The Life of Pipes
Pipes – Unsung Heroes
Located behind walls and under subfloors, our drain and water pipes are the unsung heroes of our daily lives, usually forgotten — until something goes wrong.
As incredible as it sounds, your plumbing system actually accounts for about 10% of the asset value of any home or building, so when a plumbing system fails it can cause extensive and costly damage.
It may sound mundane, but what your pipes are made of matters, and all require maintenance to keep them functioning properly. By educating yourself on the basics of plumbing and understanding what your pipes are made of, you can help to manage their lifespan and identify any potential problems before they become catastrophic.
When we refer to plumbing we’re talking about the system of pipes, tanks, fittings, and other apparatus required for the water supply, heating, and sanitation in a building.
When we think about our pipes, we typically separate them into two main types, supply and sanitation. Supply pipes bring water (or other fluids) into a building, and sanitation (i.e. sewer/drain) takes wastewater out of the building. Supply pipes are pressurized, and wastewater (drain/sewer pipes) are not (it’s just gravity at work).
The materials used to make pipe has a significant impact on how (and how often) you need to maintain your plumbing system. There are two key factors to consider when thinking about your pipes. The first is the function of the pipe, and the second is when the building was built. Both are good indicators of what materials were used for your pipes.
A Little Water Pipe History
The most common type of water pipe used in multistory construction was galvanized steel. Steel pipes are galvanized when they are dipped into molten zinc, which helps prevent rust. Over time, corrosion and rust can still build up on the inside of these pipes, causing problems like low water pressure.
There was a shift between 1960 and 1980 for water pipes used in multistory construction, more often turning to copper. “Aggressive” acidic water or soil can cause pitting-type corrosion and can shorten the lifespan to 20 years or less.
Construction moved towards various plastics (some more successful than others). Plastics are typically resistant to chemical corrosion, abrasion, rotting, and weathering. They are also lightweight which makes it easy to install in new construction and gives it a technical advantage in the construction industry.
Sewer/Drain Pipes Through the Years
The most common type of sewer pipe used in multistory construction was cast iron. As cast iron ages, rust forms on the inside, creating a crust of “tubercles.” Tuberculation slows water flow, eroding the metal, and increasing the chances of corrosion and cracking.
As with water, the move in pipe construction after 1990 was towards various plastics.
So, what’s the problem?
The common problems you see when disaster strikes are often a result of the pipe material used in construction, and when your building was built. Corrosion and pinhole leaks are the main culprits in thousands of plumbing issues every year, from single family homes to multi-story commercial buildings.
Corrosion is the breaking down or destruction of a material, especially a metal, through chemical reactions. The most common form of corrosion in metal is rusting, which is oxidation that occurs when iron combines with oxygen and water. Corrosion can also occur when an acidic or basic material touches another material. Problems with corrosion are mostly with metal, though other materials can corrode.
In metallic sewer pipe, corrosion causes leaks, scale, and grease build up which can result in
- Slow drainage
- Blockages / stoppages
This is a primary reason why simply unclogging a sewer line may only be a temporary fix, since the corrosion that has already occurred is not being addressed and will likely lead to future problems.
In metallic water piping, corrosion causes rust, scale, and biofilm to build up which can result in
- Water leaks
- Poor water quality
- Lower water pressure
In pressurized water lines, pinhole leaks can develop as a result of corrosion. This can be the result of a high levels of chlorine in the water supply, corrosion particles from rusted water heaters, high water pressure, high pH levels in the water, and other chemical factors in soil and water.
All pipes have a limited lifespan. If you have an older building, you need to consider the pipe materials used during construction and consider an inspection to prevent problems down the road.
In some cases a simple cleaning can add years of useful life to your plumbing system. But what if the system is badly compromised?
One option is to replace all the pipes in the building. But before you go down that path, picture this: When standing in any point in your building, everything that is physically between you and any failing pipe must be cut open and removed in order to install new piping. And everything that was removed to access the old pipe must then be replaced! Pipe replacement is more often messy, time consuming, expensive and a hassle for everyone involved.
The other option is to leave the existing pipes in place and line their interiors. Lining sewer pipes is typically half the cost of replacement, takes about half the time, uses existing access points (like toilet risers or cleanouts) and… doesn’t require permits or inspections! Pipe replacement often requires system reconfiguration and code upgrade to other parts of building, involving inspections and permits.
The First Step
For sewer/drain the best way to get started is a simple, inexpensive camera inspection. This will help you identify problems inside your building’s plumbing systems, and help you make an informed decision regarding maintenance, repairs, replacement or lining.
- Verify pipe system material
- Confirm plumbing location and depth
- Identify problem areas
- Provide data to help budget for plumbing repairs/reserve funds
For pressurized water pipes, the best thing to do is look for red flags. Since camera inspections are not practical for water pipes, look for:
- Warped floors/wet spots
- Wrinkled or bubbled paint on walls or ceilings
- Walls that feel damp or cool
- Persistent insect or rodent issues
What Should You Do? Don’t Wait!
If your property is 25 years or older, schedule a CCTV diagnostic inspection of the building’s drain lines.
Consider implementing a program for preventive maintenance cleaning and coatings to inhibit corrosion and extend the life of your building’s pipes
Start (or increase) a reserve fund for pipe restoration and begin investing in your property’s pipes based on a proactive pipe inspection, cleaning, and pipe life extension plan.
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