HISTORY OF PIPING SIZE TERMS
Pipe sizes can be confusing because the terminology may relate to historical dimensions. For example, a half-inch iron pipe does not have any dimension that is a half inch. Initially, a half inch pipe did have an inner diameter of 0.5 inches (13 mm)—but it also had thick walls. As technology improved, thinner walls became possible, but the outside diameter stayed the same so it could mate with existing older pipe, increasing the inner diameter beyond half an inch. The history of copper pipe is similar. In the 1930s, the pipe was designated by its internal diameter and a 1⁄16-inch (1.6 mm) wall thickness. Consequently, a 1-inch (25 mm) copper pipe had a 1 1⁄8-inch (28.58 mm) outside diameter. The outside diameter was the important dimension for mating with fittings. The wall thickness on modern copper is usually thinner than 1⁄16 inches (1.6 mm), so the internal diameter is only "nominal" rather than a controlling dimension. Newer pipe technologies sometimes adopted a sizing system as its own. PVC pipe uses the Nominal Pipe Size.
Pipe sizes are specified by a number of national and international standards, including API 5L, ANSI/ASME B36.10M and B36.19M in the US, BS 1600 and BS EN 10255 in the United Kingdom and Europe.
There are two common methods for designating pipe outside diameter (OD). The North American method is called NPS ("Nominal Pipe Size") and is based on inches (also frequently referred to as NB ("Nominal Bore")). The European version is called DN ("Diametre Nominal" / "Nominal Diameter") and is based on millimetres. Designating the outside diameter allows pipes of the same size to be fit together no matter what the wall thickness.