The type of glue you use to join PVC pipes is called "solvent weld," and these two words tell you the reason why it's 99 percent impossible to separate pipes once they are glued together. This type of glue isn't a surface coating; it's a PVC solvent that actually melts plastic. When you spread this glue on a pair of pipes and join them, the melted plastic of both pipes hardens into a single piece. This makes trying to unglue a joint a bit like trying to unbake a cookie. When they need to repair a PVC joint, which is common, plumbers usually cut out the joint and install a new one. In about 1 percent of cases, you can pry pipes apart.
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Get It Before It Cures
Solvent weld glues dry fairly quickly. Depending on the pipe diameter, drying times can vary from a minute to five minutes. However, curing times are longer (about an hour) so if you try to separate the pipes before the glue has cured, there's a small chance you'll be successful, but you'll have to pull and twist with a lot of force to detach the two pieces. If you're gluing water pipes and you make a mistake, turn on the water and let the water pressure blow the pipes apart. The prospect of being able to pull pipes apart is a long shot, though, because even a few minutes after gluing, a joint can withstand normal water pressure without leaking or separating.
Cut Out the Joint
Once a joint has become permanent, the pieces cannot be separated provided the pipes are straight, have enough glue and overlap a sufficient amount in the joint. If you need to separate the joint, the only option is to cut it. You can use a hacksaw or a PVC cutter for this job, and once the fitting is gone, you can install a new one. To do this, you'll need to close the gap left by the missing fitting by gluing a short length of pipe (a nipple) to one of the pipes you wish to join. Because you need to install a coupling to do this (and the coupling needs space), it's best to make your cut three or four inches away from the joint when removing it. This leaves a wider and more manageable gap.
Tap the Joints Apart
You may be able to tap or chisel apart a joint that hasn't been properly assembled in the first place. Perhaps the installer used insufficient glue or failed to seat the pipes completely. Such a joint will leak, which is the probable reason you want to re-glue it. To tap the pipes apart, set the edge of a chisel against the rim of the female part of the joint and tap the chisel sharply with a hammer. If you detect movement, you're on the right track, so keep tapping. If there's no movement, it's best to stop as continued tapping on the chisel will damage the pipe. On the other hand, if you're just interested in extracting the male pipe, and you don't care what happens to the female one, keep going.
Heat softens plastic, so pointing a hair dryer or heat gun at a PVC joint may soften the plastic enough to allow you to pull them apart. Like tapping joints apart, this is a long shot -- a desperate measure for a desperate situation. Keep the heat on the joint while you pull steadily on the pipes to separate them. However, if you use enough heat to distort the pipe, you won't be able to reuse it.
Perhaps you want to extract a short piece of pipe from a fitting so you can reuse the fitting. There are three ways to supply enough heat to do this: You can put the pipe in boiling water, heat it with a candle flame or spread PVC glue inside the pipe and light it on fire. Once the plastic softens, you should be able to extract the pipe with pliers.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.