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by Bill and Kevin Burnett, Inman News Low water pressure is cue for pipe replacement

Dirty waterQ: I’m a regular reader of your column and was hoping you could help me. I live in a two-unit building built in San Francisco in 1941. It still has the original galvanized plumbing. My upstairs neighbor and I have been told that our water pressure problems (we can’t shower when anything else using water is running) would be solved if we replaced the galvanized plumbing with copper.

Also, we would like to remodel our kitchens (we don’t have dishwashers) and have been told that we wouldn’t get the full benefit of new appliances with old plumbing. Is what we’ve been told true? We’ve had several contractors and plumbers talk to us about replacing the plumbing. The latest contractor told us we’d basically have to replace our kitchens and bathrooms because they’d have to tear into so many walls to replace the plumbing. Do you think that’s true and would it be worth it. Any suggestions as to whom we should talk to about this and get good feedback?

A: In short: Yes, the old pipes need replacing. We don’t see why the kitchens and baths need to be gutted to do it. And yes, it is worth doing. Galvanized water piping was the state of the plumbing art in 1941. Galvanizing is a metallurgical process used over the past 150 years to coat steel or iron with zinc to inhibit corrosion. The life span of galvanized pipe used for water delivery is about 40 years. You’ve got a 20-year bonus, but now it’s time for the old pipe to go to the recycler.

We agree with the plumbers and contractors you’ve consulted — up to a point. The low water pressure is the main clue that your pipes need to be replaced. But we wouldn’t be surprised if you have seen some discolored water when you turn on a faucet you’ve not used in awhile. Or, worse, that there is an undetected pinhole leak somewhere in the system. Leaks usually show themselves at threaded joints because when pipes are threaded the galvanized coating is compromised, leaving the steel or iron exposed. Low water pressure, discolored water and leaks are symptoms of a failing galvanized water system. Over time, corrosion builds up on the interior of the pipes and reduces the flow of water by more than half. This is the source of the reduced water pressure you’re experiencing.

We’ve removed water pipes where corrosion reduced the 1/2-inch diameter to less than 1/4 inch. While replacing the galvanized pipes with copper is the way to go, we don’t necessarily agree that your house will look like a war zone during the job. It’s fortunate that both you and your neighbor are considering kitchen remodels. Since you are tearing into the kitchen anyway, this is the ideal time to re-pipe the whole house. When it’s done, make sure to inquire about the condition of the main line between the water meter and the interior of the house. It may well need replacing also. Check the city building department to see if and when the main line may have been replaced in the past.

Usually water piping in 1940s-era homes was confined to one or two walls in the kitchen and bathroom to conserve the amount of time and materials plumbers had to take to run the pipes. Typical is one wall in the kitchen for the sink and, at most, two wet walls in the bath for the commode, lavatory and tub/shower enclosure. It will limit the number of walls that must be opened to re-pipe.

Access can be had through the crawl space and the attic to cut down on holes in your walls. Over the years we’ve re-piped most of our houses. The last one we did was a rental Bill owned in Boise, Idaho. We put a new kitchen and bath in a single-story house. Access to all the plumbing was from the open floor joists in the basement.

Getting copper to the hot and cold water supplies in the kitchen and bath was simply a matter of removing the lath and plaster from a stud bay, dropping the pipe into the basement and soldering them up. In your two-story duplex, repiping the ground-floor unit can be accomplished in much the same manner. Your upstairs neighbor should consider running hot and cold feeds into the attic and dropping the supplies down to the fixtures. In both cases disruption should be minimal.

While re-piping can be a do-it-yourself job, it’s a big one requiring a fairly high degree of skill. Proficiency in soldering pipe and patching walls is a necessity.As far as suggestions as to whom to contact in addition to the contractors you’ve already seen, check out the following Web pages. This company claims to specialize in replacing old pipes with copper at a reasonable price. They offer free estimates, discounts and a deferred financing plan.When hiring a contactor, always confirm the status of their license by going to www.cslb.ca.gov/, then get competitive bids and check out the references. What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story. Copyright 2009 Bill and Kevin Burnett

See another feature from Bill and Kevin Burnett, Tankless Water Heater a Wise Investment.

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