Old homes are endlessly charming. Arched doorways, crown moldings, wainscoting, and stained glass windows all ooze charm. It’s easy to see why these design relics from yesteryear are so highly sought after.
Plumbing systems in such properties may also demand special attention. Many older plumbing systems were built with components that have reached, or soon will reach, the end of their life expectancy. If you’re considering buying a charming vintage home, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on the potential plumbing issues that may arise. Here are a few common challenges to be on the lookout for:
Aging Galvanized Steel Pipes
Most homes built before 1960 rely upon galvanized steel pipes for their plumbing. At the time of their invention, galvanized pipes were the main alternative to lead or copper pipes. Zinc coating helps protect them from corrosion, but wear and tear are inevitable and over time the zinc coating wears away allowing the water to come into direct contact with steel.
Once corrosion begins, your water may become discolored from contact with rust, water pressure might drop significantly as rust growth inside the pipe narrows its interior diameter, and you may even experience leaks, and, eventually, complete pipe failure.
Many homeowners opt to replace galvanized steel pipes before they have the chance to fail. Modern copper piping and PEX tubing can be installed relatively quickly, so long as you call upon an experienced plumber for the job.
Once replaced, you can count on constant water pressure and rust-free water. Don’t see the need for a full replacement job? Partial re-pipe jobs can help address the most problematic portions of a vintage home’s plumbing system for a fraction of what a complete job typically costs.
Bellied Sewer Pipes
Sewer lines rely on gravity to regulate water flow. When a section of sewer pipe becomes bellied, it sags underground, inevitably leading to sewage backups and sediment blockages. Poor planning and bad installation jobs are frequently to blame for bellied sewer pipes. Unfortunately, almost any system can experience these issues over time.
Plumbers use video inspection technology to diagnose these kinds of problems. Less extreme cases may be left alone if the issue is not causing blockages in the pipeline.
When a bellied sewer pipe has the potential to worsen, immediate repairs are often warranted. Ignoring this issue can lead to wastewater backing up into the home, which can cause serious and costly damage to interiors.
Old Drains, Valves, and Vents
Plumbing has evolved significantly in the years since most vintage homes were constructed. Depending on the age of your home, you may not have a vent system to help aid in drainage. If your home has a vent system in place, it may be out of code or rely on gravity to encourage proper drainage.
As a property settles over time, though, the plumbing and drainage systems can be affected. Drains may begin taking a long time to clear, and sewer odors may emerge. The speed of drainage directly correlates with the health and effectiveness of your plumbing system; a buildup of toxic gases indicates an obvious problem.
Older valves can also cause problems. Various valves help control water flow to a home’s toilets, sinks, and dishwasher. As shutoff valves, typically old-style gate valves, age, the packing inside degrades and causes handles to become loose. This often allows water to leak from the valve.
Bad valves also limit your ability to turn off the water in case of an emergency. By installing new valves, drains, and vents, homeowners can improve plumbing reliability and drainage while conserving water and lowering your monthly bill.
Tree Root Intrusion
As homes age, so does the foliage nearby. While older trees add curb appeal, aggressive root growth can cause serious sewer and drain issues. Tree roots in search of water and nutrients work their way into the pipe joints of your underground sewer line. Once inside, they grow and expand throughout the pipe. This alone can cause blockages, but the problem is made worse when food debris from your sink or waste and toilet paper get caught in the roots to create tough clogs.
Blockages may warrant a visit from your local plumber. If a tree is expected to pose a long-term threat to the health of your plumbing system, your plumber may advise you to make repairs to your sewer with trenchless pipe relining methods that allow plumbers to rehabilitate underground pipes without harming nearby trees.
Piecemeal Repair Work
When you buy an older home, you’re buying into the repairs the previous owners may or may not have done. For better or for worse, new homeowners are at the mercy of what previous owners have done to the plumbing system. The older the home, the better the odds that significant repair work has been done.
Particularly for vintage homes without proper documentation, it’s not obvious to know exactly what kind of work has and hasn’t been completed. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a plumbing professional stop by to evaluate the condition of the entire plumbing system.
An experienced plumber can provide much-needed insight into the health of your existing system and offer guidance on expected maintenance requirements. Without their expertise, homeowners may be flying blind into serious plumbing challenges.
Plumbing Replacement and Repair Work
If you’ve recently purchased a historic home and are experiencing plumbing or drain problems, it’s best to nip the issue in the bud. The professional plumbers at Roto-Rooter have the experience and tools to help. Even if you’re not experiencing plumbing problems, it’s smart to schedule a diagnostic appointment to assess the health of your existing plumbing system. Ignorance is definitely not bliss when you’re dealing with vintage homes!
About the Author
John Walker is a Master Plumbing Expert at Roto-Rooter Baltimore. After years of working in local homes from all eras, he’s become the go-to plumbing professional for all things vintage.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.