Thursday, August 26, 2010

Nuts 'N Bolts - PEX Piping

Switching it up a little bit this week, and bringing you my little bit of knowledge on a Thursday rather than a Wednesday! Today we're talking about PEX Piping!
When it came time to run the new plumbing in the basement for our laundry and bathroom I was not excited about the prospects of buying lengths of pricey copper piping and using a torch to ‘sweat the joints’. I saw the potential for me to be sweating about burning the house down and inhaling toxic lead fumes while burning myself with the torch or acidic flux paste. Yeah, exciting stuff!
One of the options I had seen used on TV was the use of plastic piping with mechanical connections called PEX piping. Without getting into the geekology of what chemicals and synthetic ultra-compounds its composed of (in this case HPDE) , lets just call it like it is, advanced plastic tubing. It is sold just like copper piping in ½” and ¾” sizes and has a variety of different fittings, valves and connectors all available at your local tool-warehouses.

Just like copper it can be cut with a tubing cutter (seen above) but it has some key advantages over copper, aside from having to keep a fire extinguisher handy when you are installing it. First they sell a PEX product which is pre-insulated so you don’t have to pay up extra for the black jacket insulation associated with copper. It is also more energy efficient because it resists the transfer of heat more than that of metal piping. Second, you can run it through the ceiling much like electrical wire and don’t have to worry about joining multiple smaller sections to go perpendicular to the joists. It can also be bent around a corner which cuts down on the amount of fittings and lowers the chances of having leaks at the joints.

(pictured above - Tubing dips to fasten tubing to studs)

PEX is pretty cheap when compared to copper, yet it also is resistant to scaling and buildup found in copper lines and it almost completely eliminates the clanging ‘water hammer’ sound typical in metal pipe systems. However, I still utilized some copper in my installation because it is more rigid and it already existed as part of my system. I discovered a few good tips when choosing the type of connectors to hook up your system. There are three main types of connectors, compression rings, Push-To-Fit, and SSC (stainless steel couplers). On our budget I went with the cheapest…err most economical, SSC, hence the crimping tool (pictured below) for this type of connector was $45 vs. $200 for the compression rings and each P-T-F coupling was $3-10 PER item!

The main mistake I made with the SSC pieces was that I purchased a handful of bags containing 6 pieces each, after figuring out exactly how many I would need for each section of piping. How is this a mistake you ask? Well, you will need an extra one here, have to re-clamp one there and suddenly you are right back at the store for another $1.99 bag of 6 more clamps. I should have just bought the multi-pack and had extra for future projects instead of nickel and diming my way to 3 extra trips to the big orange, that I love oh-so much.

(3/4" and 1/2" stainless steel couplers)

One of the other lessons I learned is that the tubing does kink rather easy if you try to employ my brute strength method of pulling pipe through the joists. I must admit I have to suppress my caveman instincts when I get frustrated and just hammer on something until it fits. I ended up with some bloody knuckles and kinked piping trying to muscle the ¾” piping through the joists. Everyone’s system will be different, but typically you should run a ¾” main line and ½” lines off of that feeding each appliance and tap separately. I ran my main line down the center of the house from the cold water main line to the water heater and then from the water heater down back down the middle to feed each of the ½” lines, separately feeding each outlet. This helps ensure that each tap or appliance gets a healthy supply of water even when other outlets on the system are being used simultaneously.

(3/4" PEX brass elbow)
I highly recommend looking into one of these systems if you are intimidated by sweating joints or if you’re like me in that you hate having to deal with torches and soldering. I still had an adventure reconnecting copper pipe and learned that a heat shield is a thing of beauty in tight spaces, however PEX made my life a whole lot easier and it could do the same for you too!

Has anyone out there ever worked with PEX piping? Any interesting experiences or tips you learned along the way? Would love to hear other experiences.

1 comment

  1. Another great informative post. Never tried PEX, but the advantages you mentioned definitely have me interested in learning more about it. Thanks for the primer.


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