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Types of Pipes

When it comes to plumbing, lead is a dirty word. Millions of American homes are equipped with water pipes that contain lead. Studies performed by the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency have shown that lead can be a health hazard.

Galvanized iron pipe has its drawbacks, too. Just ask anyone who owns a home that is 30-plus years old. Mineral buildup and corrosion within the pipe can result in a significant drop in water pressure and ultimately can be the cause of leaks.

Homebuilders began using copper pipes for residential water systems in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, even copper systems have their health drawbacks. Until the late 1970s, solder -- the material used to weld the connections -- was comprised of 50 percent tin and 50 percent lead; lead at soldered connections can leach into the water system. A whole-house water softening system can magnify this problem, because it can be corrosive and further break down the solder.

To minimize exposure to lead from drinking pipes, follow these simple precautions. Never drink water straight out of the faucet. Let the water run for a few minutes first. Second, never use hot water out of the faucet for cooking. Hot water tends to draw more lead out of pipes and lead solder than cold water. If you need to heat water, always start with cold water first.

Today, solder consists of 95 percent tin and only 5 percent lead. This makes copper piping one of the safest and most cost-effective choices for residential water systems.

Plastic piping has overtaken copper for residential water systems in some parts of the country. But it only accounts for a fraction of the systems nationally. Moreover, many municipalities don't yet permit its use.