Management One Property Management

Galvanized Pipes in Your Home: Common Problems and Tips for Replacing

By Steve Hembree

 

You may have a ticking time bomb in your house. Yep, it’s true…if you have galvanized pipes anywhere in your house.

Do you hear that ticking? No, they don’t really tick, but doesn’t that, in a way, make things much worse? Personally, I’d prefer that they tick.

There are some things you absolutely should know about your piping, electrical, roofing, siding and such when buying a house for any purpose; but in this article, I want to focus in on the piping topic specifically.

What do I know about your home’s piping? Glad, you asked. Since 2010, I have inspected hundreds of homes for banks and brokers, thousands of homes for insurance companies, and I now inspect homes for Management One.

Galvanized Pipes

The Low Down on Galvanized Pipes

 

I hear you out there: “But mister writer guy, galvanized pipes haven’t been used in years for plumbing, right?”
Well, yes and no. Galvanized pipes are very much alive and well, but not thriving.
Even if you own a modern house, your dwelling likely does have galvanized in use in the gas system, but not to worry, that is a perfectly acceptable use of this type of piping.

Galvanized Pipes

Why were galvanized pipes so bad?

Actually, they weren’t bad.

Nickel coated steel pipes had a lot of great things going for them:

  • they were strong
  • they lasted a fair amount of time
  • they did not contain lead
  • they were cheap

They were a fantastic product in their time, but that time has come and gone. If you own a house (whether you live in it, rent it, or are flipping a house) you need to know two things:

  1. Does your house have galvanized pipes?
  2. How old are they?

If you cannot answer these two questions, you could be setting yourself for a huge expense, and it will likely come sooner rather than later.

What is a galvanized pipe?

Galvanized pipes are not made of some sort of weird material called galvan.

What they really are, as it says above, is steel pipes coated with nickel, that’s all.

Steel is subject to corrosion, but coating the steel in nickel (galvanizing it) guards against corrosion, halts rust, prevents the rust from forming, at lease for a time.

How long? This depends on many factors, but suffice it to say, it is not forever. It is a coating and said coating will wear.

More about Galvanization

Cars rust, especially in areas where it snows, and the government salts the roads. Vehicle makers do a degree of rust prevention before painting cars, and usually, they coat the areas susceptible to corrosion with nickel. They galvanize it, in other words, then they apply a primer, then paint. Even then, some cars will still rust. It’s not that much different for steel pipes coated in nickel.

But my galvanized pipes look pristine!

Galvanized pipes, on the whole, have a lifespan of 50 years. That is a benchmark that insurance companies use pretty consistently from one to another. You can almost set a clock on this lifespan, right about 50 years they can start leaking, bursting, even if they look brand spanking new on the outside. This is because galvanized pipes corrode from the inside out. You cannot see it coming.

Galvanized Pipes

Think of it in terms of a circulatory system

Galvanized piping is a lot like the arteries carrying the blood throughout your body; all it takes is one hang point inside, a burr or scar on an inner wall, to start gunk accumulating at that point.

Minerals such as calcium, lime, and rust gradually coat the interior walls of pipes even without hang points, reducing the diameter, narrowing the pipes internally.

And just like with narrowed arteries, the fluid pressure increases within the narrowed pipe, to the point where it bursts. This is bad when we’re talking about water pipes, just as it’s catastrophic for arteries.

Galvanized pipes can look nearly as new as the day they were installed on the outside up until they burst.

Galvanized Pipes

Galvanized pipes can last a long time, but why chance it?

I have seen some galvanized piping last for 90+ years in the mountain community of Idyllwild, California, for no other reason than the water is incredibly pure. In this mountain community, many residents still swear by, and use, galvanized pipes, mostly because it stands up better to the winter freezes than do copper pipes, or so the belief goes.

Properly prepping for winter freezes by draining the water lines will usually preserve any pressurized water delivery system. Regardless of whether you have pure water or not, freezes or not, if your galvanized pipes are anywhere near 50 years old, your insurer may cancel your policy, or at the very least raise your rates. This is based on facts and experience.

Galvanized Pipes

How can I tell if my property has galvanized pipes anywhere?

 

 

If you’re buying a property, your conveyance home inspector will tell you so, and the approximate age of the pipes, but by then it’s a little late in the game. Do as insurance inspectors are trained to do when looking at a house:

  • Look at the outside faucets. Any galvanized automatically indicates 100% galvanized pipes until proven otherwise.
  • Check the incoming and outgoing water lines to the water heater, and I don’t mean the lines that hook directly to the water heater, but the lines that come out of the wall. Galvanized pipes coming out of the wall makes the likelihood of 100% of the same is pretty much a given.
  • Check all the lines coming out of the walls at every faucet, in the kitchen, in the bathrooms, the toilet, as well as the shower pipe behind the bezel. If you find galvanized pipes in these areas, it is a certainty all the piping is the same.
  • Turn on and run the tub, the sinks, the shower. Does the water look rusty? If so I have some bad news for you…
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Mixed Piping

 

There can be a mix of pipes as well, and you’ll have to determine that mix by peeking under the house (if it has a crawl space) or in the attic if the house has a concrete foundation. Seller records will tell you a lot as well but aren’t always available.
Don’t worry about the composition of the outgoing, un-pressurized pipes, only the supply, or pressurized, lines.
Now determine the age of said galvanized piping. If you’re buying a house to flip and the piping is 30 years old, it’s not a deal breaker. If you’re buying a house to rent out, it could very well be a deal breaker.
Use common sense. A 35-year-old house with any galvanized pipes means all the galvanized is 35 years old.

What now?

 

Re-piping is an option, although you really need to consider the ROI. If the return on investment works in your favor, do it. Say it costs you $5000 to re-pipe, but nets you $7500 in resale, then heck yes!

Just don’t use Galvanized pipes again. Someone, someday, will have to deal with this headache.

Galvanized Pipes

What you re-pipe with does make a difference.

 

Copper pipes

 

Copper piping is an excellent product, but expensive, and if the water supply is highly acidic, you will get corrosion and then leaks.

On another note, be aware that while your house may have copper pipes, you can have leaked from unforeseen circumstances. Many houses do not have pressure regulators, as the code did not call for them back then. Things like this can cost you a pretty penny. The speed a tract was built can indicate a higher occurrence of slab leaks.

Galvanized Pipes

Pex

Cross-linked polyethylene piping, PEX, is a newer plastic piping material that has been touted as having a “forever” lifespan, but that remains to be seen.

PEX can save you money, it is flexible, and it holds up very well. It is also relatively inexpensive.

Galvanized Pipes

PVC

Don’t. Just don’t. I have seen this in the field, and inside my head, I scream. It’s inexperience (CPVC is a little more costly and a better product), but use that PVC piping for the drains and sprinklers, not the pressurized supply lines within. You’ll thank me for it.

Here is a handy link for more re-piping information,

Galvanized Pipes

Actual case history regarding galvanized pipes

One case among a few dozen I remember in the dead of winter up in the aforementioned Idyllwild, CA, where I witnessed all of the above. I had set an appointment to meet the owners of a cabin on site so I could perform an underwriter requested insurance inspection. The owners were driving up from a beach city to meet me at 11 AM. When I arrived at 10:45 AM, I found the property to be a small, isolated, A-frame cabin, completely surrounded by a foot or less of snow, which was beginning to melt on this sunny day.

It appeared someone might be home, there was a snow-covered vehicle on the side, and there were a couple windows open. I knocked, waited, knocked, and called out. No answer, so I started my exterior work.
1st order of business: get the front right photo, then begin measuring the outside of the structure from that side, taking pictures of each side and each corner, all while diagramming my measurements. I discovered two things:

  1. That a foot of snow is really hard to use a measuring wheel on.
  1. The structure clearly utilized galvanized pipes.

After doing all I could outside, and seeing that it was now sneaking up on 11:20 AM, I decided to drive out to the road to get cell reception and call the owner/policyholder.

Galvanized Pipes

We forgot

“Oh, we forgot all about the appointment, but as luck would have it, we are on our way for a weekend there anyway, so lucky you!”

Well, no, not lucky me, I was still cold and would wait another half hour. Had they not responded, I would have turned the case back in as a no-show and let the underwriter deal with it. Never annoy an underwriter. When they want info, they want it. Period. Something had triggered a red flag about this property, or I would not have been sent there.

Those Pesky One or Two Days a Year Homes

The owners arrived and went about the business of “opening up the house.”  I pointed out to them that it is generally a bad idea to leave windows open at an unoccupied dwelling, especially in winter, but that there did not appear to be any breaches, the screens were in place and intact.
Insurance inspectors always check screens, a story for another time.
The policyholders/owners replied that golly, they “must have left the windows open since last summer. Oh well, ha ha, we only use this place a couple times a year” as most Idyllwildians do. Or is it Idlyllwilders?

Galvanized Pipes

Starting the inside

I begin the interior portion of the report, snapping pictures and determining types of floor and wall coverings/materials, all while the owners were doing their thing. The husband went out to turn the water on as I was noting that the property conformed to its year built and square footage in the tax records. The dwelling was about 50 years old. I just happened to look up as water began streaming down the inside of the A-frame’s interior walls. A LOT of water. I shouted out for them to shut the water off.

What happened?

“But, but, we drained the system! We did!”
“If you didn’t close the windows, what are the odds you drained the system?” rolled through my head.
Still, 50 years on galvanized pipes is 50 years. I advised the owner/policyholder to contact their agent, pronto.
I know these folks wanted to blame me, my being there, I could see them holding their tongues, but the fact is, they neglected their home. Whatever damaged the piping surely occurred because of the weather and the piping’s age.

Galvanized Pipes

A Banning House

Insurance inspection, pre-conveyance case:  A couple, mid 20’s, 3 kids, buying their first house, a cute 50-year-old crawl space foundation home.

They were on site with the agent when I arrived, and so very excited at the prospect of no more apartment living, of having a yard, etc.
We were all standing in the garage near the water heater when its incoming water line bursts. The agent tries to direct their attention from the torrent. All I can say is, “Yep, galvanized, 50 years, it happens.”

Galvanized Pipes

Last notes:

Water damage is a serious issue in any structure, dwelling or not. If you use rubber lines from the connections to your clothes washer, get rid of them. Now. They will burst at some point. Go with steel braided lines, they don’t cost much more, rarely burst, and they can stop a major problem later.
Back in the day, washer solenoids and rubber lines were weak points to washers, so people would turn off their washer’s supply lines. the solenoids today are quite good, but those rubber lines? Not so much.

Water heater

Drain your water heater at least once yearly. That “POP” sound your water heater sometimes makes is mineral balls popping inside. Those mineral balls create hot spots on the walls and bottom of the water heater that accelerate corrosion. Those minerals pile up on the bottom so that when your water heater is trying to heat the water, it first has to heat that sediment. That’s not very efficient. And guess what, you’ll use less fuel to heat your water, the heater will last longer, and believe it or not your water will actually smell better. Weird, huh?

Do contact Management One about managing your property today!

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