When to Replace Your Plumbing

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Old kitchen plumbing pipes that need replacement.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever and that includes the pipes inside your house. Over the years, they gradually corrode rust and decay. When that happens, you’re going to eventually get leaks, maybe even a flood of water or raw sewage that can cause thousands of dollars in damage to your home and belongings. It’s far better to replace the pipes before a plumbing disaster happens.

Replacing old pipes can cost thousands of dollars and requires cutting open walls and floors, so you don’t want to do the job before it’s really necessary. Here are a few tips for assessing your plumbing so you know when it’s time for replacing the pipes.

Types of Pipes and Their Lifespan

How long you can expect the plumbing to last depends on the type of pipe you have. To find out what you have in your home you can review the home inspection report you got when you bought the house or have a trusted plumber do a free inspection of the plumbing system for you.

Supply pipes are under constant pressure and so are the most likely to cause water damage when they leak. The types of supply pipes and their lifespans are as follows:

  • Brass, 80-100 years
  • Copper, 70-80 years
  • Galvanized steel, 80-100 years

The types of drain lines and their lifespans are as follows:

It doesn’t necessarily mean that your pipes need replacing if they are older than these guidelines. If they are well-maintained, they may last longer, while poorly maintained pipes or those in areas with hard water (high mineral content), may fail sooner.

Remove Lead and Polybutylene Pipes

Two other types of water supply pipes should be removed immediately, no matter how old they are. Lead pipes, used in the early 1900s, are a serious health hazard because they can leach lead into your drinking water. Polybutylene pipes, used from the 1970s through the 1990s, are very susceptible to breakage.

Check for Signs of Trouble

In a house more than 60 years old, it should be an annual ritual to look at any exposed pipes in a basement, crawlspace or utility room, for telltale signs of trouble. Discolouration, stains, dimpling, pimples or flaking on tubing are all indications of corrosion. If you find anything like that, bring in a plumber to do an inspection.

Of course, you’ll want to keep an eye out for leaks, too. Even the small ones that can be repaired easily could be indicators that the time for a whole-house replacement is near. If you’ve got periodic leaks in some places, they’ll start showing up throughout the system.  After all, the pipes in your home are all the same age, made of the same material and been subjected to the same water supply and usage patterns.

Another sign of trouble is when you fill the bathtub, especially after a vacation when water has been sitting in the pipes for a while, and the water looks brown or yellow. What you’re seeing is rust, which is a sign of decay inside the pipes.

Best Opportunities to Replace Plumbing

In the end, you’ll need to rely on a trusted plumber to advise you when it’s time to replace the plumbing and it certainly doesn’t hurt to get a second and even a third opinion before you commit to a replacement project. Here are a few ways to lessen the cost and aggravation of the job.

  • Replace what’s exposed – Consider at least replacing pipes that aren’t buried in the walls and difficult to gain access to. It’s still a big job, but replacing exposed pipes is fairly straightforward. A plumber may be able to gain access to the majority of your system this way.
  • Replace when you renovate – If you’re going to remodel a part of the house, take the opportunity to inspect, and if needs be, replace, any plumbing you expose when you open the walls and floors.

PEX Tubing Limits Destruction

If you have supply pipes that need replacing inside walls, a plumber may be able to limit the destruction of walls by using an alternative piping product called cross-linked polyethylene tubing (PEX), which is a flexible plastic hose. It can be snaked into walls in a similar way that electricians feed wires behind wallboard or plaster with relatively minimal wall damage. PEX meets building codes almost everywhere, comes with a 25-year warranty and costs less than copper because of lower material and labour costs.

Some environmental groups worry about the as-yet-unknown health risks of plastic water supply lines. Since PEX has only been widely used for about a decade, it’s hard to say how long it will last. If these things are of concern to you, you may want to consider an alternative pipe material.