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When should you replace your plumbing?

When should you replace your plumbing?

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

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

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.

Lead

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

Copper in Boston Plumbing Still A Target Of Thieves

Copper theft is on the rise and Boston has seen a rash of thefts involving copper plumbing. Boston Housing Authority employees are facing a Civil Service Hearing related to accusations that they illegally removed copper plumbing from a public housing complex in Roslindale.

Last month, two men were arrested in New Hampshire in connection with the theft of copper from National Grid in North Andover in two separate incidents. Police estimate that the National Grid copper was worth more than $30,000. Later in the month, National Grid also reported the theft of about $6,000 worth of copper from a power plant in Whitman.

Copper theft isn’t limited to commercial properties, though. Last month, a New Hampshire man was arrested after attempting to steal copper plumbing from a home for sale in Manchester. In that theft, the combined damage total from the copper theft and leaking water was estimated at $3,000.

Scrap copper is worth about $2.50-$3.00 per pound, and the cost of copper is rising slightly. That puts homeowners with copper plumbing at an increased risk of copper theft. Exposed copper connections on central air conditioning units are also becoming a favorite target of thieves.
What can you do to protect yourself? We recommend that you sheathe any exposed (outdoor) copper pipe with flexible conduit to shield the copper from view. That’s not going to stop a determined thief, but out-of-sight, out-of-mind sometimes works.

Empty residential buildings are at the greatest risk of theft. Removing copper does take a bit of time, so thieves will be looking for opportunities to work undisturbed. Motion alarms, burglar alarms and observant neighbors may deter some thieves, but few things will dissuade a determined thief from getting in.

One approach to consider when a home is empty is turning off the water at the main and draining the plumbing system. That won’t prevent copper theft, but it can prevent resulting water damage to your unoccupied home. Maintain your insurance coverage on the structure, and your loss will be limited to the value of your deductible.

Draining the plumbing in an empty home isn’t a bad strategy, even if copper theft isn’t on your mind. When your pipes are empty and the water is turned off, you avoid pipe damage that might occur during an extended power loss. If you know you’ll be gone for an extended period of time and you would like help draining your plumbing or your boiler, contact Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911. We’ll be happy to drain your pipes and winterize your boiler. Upon your return, we’ll repressurize the systems, and bleed residual air from radiators and plumbing lines.

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