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As plumbers, we naturally think that plumbing is a good thing, but all good things must come to an end. We’re not saying that plumbing is going away anytime soon, but the clock is ticking on your pipes. You might not think about it much, but the plumbing in your house wasn’t designed to last forever. How long should your plumbing last and what should you know about failing pipes?
Straight talk about replacing plumbing
The lifespan of your plumbing depends upon your pipes. Here’s a guide to help you think about (and plan for) replacement of your home’s plumbing.
Brass plumbing has a rated lifespan of 80-100 years. Original brass plumbing in homes built between World War I and World War II is now reaching the end of its useful life. Brass has been used in plumbing fixtures for a long time. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Varying the amounts of these major components can make the resulting brass harder or softer. Brass can also contain small amounts of other metals like aluminum, lead and arsenic. For plumbing applications, lead is absolutely forbidden, however some lead may still be present in older brass fixtures. Lead plumbing solder was common before 1977, and brass can increase the amount of lead that leaches into the water.
If you have brass plumbing, make sure you have no lead in any fixtures or solder joints. If you do find lead, at the very least, eliminate the offending fixtures. Remove old solder and replace it with lead-free solder designed especially for plumbing applications.
Copper has a rated lifespan of 70-80 years. Many homes built in the 1960’s and most homes built after 1970 have copper plumbing. Original copper plumbing in homes built around and immediately after World War II is now likely reaching the end its useful life. Copper carries a certain mystique about it. People believe that copper plumbing will last forever. It doesn’t. The actual lifespan of copper may even be significantly less than 70-80 years. In practice, copper plumbing can deteriorate rapidly after just 20 years of service.
Copper plumbing fails for a couple of important reasons. First, the “clean” side of your plumbing is under constant pressure. This constant pressure takes its toll on the joints and connectors in your system. You may begin to see leaks and drips, especially if the pressure from the source is too high. Municipal water transmission systems often have a pressure of 100-150 PSI. The recommended pressure for a residential system is lower – more like 80 psi. The extra pressure can really wreak havoc inside your home. You can reduce the water pressure from the source by installing a pressure regulator. The regulator will help ensure that your pipes and fixtures aren’t overwhelmed by sky-high PSI.
Acidity and copper
Copper can also fail when the pH of the water falls below 6.5. The natural pH of water falls somewhere between 6 and 8.5 depending upon the source. The lower the water’s pH, the more acidic it is. Acidic water can react with copper and deteriorate the pipe. Damaged pipes will shed copper into the water. Your body needs minute amounts of copper to be healthy, but large doses can be toxic.
A healthy body has mechanisms to prevent excessive copper storage, but in some people, these mechanisms may not work properly. Copper toxicity can cause gastrointestinal problems, liver and kidney damage, psychological problems and low blood pressure. In addition, some research shows that people who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease have increased free copper levels in their bloodstreams. This does NOT mean that copper causes Alzheimer’s Disease. (In 2018, the cause of Alzheimer’s Disease remains unknown.) It might just mean that Alzheimer’s Disease damages the body’s mechanism to eliminate excess copper.
There is no known health reason to remove copper pipes in good condition from your home. You should replace any copper pipe that is showing signs of damage or deterioration, regardless of its age. If your water is chronically acidic, copper piping might not be the best choice for your home. Water that normally has a pH greater than 6.5 won’t deteriorate your copper pipes.
Galvanized steel
Galvanized steel has a rated lifespan of 80-100 years. Original galvanized plumbing in homes built between World War I and World War II is now reaching the end of its useful life. Galvanized steel pipes (also known as “galvanized” pipes) are zinc-coated steel pipes. The zinc coating helps to prevent the pipe from deteriorating. This kind of pipe is commonly found in homes built before 1960.
The zinc coating on galvanized steel doesn’t last forever. After decades of exposure to water, the coating will fail and the pipes will begin to rust. As the pipe deteriorates, its inner diameter reduces, and rust may flake off. Rust particles can end up in the water, or they can clog faucet filters. They can also leave rust stains on toilets, sinks and tubs. The narrowing diameter of the pipe can also cause water flow and water pressure problems for attached fixtures.
A potentially larger issue is that the zinc coating on galvanized pipes made between 1880 and 1960 contained impurities including lead. It is possible to find lead in the water carried by galvanized pipe, even when there’s no other lead source in the system. In systems where lead pipe or lead-containing fixtures were attached to galvanized pipe, the galvanized pipe may have caught and retained lead particles. Deterioration of the pipe eventually releases these lead particles and the water can test positive for lead contamination. Given enough time, a deteriorating galvanized pipe will rust through and require replacement.
PVC pipe
The rated lifespan of PVC pipe is 50-70 years. Some testing shows that PVC pipes could potentially last 100 years or more. Although PVC pipe seems like it’s “new,” PVC was actually first used in Germany in 1932. It arrived in US homes in 1952, so PVC pipe that pre-dates 1968 is approaching the end of its useful life. True PVC pipe is rated for safe use only with cold water. CPVC pipe, a chemically similar cousin, is rated for use with both hot and cold water service. Some PVC pipe made before 1977 could potentially leach harmful chemicals into fresh water. PEX pipe – which is a flexible plastic hose – can also be used to connect fixtures to plumbing systems. Plastic pipes of any kind (PVC, CPVC, PEX) that are labeled “NSF-61” or “NSF-PW” have been certified as safe for carrying drinking water.
There are no safe ways to use lead in plumbing. Lead poses a serious human health hazard and can cause permanent damage and death. Lead should be removed from plumbing systems immediately, regardless of its age or condition.
(That’s all we have to say about lead.)
Ultimately, no plumbing lasts forever! If you’re considering replacing your plumbing, or you’re beginning to see signs of deterioration in your plumbing, please give us a call at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911. We’ll be happy to evaluate your plumbing and make recommendations about repairs or replacement.
Photo Credit: Patrick FInnegan, via Flickr

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