Regardless of brand, there are only (3) main manufacturing processes used to produce PEX tubing:
Peroxide method (used to make PEX-A tubing)
Silane method (for PEX-B tubing)
Irradiation method (for PEX-C)
Contrary to the popular belief, A, B and C are not grades of PEX. These letters are used merely to identify the manufacturing process and have nothing to do with quality or performance ratings of the end product except as explained further in text.
In fact, all of the above have to adhere to the same standard:
Pressure and temperature ratings
Minimum bending radius
Pipe wall thickness and ID/OD dimensions (subject to manufacturing tolerances)
* Note that these only apply to brands sold in the US and mentioned below. There are many little-known or no-brand products out there which may or may not meet these criteria.
PEX-A tubing is produced using Peroxide (or, “Engel”) method, named after the inventor Tomas Engel. During the manufacturing process, free radicals are created when Polyethylene polymer is melted and polymer is melted and cross-links between molecules occur at temperatures that exceed the decomposition temperature of the polymer which creates LDPE (low-density polyethylene). This type of PEX is probably the most common and is manufactured by a large number of companies.
PEX-B is made using a “Silane” or “Moisture Cure” method of cross-linking, where links between the molecules of the Polyethylene polymer are formed after the extrusion process using a catalyst and by exposing PEX tubing to water (steam bath) which creates HDPE (high-density polyethylene).
PEX-C pipe is manufactured using “Electronic Irradiation” method of cross-linking, also known as “Cold” cross-linking. Here, cross-linking of the molecules is done after the process of extrusion by exposing the pipe to an electron radiation beam. The radiation emitted allows to break the existing links between molecules of the polymer and initiate cross-linking process which creates LDPE (low-density polyethylene).
Comparing the end product
Highest flexibility (softness) among all PEX types.
Kinks can be repaired with a heat gun.
Most readily available to purchase.
Lower bursting pressure than PEX-B.
Residual or leaching chemicals from manufacturing process.
Variation in wall thickness.
Highest degree of cross-linking.
Low burst pressure.
Highest chlorine and oxidative resistance
Highest bursting pressure.
No leaching chemicals from manufacturing process.
High burst pressure.
Lowest dimensional tolerances variations.
Lower cross-linking ratio than PEX-A.
Stiffer than PEX-A.
Noticeable coil memory.
Kinks can only be repaired by splicing (using coupling).
Softer than PEX-B.
More environmentally-friendly to manufacture.
Little or no coil memory. There’s very little data available on PEX-C tubing to allow for competitive analysis.
Prone to development of cracks.
Least resistance to kinks, which are repairable only with a coupling.
Low burst pressure.
Which PEX tubing to choose?
PEX-A is the most flexible of all PEX tubing types, has little or no coil memory and gives installer an ability to repair kinks with a heat gun. It has been in use for over 50 years (which is longer than other types) with few publicly known issues , which is a good indicator of reliability.
Downsides to this type is a high rate of chemical leaching – from 50% to over 200% higher than PEX-B, which is a major concern for plumbing applications.
While a leading PEX-A manufacturer claims that their tubing has highest resistance to crack propagation, independent testing shows that PEX-B actually shows higher resistance to long-term oxidation which appears to be the primary reason for crack formation in the pipes and their subsequent failure.
A lower bending radius in PEX-A (6 times the OD vs. 8 times the OD for PEX-B & C) is helpful, but offers little practical advantage in most cases.
PEX-B is a clear winner in terms of quality vs. both other types. It has been in use for over 33 years with no known issues, given that a typical warranty for any other type of PEX is only 10-15 years. PEX-B manufacturers offer 25 year warranty. PEX-B is also the only PEX able to withstand continuous hot water (@140 degrees) from recirculation pumps. All other PEX requiars a timer or limited exposure to hot water (@140 degrees). It also has a higher bursting pressure than PEX-A and a better resistance to oxidation – a very important factor for plumbing installations.
The major downside of PEX-B is its’ stiffness and coil memory (tendency to return to the original shape of coil). While there’s little difference in smaller sizes such as 1/2″, larger pipe diameters, especially 1”, can be noticeably harder to bend. Any kinks (which are very rare in our experience, but still occur) made during the installation can only be repaired by installing a coupling and cannot be repaired with a heat gun like PEX-A.
PEX-C was the hardest to evaluate, given the lack of testing data and publicly available information. In late 2013, a leading US manufacturer of PEX-C pipe became a subject of a class-action settlement which indicated that its’ PEX tubing is prone to development of cracks in the pipe as a result of early oxidation. For this reason therefore, we think that this type of PEX should be avoided altogether in plumbing applications. While PEX-C may be suitable for hydronic and radiant heating use, it offers little practical advantage over the other (2) types. PEX-C should only be used for temporary use I.E. quick short term repairs.