Polybutylene piping is a type of plastic piping that was commonly used in the 1970s to 1990s primarily in residential plumbing systems. However despite its initial popularity the material soon fell out of favor due to its susceptibility to failure and degradation over time. In this article we will discuss the history of polybutylene its manufacturing process its use around the world as well as its benefits and disadvantages.

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The history of Polybutylene piping

 

The development of polybutylene piping can be traced back to the 1960s when researchers at Shell Chemical Company were looking for new materials that could be used in the chemical industry. They discovered that a new type of plastic called polybutylene had excellent chemical resistance and could be molded into various shapes making it an ideal material for pipes and fittings.

Polybutylene piping quickly gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s due to its low cost high flexibility and resistance to corrosion. It was particularly popular in the United States where it was widely used in residential plumbing systems as well as in other countries such as Canada Australi, and the United Kingdom.

However by the mid 1990s reports began to emerge of problems with polybutylene piping including leaks ruptures and other forms of damage. It was found that the material was susceptible to degradation when exposed to certain chemicals including chlorine which is commonly used in water treatment facilities. This led to a significant number of homeowner insurance claims class-action lawsuits and ultimately the decline in the use of polybutylene piping.

In 1995 Shell Chemical Company the original creator of polybutylene stopped manufacturing the material for use in plumbing systems due to the high number of reported failures. The company subsequently faced numerous lawsuits from homeowners, plumbing contractors and other parties resulting in a multi-billion dollar settlement.

The manufacturing  process of Polybutylene and where it is made

Polybutylene is a versatile and durable material that has been widely used in various applications particularly in plumbing systems. The manufacturing process of polybutylene involves several steps beginning with the production of butylene through the refining of crude oil. The butylene is then polymerized using a catalyst to form a long chain polymer that has a high degree of flexibility and durability.

 

Extrusion is the primary method used for manufacturing polybutylene piping. During the extrusion process the raw material is heated and then forced through a die to create the desired shape. The extruded pipe is then cooled and cut to the appropriate length. The properties of the resulting pipe can be modified through the addition of various chemical additives including stabilizers, antioxidants and UV inhibitors. These additives can improve the resistance of the material to heat UV radiation, and other forms of degradation.

 

The manufacturing of polybutylene is a global industry, with major producers located in different regions around the world. Shell Chemicals was one of the leading manufacturers of polybutylene piping in the United States producing the material under the trade name “Qest.” Other companies involved in the production of polybutylene piping in the United States include Dow Chemical and Basell. In Europe LyondellBasell Industries is the main producer of polybutylene while in Asia several companies including LG Chem and Sumitomo Chemical are involved in its production.

 

Polybutylene manufacture is subject to various regulations and guidelines that differ between countries. For instance the European Union’s REACH regulation sets restrictions on the use of certain chemical additives while the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the disposal of polybutylene products. In the United States the production of polybutylene piping stopped in the mid 1990s due to the materials widespread reports of failure and associated legal actions. Nevertheless polybutylene is still used in some parts of the world particularly in Asia and Europe where it is popular due to its low cost and ease of installation.

 

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Where is Polybutylene Used?

Polybutylene piping was widely used in residential plumbing systems in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s due to its low cost and ease of installation. The material was considered an ideal alternative to copper pipes because it was cheaper and had better resistance to corrosion. However after the widespread reports of failures in the 1990s the use of polybutylene piping in residential plumbing systems was discontinued.

Apart from residential plumbing polybutylene piping has been used in various industrial applications including chemical processing oil and gas transportation and municipal water distribution systems. In industrial applications the material’s resistance to corrosion and low cost have made it an attractive option for many companies.

 

Polybutylene has also been used in gas distribution systems particularly in Europe and Asia. The material is preferred in these applications because it is lightweight and flexible and resistant to corrosion. Polybutylene gas piping is typically used in underground systems and is used for its ease of installation and low cost.

In addition to these applications polybutylene has been used in the automotive industry for the production of fuel tanks and other parts. The materials resistance to impact and stress cracking make it an ideal material for these applications.

Despite its previous popularity in residential plumbing systems the use of polybutylene in this industry has since ceased in most countries due to the reported failures. However the material is still used in various industrial and commercial applications around the world due to its favorable properties. Read more about gas leaks and gas leak detection here.

Benefits of Polybutylene Piping:

Polybutylene piping is a popular choice for plumbing systems due to its various benefits. One of the most significant advantages is its low cost compared to other piping materials such as copper or stainless steel. The manufacturing process for polybutylene is relatively simple making it an affordable option for both residential and industrial plumbing systems.

In addition to its cost effectiveness polybutylene piping is also highly flexible which makes it easy to install in tight spaces and around corners. This flexibility also means that the material can withstand a certain amount of stress and movement without rupturing or leaking. This is particularly important in areas where pipes may be subject to vibration such as near heavy machinery or in earthquake prone regions.

Polybutylene piping is also resistant to corrosion and chemicals such as acids and alkalis which can extend its lifespan. Unlike some other piping materials, such as copper or iron, polybutylene is not susceptible to rust or oxidation which can cause pipes to weaken and fail over time.

 

Disadvantages of Polybutylene Piping:

Despite its benefits there are several significant disadvantages associated with polybutylene piping. One of the most significant disadvantages is that the material is susceptible to degradation over time particularly when exposed to certain chemicals such as chlorine. This can lead to leaks ruptures and other forms of damage which can be costly to repair.

Another significant disadvantage of polybutylene piping is the potential health and safety concerns associated with its use. There have been reports of polybutylene pipes contaminating drinking water particularly when the material is exposed to high levels of chlorine. This can potentially lead to health hazards for those who consume the water.

Polybutylene piping is also not suitable for high pressure applications such as those found in some industrial settings or gas distribution systems. In these cases more durable and pressure resistant materials such as steel or HDPE (high-density polyethylene) may be more suitable.

 

While polybutylene piping has various benefits such as its affordability and flexibility it is also important to consider its disadvantages such as its potential to degrade over time and potential health and safety concerns associated with its use.

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Current Status of Polybutylene Piping in the Industry:

Polybutylene piping was widely used in the past but its popularity has waned in recent years due to reports of widespread failures and leaks. In the United States, the use of polybutylene piping was largely discontinued in the mid 1990s following a class action lawsuit against the primary manufacturer Shell Chemicals. Since then other countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have also phased out the use of polybutylene piping in construction projects.

However despite its tarnished reputation polybutylene piping is still in use in some parts of the world particularly in Asia and Europe. Some proponents of the material argue that proper installation and maintenance can help to mitigate the risks of failure and that it remains a cost effective option for some applications.

Regulatory Actions Taken in Response to Polybutylene Piping Problems:

The widespread problems associated with polybutylene piping (See our article here)  led to several regulatory actions aimed at preventing further failures and protecting consumers. In the United States a settlement was reached in the class action lawsuit against Shell Chemicals which resulted in the creation of a $1 billion settlement fund to compensate homeowners for damages associated with polybutylene piping.

In addition various organizations and regulatory bodies have issued guidelines and recommendations for the safe use of polybutylene piping. For example the American Society of Home Inspectors recommends that homeowners with polybutylene piping should have it inspected annually and replaced as soon as possible.

Alternatives to Polybutylene Piping:

Due to the issues associated with polybutylene piping many homeowners and builders have turned to alternative materials for plumbing and piping systems. Some popular alternatives to polybutylene piping include:

Copper Piping : Copper piping is a popular choice for plumbing systems due to its durability and resistance to corosion. However it can be expensive and requires specialized tools for installation

PEX Piping : PEX  ‘cross linked polyethylene’  piping is a flexible and durable material that is resistant to corosion and can be easily installed. It is also less expensive than copper piping

PVC Piping : PVC  ‘polyvinyl chloride’  piping is a popular choice for drainage systems due to its resistance to chemicals and corosion. It is also relatively inexpensive and easy to install

CPVC Piping : CPVC  ‘chlorinated polyvinyl chloride’  piping is similar to PVC piping but is more resistant to high temperatures and pressure. It is often used in hot water supply systems

Conclusion

Polybutylene piping was once a popular choice for plumbing systems due to its low cost, flexibility and resistance to corrosion.

However it soon became clear that the material was prone to degradation and failure over time, leading to significant repair bills and liability for homeowners and building owners. Today polybutylene piping is no longer widely used, and many existing systems are being replaced with newer, more reliable materials.

If you have leaking water pipes or polybutylene piping in your home or building, it is important to work with a qualified leak detection professional such as Wizard Leak Detection to ensure that any necessary repairs or replacements are carried out safely and effectively.