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Water Pipe


An original Roman lead pipe with a folded seam, at the Roman Baths in Bath, UK.

For many centuries, lead was the favoured material for water pipes, due to its malleability (this use was so common that the word “plumbing” derives from the Latin word for lead). This was a source of lead-related health problems in the years before the health hazards of ingesting lead were fully understood; among these were stillbirths and high rates of infant mortality. Lead water pipes were still in common use in the early 20th century and remain in many households. Lead-tin alloy solder was commonly used to join copper pipes, but modern practice uses tin-antimony alloy solder to join copper in order to eliminate lead hazards.

Despite the Romans common use of lead pipes, they were rarely poisoned by them. Unlike other parts of the world where lead pipes cause poisoning, the Roman water had so much calcium in it, that a layer of plaque prevented the water contacting the lead itself. What often causes confusion is the large amount of evidence of widespread lead poisoning, particularly amongst those who would have had easy access to piped water. This was an unfortunate result of lead being used in cookware and as an additive to processed food and drink, such as a preservative in wine.

Wooden pipes were used in London and elsewhere during the 16th and 17th centuries. The pipes were hollowed-out logs, which were tapered at the end with a small hole in which the water would pass through. The multiple pipes were then sealed together with hot animal fat. They often used in Montreal and Boston in the 1800s, and built-up wooden tubes were widely used in the USA during the 20th century. These pipes, used in place of corrugated iron or reinforced concrete pipes, were made of sections cut from short lengths of wood. Locking of adjacent rings with hardwood dowel pins produced a flexible structure. About 100,000 feet of these wooden pipes were installed during WW2 in drainage culverts, storm sewers and conduits, under highways and at army camps, naval stations, airfields and ordnance plants.

A rusted water pipe due for replacement.

Cast iron and ductile iron pipe was long a lower-cost alternative to copper, before the advent of durable plastic materials but special non-conductive fittings must be used where transitions are to be made to other metallic pipes, except for terminal fittings, in order to avoid corrosion owing to electrochemical reactions between dissimilar metals (see galvanic cell).

Bronze fittings and short pipe segments are commonly used in combination with various materials.

Pipe vs. tube

Typical PVC municipal water main being installed in Ontario, Canada

A plastic water pipe being installed. Note that the inner tube is actually transporting the water, while the outer tube only serves as a protective casing

The difference between pipe and tube is simply in the way it is sized. PVC pipe for plumbing applications and galvanized steel pipe for instance, are measured in IPS (iron pipe size). Copper tube, CPVC, PeX and other tubing is measured nominally, which is basically an average diameter. These sizing schemes allow for universal adaptation of transitional fittings. For instance, 1/2″ PeX tubing is the same size as 1/2″ copper tubing. 1/2″ PVC on the other hand is not the same size as 1/2″ tubing, and therefore requires either a threaded male or female adapter to connect them. When used in agricultural irrigation, the singular form “pipe” is often used as a plural.

Piping is available in rigid “joints”, which come in various lengths depending on the material. Tubing, in particular copper, comes in rigid hard tempered “joints” or soft tempered (annealed) rolls. PeX and CPVC tubing also comes in rigid “joints” or flexible rolls. The temper of the copper, that is whether it is a rigid “joint” or flexible roll, does not affect the sizing.

The thicknesses of the water pipe and tube walls can vary. Pipe wall thickness is denoted by various schedules. Pipe wall thickness increases with schedule, and is available in schedules 20, 40, 80, and higher in special cases. The schedule is largely determined by the operating pressure of the system, with higher pressures commanding greater thickness. Copper tubing is available in four wall thicknesses: type DWV (thinnest wall; only allowed as drain pipe per UPC), type ‘M’ (thin; typically only allowed as drain pipe by IPC code), type ‘L’ (thicker, standard duty for water lines and water service), and type ‘K’ (thickest, typically used underground between the main and the meter). Because piping and tubing are commodities, having a greater wall thickness implies higher initial cost. Thicker walled pipe generally implies greater durability and higher pressure tolerances.

Wall thickness does not affect pipe or tubing size. 1/2″ L copper has the same outer diameter as 1/2″ K or M copper. The same applies to pipe schedules. As a result, a slight increase in pressure losses is realized due to a decrease in flowpath as wall thickness is increased. In other words, 1 foot of 1/2″ L copper has slightly less volume than 1 foot of 1/2 M copper. [citation needed]

Demand for copper products have fallen due to the dramatic increase in the price of copper, resulting in increased demand for alternative products including PEX and stainless steel, however numerous PEX failures have been reported and rumoured across the US, leading many to question the quality of this type of alternative system. [citation needed]