Your plumbing is probably one of the most stable systems in your home. Unlike mechanical systems, your plumbing doesn’t require significant regular maintenance. Unfortunately, plumbing isn’t maintenance-free, and it won’t last forever, but it can last the better part of a century under the right conditions. What determines your plumbing’s lifespan, and when is whole house replumbing required?
Replumbing – what your pipes are telling you
The materials, the condition of your water and the environment usually determine how long your plumbing will last. The most common residential plumbing materials are brass, copper, galvanized steel, cast iron and plasticHigher quality materials – copper, galvanized steel, brass, and more recently PVC – are usually used on the supply side of your plumbing system. Cast iron, steel, lead and plastic are most commonly used on the drain side of your plumbing system.
Even though higher quality materials are used, water is naturally slightly acidic. Over time, the acidity can damage the pipe beyond repair. Complicating the matter is the fact that supply lines are always under pressure. Pressure is what makes the system work, but it can shorten the expected lifespan of your plumbing, particularly in areas served by a municipal water supply. The water department needs to deliver water with enough pressure to provide satisfactory water service. Unfortunately, the water often arrives “over-pressured.” If an overpressure situation persists for a long period of time, it can stress the pipes and pipe joints in your home, potentially causing their premature failure.
Between the water itself, the pipe material and the municipal water pressure, it should come as no surprise that residential plumbing has a finite life expectancy. But which materials last the longest, and how can you tell when whole house replumbing is called for?
Many people consider copper to be the “gold standard” of plumbing, but several factors determine how long copper pipes will perform safely. Copper pipes come in three different grades (K, L and M) which represent three different thicknesses of pipe. The thinnest of the three – Type M – has a thickness of .026 inches. Type K has a thickness of .049 inches – nearly twice that of Type M. Type L has a thickness of .04 inches. Naturally, the thicker the copper, the longer the pipe will last.
Copper that carries acidic water, or that is exposed to acids in the soil can break down to the point of replacement in 20-30 years. Copper that carries more neutral water, was installed properly and is used in a protected environment may last 80-100 years before it needs to be replaced. Copper can develop pinhole leaks as it deteriorates. Such leaks should be considered potential signs of copper failure.
Copper can be damaged when it is first installed, even if the leaks don’t show up until later. Not removing the acid flux immediately after soldering pipe joints, for example, is probably the most common cause of corrosive damage to copper. Deteriorating copper will leach into the fresh water inside the pipe, and can cause health problems, so if your copper is failing or near failure, you’ll want to replace it quickly.
In the next post, we’ll look at galvanized pipe, brass and PVC, and how they may fit into a whole house replumbing plan. If you’d like to consult with us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating, please give us a call anytime at (617) 288-2911. We can identify weakened plumbing components and help you develop a repair/replacement strategy that suits your situation.
Photo Credit: Joe Thorn, via Flickr.com