There are lots of reasons why homeowners and plumbers alike use plastic pipes in their plumbing projects. Plastic pipes are inexpensive, lightweight and will never corrode. They’re great at keeping hot water hot, and they don’t collect condensation from cold water like many metal pipes do. But not all plastic pipes are the same, and the two most common plastic pipe materials -- ABS and PVC -- have some distinct differences.

If you have a plumbing project coming up and are trying to choose which type to use, read on to learn which materials are most appropriate for your plans.

Check the Code

Before you put too much thought into deciding between ABS and PVC, you should know that your local government may have already made the decision for you. Some local building codes mandate the use of one type of pipe over the other, though many leave the option up to plumbers and builders.

Many of the key differences between Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) are either minor or situational, but there’s one difference likely to stand out to many homeowners: ABS pipe is made with BPA, and PVC pipe is not.

BPA, or Bisphenol A, is a chemical commonly used to harden plastic and is present in all sorts of plastic materials, including containers for food and water. While there is no evidence that BPA poses a risk to humans, animal studies show a growing range of concern about possible hormonal, neurological and cardiological effects, among other potential problems. The Food and Drug Administration has revised its BPA recommendations in recent years, though its current assessment is that BPA is safe at current levels occurring in foods.

Strengths and Weaknesses

One easy way to tell ABS and PVC apart is that ABS is black and PVC is white. But since pipes aren’t meant to be seen, plumbers are usually more interested in other qualities.

PVC is more flexible than ABS, but ABS is stronger and more shock resistant. ABS is better at handling severely cold temperatures, but it can warp with exposure to direct sunlight. PVC is thought to be better at muffling the sound of running water.

In most North American markets, the two types are priced similarly. Where significant price differences can be found, it’s usually due to higher shipping costs for one type.

When working with these materials, the biggest difference is that ABS pipe has a one-step process for connecting pipes, while the PVC process has two steps. ABS pipes can be bonded instantly with a special cement, but PVC pipe ends must first be treated with a purple primer before its cement can be applied. The primer is messy and must fully dry before the next step can be taken, so it can add extra labor to a project. For this reason, ABS can sometimes be the most cost-effective choice even when the pipes themselves are more expensive than PVC.

The plumbing experts at your local Benjamin Franklin can tell you which type of plastic pipe is ideal for your home, climate and needs. Give them a call for any plumbing job, large or small -- they have all the answers!

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