So you found your dream home, but then the inspector dropped a plumbing bomb on you – the pipes are galvanized steel. What does that mean? Should you walk away or is it no big deal? I’ve been there too. Let’s break it down so you can make the best decision.
Back in the 1900s-1960s, galvanized steel was the hot new thing in plumbing. Builders loved it because it was durable and affordable. Who wouldn’t want strong, rust-resistant pipes ferrying water around their shiny new house?
Fast forward fifty years, though, and galvanized steel reveals its dark side. Let’s dive into the common problems so you know what you might be signing up for.
What Exactly is Galvanized Plumbing?
Galvanized pipes are made of regular steel pipes that have been coated in a layer of zinc. The zinc acts as a protective barrier to prevent rust.
When new, galvanized pipes look silver and shiny. But after 30-50 years, the zinc erodes away, allowing rust to take hold. Once corrosion starts, it continues eating away at the steel underneath.
The Rotten Truth About Galvanized Pipes
While galvanized plumbing was once thought to be pretty spiffy, age has revealed some unpleasant flaws. Here are the most common issues you’ll encounter:
Rustville, Population: Your Pipes
Once the zinc coating wears off, there’s nothing stopping oxygen from meeting metal and sparking a rust-tastrophe.
Rust forms in flaky layers on the inside of galvanized pipes over time. As the rust builds up, it starts clogging things like a slow drain, reducing water pressure.
More troubling, chunks of rust can break off into your water, speckling your morning glass of water with unappetizing floaties. No one wants to drink rust-flavored water (blech)!
Is Your Water Piping Lead?
Sometimes galvanized pipes contain lead which can leach into your drinking water over time. This poses a serious health risk, especially for children.
According to the EPA, even low levels of lead exposure can cause behavior and learning problems in young kids. Adults aren’t immune either – lead can also increase blood pressure and kidney problems.
Bottom line – galvanized pipe + lead impurities = no bueno.
Low Pressure Problems
When galvanized pipes get rusty, they become narrower inside. It’s like forcing water through a clogged straw – annoying and inconvenient.
Besides making your showers lame, the constant high pressure on old pipes can cause leaks. The last thing you want is a burst pipe flooding your basement!
Along with crusty faucets and stained laundry, rusty pipes make your water look like it came from the Charles River.
While a bit of discoloration is harmless, if the rust-infused water smells or tastes metallic, it likely contains concerning levels of lead, iron, or manganese that can impact your health. Time to bust out the Brita.
How to Know if a House Has Galvanized Pipes
If the house is 50+ years old, chances are high it harbors galvanized pipes, but there are a few ways to know for sure:
- Look for dull gray pipes with silver glints. Over time, the zinc coating makes galvanized pipes appear dull rather than shiny. If you spot some old, grayish pipes running across your basement, bingo.
- Use a magnet. Galvanized steel pipes are magnetic, while copper, PVC, and other types of piping are not. Run a magnet over any exposed pipes and see if it sticks.
- Ask the seller. Some sellers will be upfront if the plumbing is original to a vintage home. But don’t rely on their word alone.
- Check permit history. Building permits for past plumbing replacements can give you clues about what’s behind the walls.
The Life Expectancy of Galvanized Pipes
Galvanized steel pipes typically last 40-50 years before showing signs of wear. However, the lifespan can vary depending on:
- Water quality – Mineral-rich hard water can erode the zinc coating faster.
- Water pressure – High pressure in supply lines causes more damage over time.
- Pipe size – Larger pipes tend to last longer than smaller ones.
- Installation quality – Proper installation increases lifespan.
If you’re handy, you may be thinking about DIY pipe replacement. But due to complexity, I recommend calling a pro for this one.
Should You Buy a House With Galvanized Plumbing?
Buying a home with 50 year old pipes is sort of like buying a vintage car – it may have charm, but you also inherit some headaches. Here are key factors to consider:
Potential Repair Costs
Fully replacing galvanized plumbing costs $2,000 to $15,000 on average, depending on house size and location of pipes. Consider hiring an inspector to estimate repair costs and factor that into your offer.
While pipes may technically have 10+ years before failing, they could start causing issues much sooner, from lower water pressure to rusty drinking water. Be prepared to replace them sooner rather than later.
Risk of Unnoticed Leaks
Galvanized pipe leaks often go undetected behind walls, allowing water damage and mold growth. Even small leaks can become big problems down the road.
Ultimately there’s no right answer, but going in eyes wide open about potential costs and headaches can help you make the best decision for your situation.
Alternatives to Galvanized Pipes
If you do end up replacing the plumbing, here are some of the top options:
Copper – The Gold Standard
Copper has long been the gold standard for supply lines. It resists corrosion and lasts 50-70 years. While pricy, its longevity makes it cost-effective.
PVC – Budget Pick
For those watching their wallet, PVC is an affordable alternative. The plastic pipes resist scale buildup and chlorine corrosion. Just beware they can become brittle with age.
PEX – Flexible & Easy to Install
PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) is flexible plastic tubing perfect for snaking through tight spaces. It also resists corrosion and is easy for DIY-ers to install.
Cast Iron – For Big Jobs
Cast iron is super durable and ideal for large waste lines, but too heavy for supply lines. This old-school material dampens noise but requires special tools to install.
Replacing Your Pipes
If you decide to replace galvanized pipes, here are some steps to make it go smoothly:
- Get quotes – Prices vary greatly, so get estimates from 3-4 licensed plumbers before picking one.
- Choose a pipe material – Consider factors like your budget, DIY skills, and pipe location.
- Plan the project – Replacing pipes in an occupied home takes time. Discuss a start-to-finish schedule with your plumber.
- Consider partial replacement – If piping is limited, replacing only problem sections might suffice.
- Upgrade other plumbing – While you have walls opened up, it’s smart to replace outdated drain lines or valves too.
Replacing galvanized plumbing in a home is a major project, but it comes with advantages like:
- Better water pressure – PVC and copper pipes improve household water flow.
- Reduced leaks – Modern pipes mean fewer bursts and floods.
- Peace of mind – You’ll have dependable plumbing for decades to come.
While spending $10K to re-plumb your whole house isn’t fun, it prevents much larger headaches down the road.
The Bottom Line
Galvanized pipes signal potential problems on the horizon. Their longevity depends on many factors and it’s impossible to predict exactly when issues might crop up.
Carefully weigh the risks and benefits before buying an old home with galvanized plumbing. Budgeting for a full system replacement may be wise to avoid headaches later. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but better to go in prepared!
With your eyes wide open about costs, risks, and benefits, you can make the right decision about buying a vintage dream home without having pipe nightmares down the road. Here’s to happy home shopping and a worry-free water supply!