How to Maintain Your Old Pipes
Most homeowners understand the extra care that goes into owning an older home. It requires continual maintenance and upkeep — especially when it comes to plumbing.
If you’re looking to avoid tearing up the walls and floors and replumbing the whole house, here are a few steps you can take to extend the lifespan of those decades-old pipes.
Invest in a leak detection system
Individual water monitors are handy for sensing leaks near your washing machine or kitchen sink, but when it comes to full home protection, you’ll want a comprehensive leak detection system like the Flo by Moen System.
After collecting baseline usage data on your home’s plumbing system, the Flo by Moen system is able to detect irregularities and leaks. It’s the smartest way to keep a watchful eye on your old pipes, without having to keep a plumber on speed dial for the first sign of any issues.
Check for warning signs
If your home is more than fifty years old, check on your water pipes regularly. In addition to looking for obvious signs of water damage around your home (discoloration, water stains, warping) you’ll also want to check out any exposed pipes, such as main water lines in your basement or under your kitchen sink. Look for signs of corrosion, dimpling or flaking.
Low Water Pressure
If your water pressure is weaker than usual (again, the Flo by Moen system will automatically detect this for you), that’s a sign there could be some nasty buildup inside the pipes or a leak in the system.
If your water runs a yellow-orange color after being away from the house for a period of time, or there’s a bad smell coming from your pipes, those are clear indicators that something’s gone awry. Make sure you know where to locate the main shut-off valve and sewer valve. In an old home, these could be in a difficult to places – it helps to know where these valves are situated in case of a water emergency or if you plan on making a small repair.
Keep tabs on your water heater
Maintaining your water heater prevents leaks and other issues. Drain your heater every couple of months to eliminate sediment and improve efficiency.
If your water heater isn’t working properly, you may have issues with your water temperature, reduced water flow or hear strange popping and banging sounds. Older heaters are more prone to making noise. If you’re having severe problems with your water heater, you may need to replace it with a newer model.
Use safe drain cleaners
Clogged pipes are a frequent problem in older homes, and while unclogging them will help extend their lifespan, there are a variety of ways to do this. Tenants in old buildings are no strangers to chemical drain cleaners like Drano or Liquid-Plumr. However, the high acidity levels can be harsh on old metal pipes and even hasten their deterioration.
For minor clogs we suggest using a homemade baking soda and vinegar mix or a store-bought enzyme treatment on all your sinks and showers about once a month. Afterward, rinse thoroughly with hot water. This will keep your pipes relatively clean and help prevent buildup.
If you have a serious clog in the house, an experienced plumber is your safest bet. Plenty of people snake their own drains (and in general, it’s never a bad idea to learn how to detach and clean your P-trap yourself), but if your pipes are very old galvanized steel, an improperly sized snake or auger can permanently damage them. Hydrojetting is another option, which sends a powerful stream of water through your pipes, but that too is a job for a professional plumber.
Be mindful of what you put down the drain
We’ve all heard the saying that prevention is the best cure. Here’s how you can apply that to plumbing:
- Be careful pouring grease or oils down narrow drains — this goes for cooking grease in the kitchen sink as well as body oils in the shower.
- Use filters and screens over your drains to prevent particles from passing through and sticking to the inside of the pipe.
- When washing dishes, place any food waste in the trash or your food compost bin. Food particles can easily clog your drains when flushed down the sink plug hole.
- Avoid flushing any waste other than toilet tissue down your toilet. Feminine hygiene products or cotton wool swabs can cause clogs in your pipes, restricting water flow and backing up water in your toilet bowl.
Repair galvanized pipes
Old water pipes like galvanized pipes require maintenance, especially as they rust and corrode on the inside.
What is a galvanized pipe?
If your home was built before 1960, you may have galvanized pipes. These steel pipes are coated in zinc to prevent rust and corrosion on the outside. If you’re unsure whether your water pipes are galvanized, take a magnet and screwdriver. With the screwdriver, scratch the outside of the pipe. The scratched area will be silver-grey on a galvanized pipe. And your magnet will stick to it.
Cleaning your galvanized pipes
Ideally, this type of pipe should be replaced. Galvanized pipes commonly cause low water pressure, leaks, and discolored water. If you can’t replace your water pipes straight away, cleaning them on the outside can remove rust. You can use vinegar and plain steel wool to remove small specks of rust. If the rust is more extensive, or inside the pipe, it’s best to hire a professional plumber to remove it for you.
Protect old pipes in harsh weather
Frozen pipes are common in winter, especially when your pipes are old and have begun to deteriorate. Freezing can create pressure inside the pipe, resulting in a pipe burst and severe flooding.
The bad news is that you can live in a warm climate and still suffer from frozen pipes when temperatures plummet. The good news? You only need to be concerned about water supply pipes and not your drain pipes (which aren’t pressurized).
The following practices will prevent old pipes from freezing:
- Run your hot water regularly. You can defrost frozen pipes by running hot water continuously from the tap to help warm them up.
- Keep your heating on. Keeping your indoor temperature above 50F keeps your pipes warm and prevents them from freezing. You can also open cabinets around hidden pipes to protect them from freezing.
- Insulate. Water pipe insulation is an effective precaution, reducing heat loss and additional damage.
- Run the faucet. If you think your water pipes may freeze, open the faucet so there is a slight drip. This relieves any pressure, preventing the pipe from bursting.
Seal holes and cracks
Small leaks in your water pipes can be fixed by patching up the drip, giving you extra time to fix your pipe with a new part or replacement.
With Plumber’s Putty
- Before you patch your water pipe, turn off the shutoff valve to stop water coming through. Drain any remaining water by running your faucets.
- Wipe the area around the leak with a cloth.
- If the leak stems from a joint, use a wrench to tighten the fitting. This may be enough to seal the leak.
- If you need to patch the leak, use a file to smooth the surface around it.
- Take a piece of plumber’s epoxy (the same size as the crack), and knead it in your hands.
- Press the epoxy down over the leak.
- Smooth the edges and wait for it to cure as per the packaging instructions.
- Start by filing the leaking area with a coarse file to smooth the surface. If there’s a large hole in the pipe, you’ll need to apply some pipe bonding putty to fill the crack (see above section for instructions).
- Put on a pair of plastic gloves and activate your pipe repair tape by immersing it in water.
- Remove tape from the water and squeeze it out thoroughly.
- Place the tape over the leak, wrapping it around your pipe. Use the full roll – you may need to use a second roll as the final patch should be half an inch in thickness.
- Press the tape down firmly onto the water pipe. Place your gloved hands into the water bucket and press over the tape to remove any escaping epoxy resin.
Replace your old pipes
If your pipes are a nuisance that require constant patching and repair, don’t prolong their suffering. When in doubt, pipe material is a good indicator of whether they’re due for a replacement.
If they’re made of lead (poisonous, although city water is almost always treated to avoid leaching) or polybutylene (very high rates of failure and degeneration) they should have already been replaced.
In general, galvanized steel pipes last 20-50 years, brass lasts 40-70, copper lasts over 50, cast iron lasts 75-100, and PVC can last over a 100 years if it’s not exposed to direct sunlight. Use these numbers as benchmarks when assessing if your pipes need replacement, but as always, get a second opinion from an expert before embarking on a full home replumbing.