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PEX Piping: Everything You Need to Know

PEX is the biggest revolution in plumbing since the flush toilet, and in this article we'll answer the most common questions homeowners have about it and also give you some tips for working with it.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Which is better—PEX or copper?

PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) has several advantages over copper:

  • PEX is cheaper than copper. Half-inch PEX tubing costs about a third the price of copper. Some of the savings will be offset by the need for a special tool to install the fittings, but if you’re doing a medium to large plumbing job, you’ll usually save by using PEX instead of copper.
  • PEX is faster to install than copper. If you use a manifold and “home-run” system (shown below), it’s like running a garden hose to each fixture—super fast and easy. But even if you install PEX in a conventional main line and branch system, the connections are quicker to make than soldering copper.
  • PEX won’t corrode like copper. If you live in an area with acidic water, copper can corrode over time. PEX is unaffected by acidic water and is therefore a better choice in these areas.

What about PEX vs. CPVC?

PEX and CPVC cost about the same. But there are a few reasons why PEX may be a better choice. First, PEX doesn’t require glue, which means you don’t have to work in well-ventilated spaces or wear a respirator. PEX is less likely than CPVC to burst if it freezes. Also, since PEX is more flexible and is available in long lengths, it can work better for “fishing” through walls in remodeling situations.

Do I need special tools?

No. You can use stab-in or compression fittings to make the connections. But they’re too expensive to be practical on large projects. For most jobs, you’ll want to invest in a special tool to make connections. There are several PEX connection methods, but only two that are affordable enough to be practical for DIYers: crimp rings and cinch clamps, as shown above.

Crimp rings are a band of metal, usually copper, that you slip over the fitting and compress with a crimp ring tool. The main drawback to the crimp ring method is that you’ll need either separate crimping tools for 1/2-in. and 3/4-in. fittings, or a universal tool with a swappable insert (not shown). This adds a little up-front cost to this method. A combo kit with interchangeable crimp jaws starts at about $100.

Cinch clamps work more like the traditional band clamps you’re probably familiar with. You slip the cinch clamp tool (shown) over the protruding tab and squeeze to tighten the cinch clamp. The same tool works for all sizes of cinch clamps. Cinch clamp tools start at about $40. We like the one-handed version shown in the photo because you can hold the ring in place with one hand while tightening it with the other.

The only other special tool you need is a scissors-like cutter for the tubing.

How do I splice PEX into my existing pipe?

There are several methods. The easiest is to cut out a section of pipe and slip in a stab-in tee (first photo). SharkBite is one common brand of stab-in fitting. This method doesn’t require soldering, which can be a big time-saver. But check with your plumbing inspector if you’re planning to bury this connection in a wall or ceiling. Some areas don’t allow stab-in fittings to be concealed. Another method is to solder in a tee and a PEX adapter. Then slip the PEX tubing over the adapter and attach it with your chosen connection method (second photo). You can also use a stab-in tee to connect PEX to CPVC. Read the label to find the compatible fitting.

Do I have to use manifolds with PEX?

No. You can install PEX just like you would other pipe, with main lines and branches to each fixture. But you lose a lot of the benefits of PEX with this system since it requires so many fittings. With the home-run system, you install a manifold in the utility room or some area that’s close to the main water line and water heater, and run a separate PEX tube to each fixture as shown above. This system uses more tubing but is fast and only requires two connections: one at the manifold and another at the fixture end. You can also use a hybrid system where you run 3/4-in. hot and cold lines to a set of fixtures—for example, a bathroom—and install a smaller manifold behind an access panel. Then make short runs of 1/2-in. PEX tubing to each fixture.

Does it meet code?

There is no unified national plumbing code. Before starting your plumbing job, check with your local inspector for specific local requirements.

Do I have to use red for hot and blue for cold?

Is PEX reliable?

PEX has been used for decades in other countries, where there are thousands of homes with 30-year-old, leak-free PEX. Most of the problems with PEX systems (in the United States and elsewhere) have been caused by sloppy installation or faulty fittings rather than the tubing itself.

Can I connect PEX to my water heater?

Which tubing should I use for interior water lines?

For water lines, there are three grades: PEX-A, PEX-B and PEX-C. They’re manufactured differently, PEX-A being slightly more flexible. If you’re ordering online, go ahead and spend a few cents extra for PEX-A. But don’t go running around town looking for it; the difference isn’t that big. The plumbers we talked to would be willing to use any of the three types in their own homes. A good online source for PEX tubing, fittings, tools and information is pexsupply.com. PEX is also popular for in-floor radiant heating systems, for which you need PEX tubing with an oxygen barrier.

How do I connect PEX to my plumbing fixtures?

There are several methods. If the connection will be visible, like under a wall-hung sink, and you would prefer the look of a copper tube coming out of the wall, use a copper stub-out (first photo). You can connect a compression-type shutoff valve to the 1/2-in. copper stub-out and then connect your fixture. In areas that are concealed, like under a kitchen sink or vanity cabinet, you can eliminate a joint by running PEX directly to the shutoff valve. Use a drop-ear bend support to hold the tubing in a tight bend (second photo). There are several types of shutoff valves that connect directly to PEX.

If you’re using a manifold system with valves, you may not need to install a shutoff valve at the fixture. Ask your plumbing inspector. We recommend adding one, though. It doesn’t raise the cost much and is more convenient than running downstairs to shut off the water when a repair is needed.

What about expansion?

PEX expands and contracts more than copper, so don’t stretch it tight. Let it droop a little between fasteners. On long runs, it’s a good idea to install a loop as shown to allow for contraction. Another advantage of the loop is that if you mess up and need a little extra tubing, you can steal it from the loop. Also, since PEX moves as it expands and contracts, make sure to drill oversize holes through studs or joists so it can slide easily, and don’t use metal straps to attach it. Use plastic straps instead.

Will PEX break or split if it freezes?

Probably not. Manufacturers are reluctant to say so, but reports from the field suggest PEX can withstand freezing. You should still protect the tubing from freezing, but since it can expand and contract, it's less likely to break than rigid piping.

What if I goof? Can I take it apart?

Sure—there’s a special tool for cutting off crimp rings, and you can use side cutters to remove cinch clamps. But a rotary tool (Dremel is one brand) fitted with a cutoff blade works great for cutting either type of connector (see photo). After you remove the crimp ring or cinch clamp and pull the PEX from the fitting, cut off the end of the tubing to get a fresh section for the new connection. If you damage the fitting with the rotary tool, replace the fitting rather than risk a leak.

More Information

To learn more, click on:
PEX
Copper pipe
Plumbing shutoff valve

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

You'll need a cinch clamp tool or other crimping tool and a PEX cutter. You may also need a rotary tool.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • PEX tubing
    • Cinch clamp or crimp ring
    • PEX manifold
    • Copper to PEX adapter
    • Stab-in connector
    • Copper stub-out
    • Drop-ear bend support
    • PEX connectors

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