Ideas from Ed: PBR (No! Not Pabst Blue Ribbon beer! polybutylene repair)

“Ideas from Ed” (July 2019)

Ed is a do-it-yourselfer who is happy to share some of his ideas and experiences in this monthly column.

This month:  PBR (No! Not Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, but polybutylene repair)

Hi, folks!  This month is another “quirky” edition of my “ideas” column.  It’s not a common issue for many of you, but I’m addressing a specific question posed to me by a reader:  What do you do with polybutylene plumbing?

Polybutylene (PB henceforth) was the “PEX” of its day.  The tubing was pretty flexible, was purchased in lengths or coils, and eliminated a lot of joints.  You could essentially run a length from point “A” to a somewhat distant point “B” and have no fittings between the two.  That was a WHOLE lot easier than assembling lengths of galvanized pipe, copper, or hard plastic, and making all the connections to achieve the total run length.  With its flexibility, exact measurements were not critical, and you could simply bend it around corners and obstructions without putting in special offsets, etc.  PB used special fittings made for it, and those were installed and tightened until a “squeal” was heard, indicating the correct torque on that joint.  There actually is nothing wrong with PB tubing – the problems are in the fittings.  Sooner or later, they WILL leak, sometime suddenly, possibly causing enormous water damage.  Many lawsuits arose over the use of PB plumbing, and today, you won’t find it in any stores.

So, what do you do now, if you need to repair things where PB was installed, or if you’re foresighted, perhaps you want to eliminate the problem before it truly becomes a problem.  Well, image that!  There’s an easy solution, and I’ll show it on one small location.  Here’s the

subject for this month’s work, prior to any real issue.  You can see the main supply line (galvanized) with sections of copper installed, and one branch converted to PB.  The PB is the gray tubing and fittings on the left.  Notice also that in fear of any potential leakage, the homeowner has applied an epoxy mix around the joints to minimize the likelihood of it coming loose:

You can also see that there is a “gate valve” with a drain, serving as the line shutoff.  That valve    also shows signs of a small amount of leakage/corrosion, and should be replaced with a more efficient ball valve.

The first step, of course, is to shut off the water supply at the meter or at least somewhere ahead of this work area.  Then, the line must be purged of water.  You might be able to do that by opening up faucets both higher and lower than this area (air will get in, and the water will run out).  In this case, with a valve drain, all that had to be done was to remove the cap on the drain and let the water run into a bucket.  Here’s the drain/cap that I’m talking about (cap removed).  Not every valve has one:

Once all water has drained, the fittings to be replaced can be removed.  It was easiest to start with the PB ones.

Then the rest…

OK, so here’s the real star of the show!  Some companies (like SharkBite, although I am not purposely promoting that brand) make a slip-on fitting that converts PB to PEX, copper, and CPVC (hard plastic)!  Here’s the fitting I used.  Note PB on the package:

I installed a ball valve with a ½” IPS (iron pipe size) female connection at one end, and a slip-in fitting at the other end, with lots of wrapped-on Teflon tape to seal the threaded joint:

If you’re working with PEX or even PB, you absolutely need cutters like these, which make a perfect, easy, and “square” cut on tubing:

Then, I used the adapter (gray end indicates the PB end!) and force-slipped it onto the PB tubing.

Then it was easy to measure an approximate length to span between the two slip fittings.  The PB side had a lot of “give” so the length of the span wasn’t critical.

Finally, a section of copper was cut and fully inserted into the slip fittings.  I could have used red PEX (hot water line, or blue for cold), or CPVC, as the fittings are compatible with all those.  It’s the PB adapter that needs to be a bit “special”, so don’t use a “regular” slip fitting on PB pipe, or you’re asking for trouble.  Here’s the final result of my efforts:

I hope all your projects go well.  Thanks for reading, and happy restoring!

Ed