Why So Many Water Main Breaks in Charlotte? Pipe Materials Matter

No pipes last forever, but some pipes last longer than others. Here in Summer of 2018, we are seeing a higher number than usual water main breaks in Charlotte. Why? Because pipe materials matter, and a lot of the homes on Charlotte are hitting the limits of the pipe materials with which they were equipped.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, your pipes were made of clay or lead. Lead is easy to mold and very durable, so it was the natural choice for transportation of both water and waste. In fact, lead pipes were popular here in the United States all the way until WWII, when people became aware of lead poisoning (which is a very real concern even today).

Today’s Pipes

charlotte water main break, pex pipe problems, HDPE pipeAround WWII ended, copper and galvanized steel became the premier pipe materials of choice. Unfortunately, copper pipes are expensive (and labor-prohibitive), and galvanized steel pipes corrode over time, causing both water quality problems and water line break issues. Today’s homes are typically piped with various forms of plastic piping, such as PVC and CPVC, including the following for plumbing water supply lines:

  • Galvanized iron and steel
  • Copper (rigid and flexible)
  • Polyethylene (poly pipe)
  • CPVC (Chlorinated Poly-Vinyl Chloride)
  • PEX (Cross-linked Polyethylene)

Water line pipe problems typically occur because of pipe materials or environmental factors such as erosion, extreme temperature swings and tree roots.

Understanding the Pipe Materials of Today

Copper (Rigid and Flexible)

Copper pipe comes in two types, rigid and flexible. The rigid type comes in several wall thicknesses: K, L, and M, with type M the type typically used for water supply pipes. Copper has proven itself over the decades to be corrosion resistant and very reliable. Copper is a soft metal and so can be easily cut and fabricated. It is also prone to damage, may develop pinholes over time and can rupture from frozen water in pipes.

Copper has become quite expensive. These rising costs have resulted in plumbers and builders using PEX and CPVC more frequently. To give you perspective, copper pipe costs as much as three times as much as PEX.

CPVC (Chlorinated Poly Vinyl Chloride)

This dull white or cream-colored plastic is used in water supply lines. CPVC is an inexpensive rigid plastic that is designed to withstand high pressure and temperature.

PEX (Cross-linked Polyethylene)

This typically blue (cold water) or red (hot water) or white flexible plastic pipe is made of cross-linked HDPE (high-density polyethylene) polymer. PEX became popular in the 1970s. PEX is strong and flexible, withstanding temperatures from below 32°F  to 200°F. PEX is corrosion resistant, and unlike copper pipe, will not develop pinholes. Because PEX is flexible and uses fewer connections and fittings, it is easier and faster to install. The reduced number of required fittings in a PEX system also reduces the possibility of leaks.

PEX has become a favorite of contractors installing new plumbing systems and plumbers making major upgrades to older systems.

Not to be Confused with Dura PEX

While most forms of PEX piping is very reliable, one brand has failed homeowners and done so rather horribly – Dura PEX piping, manufactured by CPI (bought out by NIBCO).

NIBCO CPI Dura PEX piping has been proven to have the following problems:

  • Oxidization, which means the tubing cracks and ruptures, causing leaks
  • Dezincification, which means the water leaks from the tubes, comes in contact with PEX brass fittings, and leaches zinc from the fittings, weakening the fittings.
  • Stress corrosion cracking of clamps when chlorine-rich water (typical drinking water) comes in contact with the PEX clamps.

If you have Dura Pex in your home, you may be able to file a suit against the manufacturer, and you very likely need to repipe your home. Learn what you can do about Dura Pex plumbing lawsuits here.


The use of this type of piping material is a big problem we see every day. Polyethylene (also known as “black poly pipe” and “HDPE pipe”) is subject to holes, cracks and breaks due to a freeze/thaw pattern or damage from ground pressure. Black poly pipe is a flexible, thin-walled, plastic hose used primarily for its ease of running around obstacles. The thin nature of the pipe wall makes it fragile resulting in frequent cracking and breaking.


Polybutylene plumbing lines deteriorate from the inside due to oxidant degradation from chemicals in water - especially chlorine, which is what is used to purify Charlotte public water. Shell Oil, the primary manufacturer of polybutylene plumbing lines (not fittings) settled a class action lawsuit in 1995 (Cox vs Shell et al.) for $950 million because of the failure rates of the plumbing lines.

Concerned About Your Pipes?

We have indeed seen a spike in water main breaks and water supply line problems in Charlotte this summer. Give us a call at 704.846.5371 to discuss what’s going on with your pipes. We’ll help you find solutions that last.

Article Summary

Quick question & answer: Why are there so many water main breaks in Charlotte?

There are many water main breaks in Charlotte because of the pipe material itself. Environmental factors such as erosion, extreme temperature swings, and tree roots also contribute. Polyethylene pipes are subject to holes, cracks, and breaks due to freeze/thaw pattern, or damage from ground pressure. Polybutylene lines deteriorate from the inside due to oxidant degradation from chemicals in water.

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