term system reliability and safety. The properties of copper piping, what is in it, what can leach from it, the associated potential health and safety effects, and how leaching can be controlled are quantified and well-known. Copper is safe, reliable and long-lasting—these properties added together represent the best, most cost-effective choice over the lifetime of critical underground water infrastructure.
  • Durable: Copper is the most dependable and most used material for plumbing tube in the developed world. Copper is beneficial in underground applications because it is highly corrosion resistant in most underground environments. Because of its superior strength it can withstand stresses without failure. Plastics on the other hand, are prone to crack, rupture and leak when freezing and thawing and other natural occurrences cause the ground to settle and move. Copper can be exposed to UV rays (sunshine) and oxidizing disinfectants (chlorine, chloramines, chlorine dioxide, etc.) without risk of cracking or failure. Meanwhile, plastic pipe has exhibited an above average risk of premature failure fue to oxidative degradation 2 in underground potable water systems treated with an oxidizing disinfectant like chlorine.
  • Sustainable: Aproperly designed and installed copper system is built to last, but 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, like many plastics) makes copper a truly sustainable piping material. In addition, no matter how long it has been buried 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.

No piping material is perfect. All can, and have encountered water chemistry conditions, installation issues and other means that can cause leaching of the piping material, or premature failure. This too is true for copper. In certain rare water chemical conditions, not common in most North American systems, copper can leach from the tube wall. A copper system that isn't properly designed, installed and operated may also run the risk of developing pinhole leaks—but due to copper's history, the situations that can cause these issues are well known and can be easily avoided. While there is no perfect piping material, there is only one material that has withstood the test of time, copper.

Since 2000, when plastics captured approximately 50 percent of the water service line market, water utilities and municipalities have moved back to copper due to its reliability in protecting the water and the long life of our critical water infrastructure. In 2009, copper once again represented 79 percent of the water service line market. In the end, "old", "new" and "less expensive" are just words. "Better" equals better. No other material has the long-term, proven experience of reliable, leak-free installation in the widest variety of systems and settings, protects the water system from outside contamination in the underground environment, and does so with proven life-cycle value. 100 years from now when it's time to replace copper service lines, the material can be recycled straight back into another copper pipe or product without any loss of its beneficial properties. The choice is obvious.

Other Piping Materials

As many of copper's competitors are quick to point out, copper is an ancient material. There is no denying that. Copper has been used to deliver safe drinking water to civilizations for thousands of years. Copper has seen many "new" materials come and go over the past 2,500 years.

Through the late 1980s and 1990s, many municipalities trying to keep pace with the construction boom turned to various plastic piping systems for their water service line installations. Copper's market share slipped from 75 percent through the mid-1970s to 50 percent of all water service installations by the year 2000, as municipalities turned towards the lure of lower cost. However, as the building boom continued through the early 2000s, this trend began to change. Utilities and municipalities began to struggle with leaks and loss of water issues in plastic service lines.

One-by-one, water utilities began to re-evaluate their material choice and in wholesale began to turn back to the reliability of copper. By the end of the decade, the material trend reversed course and copper once again accounted for nearly 80 percent of all water service line installations. These were conscious decisions on material choice made one-by-one by individual water systems after careful analysis of benefits and costs in the absence of any marketing by the copper industry. What makes this even more significant is that these decisions were made at a time when the cost of copper was on an almost historic rise, which indicates that utilities found reliability trumps short-term cost in their overall infrastructure investment.

Most of the knowledge on the health, safety and reliability of piping materials comes from long-term use and service. A history that plastics do not have. One of the reasons is that when problems develop in the use of one plastic—the plastics industry switches to a whole new plastic—solving one problem but starting the learning curve to the next problem all over again. "New" equals "unknown."

Lead Pipes—once favored for their durability and ductility—were the go-to material for service lines, but are now known to pose potential health effects even at the lowest levels of exposure to the drinking water they convey. While it has been illegal to install lead piping since 1986, its use for service lines began to fade in favor of copper through the 1960s and '70s. However, from the dawn of indoor plumbing in North America until its ban, lead was a common material for this use. Today, an estimated 6.1 million lead service lines remain in use across the U.S.

Unlined iron, steel and galvanized steel pipes are robust but hard to install without multiple joints that can leak, and are easily clogged with mineral deposits in many waters.

Plastic pipe is not constructed solely of a single polymer compound, but rather is a combination of plastic polymers and other agents like chemical stabilizers, antioxidants, heat stabilizers, plasticizers, etc. to give the plastic compound necessary properties and protection. This makes plastic pipe vulnerable to leaching these additive compounds. Plastic pipe has been shown to leach a number of organic substances known to be harmful to human health. Copper leached from copper drinking water tube is a natural and essential nutrient to human health in small doses. Plastic drinking water pipes can emit more than 150 Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), many of which are known to be harmful to human health. They can cause dizziness, vomiting and chronic illnesses, including cancer. Some Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from plastic pipes generate unpleasant odors and potentially harmful vapors. Copper plumbing tube does not release VOCs. In a fire, plastic tube can release harmful toxins into the air. Copper does not release any fumes in a fire. Of greater concern are the unknown health effects of half of these chemicals for which the health effects have not yet been studied or established.

  • Early PVC plastic pipes became brittle when left exposed to UV light or chlorine in the water system and, were found to leach vinyl chloride monomer, a known human carcinogen. Polybutylene plastic pipes experienced wholesale failures in building plumbing systems due to embrittlement and stress fractures.
  • Polybutylene service lines experienced significant, widespread embrittlement and stress fracture failures in teh late 1980s and early 1990s and were removed from the market. Their era of use was short and the inventory of installations small compared to the overall in-ground service line infrastructure.
  • Polyethylene service lines are being removed by the thousands due to oxidative damage from chlorine and other disinfectants in drinking water. Polyethylene and PEX plastic systems have also been shown to leach various chemicals to drinking water, with unknown health effects, resulting in taste and odor issues.
  • PEX releases methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), an organic compound, which the EPA lists as a toxic substance. Standards for MTBE have not yet been set nationally, although some states have set their own limits.
  • Other plastics: new polypropylene plastic systems are beginning to show failures due to interactions with copper and other chemicals present in water systems.

Economic Impact

The lure of the low cost of plastic piping is compelling, but the decisions made by water utilities on purchasing and installing underground water infrastructure today are borne out in service for decades in the future. A bad decision now and the cost to rectify it can multiply drastically when streets and lawns need to be dug up, water service shut off and customers' lives disrupted. Water utilities must carefully weigh the pros and cons of material benefits, reliability, installation costs, service life and long-term cost.

Water utilities and systems are entrusted with and regulated to provide the highest quality water to the public while exercising prudent financial responsibility in using ratepayer and public funds to maintain a long-lasting, efficient and inexpensive water delivery and treatment infrastructure. It is in the utilities interest, as well as the interests of their customers, to make wise financial decisions for the life cycle of the infrastructure as well as the first cost.

When talking about service lines, how significant is the first cost?

On average, lead service line replacements across the country can range from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $10,000, depending on the length of the service line, ground conditions and other factors. It is common to use $5,000 per service line as an average cost. The average service line length in the U.S. is approximately 60 – 65 feet long. The cost of piping for this average service line would be approximately $286 for copper, and $46 for plastic, a difference of $240 per service line. This initial cost savings represents less than 5 percent of the total cost of the service line replacement.

For each individual line, this doesn't seem significant and with the vast experience with copper it would seem a no-brainer to stick with the proven performer. However, for a utility looking to change thousands of service lines, this adds up. For 5,000 service lines, the initial cost savings would be $1.2 million, which starts to seem significant, but it is still only 5 percent of the total investment in the service line replacement program (using the $5,000 average – a $25 million project). Still, it's hard to turn away from a $1.2 million up front savings. That is the false economy [PDF: this factsheet contains details on this comparative life cycle cost analysis between copper and plastic].

The main advantage of plastic tube is lower capital cost. However, plastic tube can have serious performance problems, including a shorter useful life span and it can emit hazardous volatile organic carbon (VOC) chemicals into drinking water, many of which are known carcinogens.

Total Cost of Ownership: Current Dollars Analysis
  Copper HDPE PEX
Year Install Material Total Install Material Total Install Material Total
0 $5,000 $286 $5,286 $5,000 $33 $5,033 $5,000 $46 $5,046
25 $0 $0 $0 $10,469 $68 $10,537 $10,469 $95 $10,564
50 $0 $0 $0 $21,920 $142 $22,062 $21,920 $199 $22,119
75 $0 -$642 -$642 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Total Cost of Ownership
(Current Dollars)
    $4,644     $37,631     $37,729


Life Cycle Cost: Constant Dollars (Present Value)
  Copper HDPE PEX
Year Install Material Total Install Material Total Install Material Total
0 $5,000 $286 $5,286 $5,000 $33 $5,033 $5,000 $46 $5,046
25 $0 $0 $0 $2,388 $16 $2,404 $2,388 $22 $2,410
50 $0 $0 $0 $1,141 $7 $1,148 $1,141 $10 $1,151
75 $0 -$8 -$8 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Life Cycle Cost
(Constant Dollars)
    $5,278     $8,584     $8,606

Assumptions used in this analysis:
Installation cost = $5,000;
Pipe size = 3/4-inch;
Service line length = 65 feet;
Pipe material costs per foot: copper (type K) = $4.40, HDPE = $0.50, PEX = $0.70;
Inflation rate = 3%;

Problems with plastic service lines can require significant replacements in 10 - 20 years. Forgetting about the time value of money, and using the same costs for materials and labor –that service line replacement would now have gone from a $240 per service line savings, to a $3,300 loss over the life of the service line. That's a $330 per year, per service line cost over 10 years, versus the $24 per year upfront cost of selecting copper. In total, for the 5,000 service lines, it adds up to a $16.5 million loss, which far outweighs the potential upfront cost savings of $1.2 million. The cost of the copper would have to increase 12.5 times before plastics became equally as attractive on a life-cycle cost basis. Reliability trumps initial cost.

Health and Safety

Lead is a serious neurotoxin with severe adverse health effects associated with low intake concentrations. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), no amount of lead ingestion as indicated by blood lead levels is safe for children. Lead intake can cause developmental delays, irreversible cognitive and behavioral problems, anemia, seizures, coma and other adverse health issues. While lead is a concern to health, it is relied on for batteries. But, it is well established that there is no safe level of lead in our bloodstreams and that ingestion of lead through water, lead paint, gasoline fumes, etc. should be avoided as it poses real, chronic health risks to the public, especially children.

In contrast, copper is an essential dietary mineral. Allowable levels for copper in drinking water are 87 times higher than for lead. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine reported that intake levels of copper are actually lower than recommended for a significant percentage of the population.

Copper's competitors go to great lengths to try to indict copper from a health effects standpoint—after all it is regulated by the EPA Lead and Copper Rule. Copper can present human health risks if too much is consumed, but unlike lead, copper is a necessary nutrient for human life and development. For the majority of the population, these health effects are acute (e.g. gastrointestinal distress) and are only possible following long-term exposure to elevated concentrations; usually 4 to 5 times higher. The conservative regulatory level included in the Lead and Copper Rule is a maximum of 1,300 micrograms per liter of water, which is 86 times higher than the 15 micrograms per liter maximum for lead. This level protects against chronic effects such as liver and kidney damage.

However, a small part of the population—those who have a genetic condition called Wilson's Disease, which affects an estimated 1 in 30,000 people in the U.S.—cannot automatically regulate the levels of copper in the body. This can lead to a long-term buildup of copper and increase the likelihood of these chronic effects. We need to regularly ingest copper through food and drinks to remain healthy. Copper is essential for the development of bone, connective tissues, brain heart and other organs. It is essential in the development of red blood cells and is necessary in the absorption of other minerals in the metabolism of cholesterol and glucose.

Copper and lead are included in the same regulation—the Lead and Copper Rule—because in most water systems they are not present in the source water but can be picked up as the water is distributed through the water system. The most effective means of regulation is through a treatment technique rule to ensure that water systems implement adequate handling processes to account for potential leaching of these metals.

The potential health effects of lead exposure are well documented, understood and are real. Lead causes chronic, long-term issues. No level of lead is needed by the body. Although some lead lines may not be a problem today, they are still a risk, especially when considering changing water quality. For more information on how lead can get into your water, and its potential effects see How Lead Can Get into the Water Supply, Explained in 5 Charts.

However, more important is the fact that 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—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 systemanother route for potential negative health effects. Recent studies on the leaching from plastics materials indicates that they can leach chemical compounds that are difficult to identify, that are inconsistent between type of plastic and manufacturer, and most importantly are chemical compounds that are newwith little to no information on how they might affect human health. This is particularly problematic because only compounds that are currently known to leach from piping materials and that have known and established health effects information are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The problem is not what we know, it is what we do not yet know.

In terms of water service lines, there are two areas of concern with the use of plastics. First, various plastics have shown that in underground uses plastic water service lines can allow hazardous contaminants (gasoline, tolulene, benzene, insecticides, etc.) to seep through the pipe wall into the drinking water. Second, the plastics lines have been shown to leach chemicals such as stabilizers, plasticizers and other organics directly from the material. In many cases, not only are the actual chemicals not known and not consistent, the human health effects of these chemicals are unknown. In this respect, it is what we don't know that is a concern.

Who is Using Copper

As municipalities and water systems look to replace lead service lines, many have examined the technical and cost-benefits of copper versus plastics as a replacement choice, and have chosen copper. A survey conducted by CDA of water systems in 45 states, with 155 municipal water utilities responding indicated a clear trend back to the use of copper for water service lines. Of the responding utilities, 66 percent indicated that they have, or have had problems with their plastic service line installations while fewer than 20 percent indicated the same for copper.

What did these utilities say about using copper?

"In the early '80s we used plastic, but it was not a good product. We had to replace it all, at great expense, less than 10 years later. We went back to using copper, and decided we would only use copper from then on." (Vancouver, WA)
"We allow high density polyethylene as a cost concession to developers. We use copper for everything the Utility installs because the Maintenance Division insists on it. We would much prefer to have only copper used." (Charlotte, NC)
"[We choose copper] because we had an instance where gasoline migrated through PE pipe." (Rochester, NY)
"We allowed high density polyethylene for around 10 years; we recently stopped allowing it because of our history of failures with it. Whole subdivisions have had to be torn up to remove it."
"Historically, copper has been the best material. When we used polyethylene and polybutylene, we had problems." (Little Rock, AR)
"We moved to copper in the 1940s. It has been a good material... material of choice... In the 1980s, we used high density polyethylene which regularly developed leaks. We stopped using it, and are replacing now with copper." (Richmond, VA)

These comments are echoed from city to city, from large to small. Santa Cruz, California, Seattle, Washington and representatives from water utilities in other cities across the U.S. cited their systematic replacement of thousands of plastic service lines throughout their systems. The common reason cited for why their utility tried plastics was its low material cost. It is clear that many tried this route only to find it offered a false economy, and then returned to copper.

Madison Water UtilityPhoto courtesy: Madison Water Utility

More recently, Lansing, Michigan; Flint, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Louisville, Kentucky; St. Paul, Minnesota; Sandusky, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Washington, DC; and Spokane, Washington among many others have chosen copper as the right choice for lead service line replacements.

  • Lansing, Michigan: City owned utility with 55,000 water customers is nearing the end of a large-scale plan to improve the infrastructure of their water system by replacing 13,500 of the 14,000 lead pipes with copper.
  • Flint, Michigan – All lead lines will be replaced with new copper lines. Officials in Flint are not taking any chances; they have already begun replacing all of the city's lead pipes with copper.
  • Madison, Wisconsin initiated its own replacement programs 15 years ago using copper. The state capital replaced more than 8,000 of its lead lines with copper from 2001-2011 after discovering lead levels over the federal limit. Instead of making minor changes and pushing a potential problem to future generations, city officials took action despite public pushback.
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin has hurriedly begun removing all lead pipes or laterals and replacing them with copper. It is estimated that the city has about 70,000 lead service lines.
  • Louisville, Kentucky began replacing its lead service lines with copper pipes in the late 1990s as part of a scheduled lead replacement program. The city will replace approximately 1,000 lead service lines in 2016. The goal is to finish replacing a ll the lead lines by 2025.
  • St. Paul, Minnesota—looking to replace all of its 14,000 lead water service lines with copper—a move they hope to complete over the next two decades. The project is currently ongoing. Initially, they were required by the EPA Lead and Copper Rule to remove 7 percent of the lead lines for three consecutive years, but decided to continue the replacement project to ensure no further contamination. 
  • Spokane, Washington opted to replace its remaining 486 lead lines with copper over the next two to three years. This makes up less than 1 percent of the city's 75,000 service connections. Spokane had nearly 1,000 lead service lines at one time, but the city opted to replace them as they were uncovered during work on the system.

Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, London and Winnipeg have also been steadily working on replacing lead service lines with copper. The city of Montreal announced in 2007 the start of a multi-year program to replace approximately 75,000 lead services supplying water to residences of less than eight units built before 1970. Toronto is in the midst of a program to replace about 140,000 lead or galvanized steel services. The common factor in many of these programs is a consistent, deliberate choice to replace with copper for long-term reliability of this hard-to-reach, hard-to-replace infrastructure—favoring life-cycle value over short-term cost.

1 Thomsas M. Hosen, Jae Kwang Park, David Jenkins and Robert E. Selleck. "Contamination of Potable Water by Permeation of Plastic Pipe." Journal AWWA, Management and Operations (August 1991): 53-56.

2 Duvall, D.E.; Edwards, D.B.; Oxidative Degradation of High Density Polyethylene Pipes from Exposure to Drinking Water Disinfectants; Engineering Systems Inc. File No. 29261A; 2009