Plumbing Info

By Robert Walker, P.E. [Uni-Bell PVC Pipe News, Summer 1990]

Many of you have expressed a curiosity about the historical development of PVC pipe. In response to your requests, we provide you with this brief early history of PVC pipe and fittings.

PVC was discovered as early as 1835, but the first definite report of the polymerization of vinyl chloride did not come until about 35 years later. At that time, the material was reported to be an off-white solid that could be heated to 130 degrees C without degradation.

PVC remained a laboratory curiosity for many years, probably because of its intractable nature. The polymer was inert to most chemicals and very tough (strong). These properties eventually led scientists to consider PVC for applications where durability and toughness were desirable.

In 1912 the first industrial developments were initiated in Germany. Throughout the 1920’s, attempts were made to use PVC copolymers that were easier to process than PVC. These early attempts were only marginally successful.

By 1932, the first tubes made from a PVC copolymer were produced. Nearly three years later the first PVC pipes were produced using a roll mill and hydraulic extruder. This two step process involved melting the PVC powder on a roll mill and rolling the sheet produced up to a billet. The PVC could then be processed in a discontinuously working ram extruder to make pipe. This process was adapted from that used for celluloid and was really ill-fitted for PVC. As a result, the products were often of dubious quality.

Never-the-less, these early PVC pipes were deemed suitable for drinking water supply piping and waste water piping because of their chemical resistance, lack of taste or odor and smooth interior surface. From 1936 to 1939 over 400 residences were installed with PVC drinking water and waste pipelines in central Germany. Various test pipelines of PVC were laid in Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Heidelberg and Wiesbaden during the period of 1936 to 1941.

Both the pipelines for chemicals and those for water supply and waste water came up to expectations, as did the test pipelines in the cities mentioned above, apart from damage caused by World War II. The PVC pipes installed in central Germany are still in use today without any major problems.

In retrospect, these first PVC pipes had been made before their time, before the material compounds and machines for their manufacture had been perfected. It was not until 1950 that the systematic development of extrusion technology began. Prior to this, the manufacture of PVC pipe remained makeshift and the use of PVC pipes did not become widespread.

The 1950’s and 1960’s were decades of dramatic advances for PVC pipe and fittings technology. Encouraged by the results obtained from primitive pre-war PVC pipelines, several European and American companies realized the enormous potential for PVC pipes. These companies pursued the technology, both in formulation and processing. Systematic research and trials were successful in the development of effective stabilizers, lubricants and processing aids, together with processing machinery engineered specifically for PVC. During this time period, PVC pipe began competing with traditional products in a number of major markets, such as: gas distribution; sewer and drainage; water distribution; electrical conduit; chemical processing; and drain, waste and vent piping.


  1. heidi

    So when did it become nationwide in the USA 1950 or 1960 in states like wyoming for example?

    • plumbergirl

      Hi Heidi, thanks for checking out thePlumber! That is a great question that unfortunately has no concrete answer. As with any new technology, you have early adopters and late adopters – the widespread use of PVC took a couple of decades, for a variety of reasons. Most homes/buildings/cities/etc. don’t need re-plumbing very often so it is usually new construction that adopts a new technology first, and existing structures wait to see if it works. Additionally, people get set in certain habits and likes/dislikes – including plumbers! – and a lot of people liked the tried and true copper plumbing that they were used to working with. Water quality issues in certain areas can negatively affect copper and cause problems, which made people more likely to try PVC in those areas, while other areas with fewer issues didn’t choose PVC as often. It is also worth noting that PVC (like any other technology) has evolved and gotten better and more specific to certain applications over the years. So you may find it now in areas where previously it wasn’t used as much and vice versa.

  2. Joe

    I’m trying to find the exact date that PVC piping was ASTM approved. Evidently it’s too obscure to find. Good read though!

  3. Scott

    It sure seems like they are trying to hide the exact date that it became law in u.s.a. to use p.v.c. instead of metal pipe. I must be not wording it right or something. Maybe it’s classified information now…lol

    • plumbergirl

      Hi Scott & Joe! The exact dates for PVC piping approval aren’t readily available because different organizations and governments have approved the use of plastic pipe at different times (and some haven’t at all). For instance, California has had a long battle over plastic pipe that still isn’t wholly resolved and some cities still ban the use of PVC in residential buildings. Finding information regarding different organizations’ approval (like ASTM) may be easier, we recommend contacting the organization themselves as they most likely have more detailed records of when certain guidelines were issued.

  4. Lisa Cosby

    Would a home built in the early 1970’s (1971 to be exact) have been built using PVC pipe in Oklahoma?

    • Lisa Cosby

      If unsure how would you find out?

      • Anthony

        Hi Lisa. It’s possible that PVC was used in 1971, but the only way to really know is to take a look.

  5. John Simpson

    The durability and length of service that a user can get out of PVC pipe always amazes me, and I certainly did not realize that they was installed in German in the 30’s and some of these are still in use today. That is a real testament to the life spam of this pipe material. Thanks for a really interesting article, some further reading can be located here

  6. Atul

    how tough are these pipes. example
    – a cement applied to windowsill if falls due to dry ness on the pipe will the pipe break?

  7. matt

    I have pvc pipes that are 30 years old. I have noticed they are rather brittle when trying to cut them for repairs. I’m 57 & can remember my dad using them in ’75 here in Texas. I’m sure they will eventually get very brittle & fail.How long they will last most likely depends on the area & the elements there exposed to.

  8. Eden

    I know that PVC is not used for water distribution anymore. Do you know when that code change took effect?

    • NonDude

      Where did you get that information from? As someone working in the water utility industry, I know for a fact that PVC is the go-to choice for water mains.

      • Mark M

        I think he’s taking about inside of buildings. CPVC is typically used.

        • Jim Evans

          CPVC Is NOT typically used these days. PEX is the main choice of plumbers for water piping in buildings today. Ease of use (100 ft lengths and flexible for turning corners with no glue or solder required), resistance to bursting under freezing conditions and color coded for cold (blue) and hot(red) lines are the main reason for it’s popularity and desirability.

  9. David F

    CPVC is recommended for HOT water distribution because it can handle temperatures up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, where as PVC is good for up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, though both are safe for potable water distribution.

  10. pat raucci

    i have black drain pipe taking roof water to the street. i am trying to get an approximate year when it was done

  11. pat raucci

    the home was built in 1955

  12. Richard Musgrave

    I recall that PVC waste pipe was only sold in grey when introduced in the 1970s. Black and white became readily available later on. Does anyone know when these options became available? I am not after an exact date just an approximate time. Thanks

  13. mike

    plumbers started really using pvc for residential plumbing in the 70’s we never used it except for waste water where permitted. to this day I still use copper. as for pex pipe I’ve seen many failures due to improper fitting connections.

  14. Paul

    Major problem with underground plastic water lines, is tractability.
    Understand copper wire laid parallel with the installation is an answer.
    True or untrue

  15. Tom Axley, Jr.

    Did Can-Tex make PVC pipe before the 1990’s? When did Cantex focus on electric components?


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