A lot of homes built before the 1960s contain galvanized plumbing and for good reason. The world had just discovered the health concerns with using lead pipes and was looking for a safer alternative.
The two options that entered the scene were copper and galvanized plumbing of which galvanized was the cheaper. Galvanized plumbing is technically made of steel, but since steel and water are not a great combination (aka rust) there needed to be some modifications to the steel to prevent it from rusting. That modification was galvanization and it was a process first discovered in 1836.
According to Kloeckner Metals the name “galvanizing” was first applied to the process invented by Stanislas Sorel. In 1836 he patented a process of cleaning steel and then coating it with zinc by dipping it into molten zinc. He called the process of galvanizing the “galvanic” method. This was the beginning of modern hot-dip galvanizing.
The zinc coating on the steel acts as a barrier to protect the steel from corrosion and is still used today on nails, fasteners, and other metal products intended for use outdoors or in corrosive environments like coastal climates.
Galvanized pipes have a lifespan of about 70-80 years before they completely give up the ghost. Since they were pretty common in homes built between 1910 and 1960 that lifespan is fast coming to an end. If you still have your original galvanized pipes it is likely time to replace them and start budgeting for a repipe.
Problems with Galvanized Plumbing
The galvanized coating on these pipes was a good solution for the first couple decades to protect these pipes, but as the years progressed it became more and more apparent that there were serious problems that were beginning to occur with galvanized pipes.
Problem #1 Corrosion
These pipes looked great on the outside really forever, but the issues were all happening inside them. It didn’t take too long for the zinc coating inside to be worn away and then the rust began in earnest. Rusty water will not kill you, but when you see what the inside of these pipes look like after 50+ years it’s not something most of us will have any interest drinking. Here are just a few signs your pipes are needing replacement.
- Low-Pressure – It doesn’t have to be everywhere, but if you are having low water pressure that is a sure sign that your galvanized pipes have rusted so much that portions of them are packed with sediment and chunks of rust which are blocking the flow of water.
- Rust Stains – If your tub or sink is stained from rust or you notice that your water has a reddish tint to it then chances are good you’ve got rusty pipes that need replacing.
Here’s a great video of what these pipes can look after 70-years of service. Honestly this was frightening me!
Problem #2 Lead
Weren’t galvanized pipes invented to resolve the issue of lead in the water? Yep, they sure were, BUT we really screwed this one up historically speaking. Lead is actually one of the components of the zinc used in the galvanizing process. According to the American Galvanizer’s Association, “lead is not purposely added to galvanizing baths, rather it is an impurity in zinc. Different types of zinc have different levels of lead.”
Back in the early days of galvanization manufacturers were not as careful to select zinc with extra low levels of lead and there were really no guidelines as to how much lead was allowed in the zinc mixture. So, while it’s difficult to tell how much lead is in the galvanized pipes in your house without doing a water test there is definitely some amount of lead in galvanized plumbing. And since there is really no safe amount of lead to be ingesting, replacing your pipes will largely resolve this issue.
Problem #3 Leaks
While leaks aren’t an issue for newer galvanized pipes, as they age and the rust grows, unexpected leaks can become a major issue for this type of plumbing. You never know when or where the rust will eat through the pipe enough to cause water to begin leaking out and since these pipes were used for supply lines mainly that means you have pressurized water constantly leaking into a wall. Can you say mold & mildew?
If you’ve got galvanize plumbing then because of these three issues I would recommend replacing them with another option like PEX, Copper, or CPVC. You’ll notice a huge performance change as well as the taste of your water and health benefits of making sure your water is lead free.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
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.