Northwest Renovation Magazine

A Home Improvement Magazine

Here in Portland, many of the beautiful homes you see as you drive through the Mississippi, Alberta, and Mount Tabor neighborhoods were built prior to 1980. Older homes provide a historic charm that many homeowners enjoy.

However, remodeling updates, particularly to the plumbing of these homes, are a must to keep them safe and stylish for years to come. Performing these updates brings up a number of issues unique to older plumbing. If you are renovating a home constructed over 40 years ago, consider the following issues that you may encounter and need to troubleshoot.

Galvanized Pipes
Galvanized pipes are known for their durability and longevity. However, in homes of advanced age, problems with galvanized pipes can include corrosion and plugs. Both issues generally occur due to low water pressure, and the hot water pipes are generally the first to suffer.

If only the problem pipes were replaced in the past, there may still be galvanized pipes within the home, with unforeseen issues. Also, some of the older galvanized pipes may have been replaced with more galvanized pipe, instead of copper or plastic, leading to future corrosion and clogs.

If copper piping was attached to galvanized pipes, the resulting contact of dissimilar metals can produce further corrosion. This can be treated with dielectric coupling, but finding the junctions where the metals meet if the pipes are embedded in the walls is a major challenge, and requires invasive techniques that the homeowner may not approve. If the homeowner did the job himself, he may not have included dialectic coupling at all.

Further problems develop if the older pipes contain lead, a toxic and dangerous substance. Galvanized lead pipes should only be used for sewer transport and should be replaced with lead-free models for in-home drinking and washing water.

Because of these multiple issues, your best approach when dealing with galvanized pipes in older homes is to propose a full system replacement with either a copper or PEX system. Sound easy? Explaining this to an economical homeowner can be tricky, as replacing an entire home’s piping requires a substantial financial investment.

I advise my clients that large-scale updates will save them money and time, and help them to avoid ongoing patchwork as a result of partial pipe replacements that clog or produce lead-induced illness. Troubleshooting plumbing issues in one fell swoop is always preferable to repeated repairs.

Sewer Line
If the old home in question was built on a sewer line, the homeowner owns the line reaching from the property itself to the street. Issues with this line in older homes can include root binding and pipe collapse.

Pipes made from clay are particularly vulnerable to intruding roots, and plastic pipes crush easily. If the pipes were made from Orangeburg, a popular material during World War II made from tarpaper, toxic chemicals are present. Finally, it is likely that somewhere within a system of advanced age, some form of clog has appeared (or will), whether from old grease, a lodged baseball or diaper, etc…

Discovering which of the above issues is present in these pipes once again poses a financial challenge to homeowners looking to save money on repairs. Remodeling aside, running a camera down the line for a visual check can cost up to $250. I let my clients know that finding the exact root of their sewer line problem will allow them to make targeted changes that will last, and, as in the case of system-wide pipe replacement, save them the cost and trouble of frequent patch jobs that fail to prevent long term problems.

Surprise Space: an Old Home Bonus!
Minor issues arise in nearly every plumbing remodel, but one of the joys of owning an older home is unique construction, which provides features that more modern properties lack. In some lucky cases, homeowners are unaware of hidden aspects of their homes until a plumber or other contractor starts to make updates.

One remodeling story from my own experience resulted in a surprise find that delighted my client. I was remodeling a home that was 95 years old. The homeowners wanted a bathroom installed on the third floor, which required running drain lines from the basement to that floor.

We carefully planned our route, and as we got ready to head to the third floor, I noticed a large, empty spot in the home. The area appeared to be perfect for our piping, as it was located next to the landing on the stairs, in between the second and third floors, and would provide standing room to work in.

With approval from the homeowner, we sawed a hole large enough to squeeze through, which revealed an entire room, complete with a rug, chair, small table, lamp, and even a window with curtains that had been covered up on the outside. I called the homeowner, who was thrilled at our discovery, before running inside (I’ve seen enough horror movies to know better). We found another way to get our plumbing to the new bathroom, and the homeowner turned this space into a reading room.

Remodeling older homes can pose quite a few plumbing challenges that need to be addressed by both your team and the homeowner for the best outcome. The joy of working with older structures, however, is that you never know what you may find and many times, the surprise is better than your best laid plans.

Leo Borton is the owner of Meticulous Plumbing Home Services LLC. Borton has over 29 years of experience serving the greater Portland, OR area. Contact Borton at 503-208-2812 or visit

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