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What to Know About Old Plumbing Pipes and Systems

7/17/19
Grainger Editorial Staff

Here are the common issues associated with an aging plumbing system or old plumbing pipes and what you can do to mitigate problems with this critical building component.

Tasked with ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of water, plumbing pipes and systems play a critical role in all commercial buildings. When issues like reduced water pressure, overflowing toilets, water discoloration or sluggish drains begin to emerge, it’s time to develop an alert system that will keep you in touch with what's going on and help you quickly address the problems. That way, when any or all of the indicators outlined in this article begin to impact your facility, you'll know how to best deal with them. 

You’re Not Alone

With 72% of current U.S. buildings being more than 20 years old, the odds that a plumbing issue will at some point impact your facility are fairly high. According to Grainger’s The State of Aging Buildings: Today’s Building Management Challenges, 66% of facility managers view plumbing as one of the most critical areas to address in an older building.

Among the 1,000 facility managers surveyed for the report, 48% say they’re currently planning improvements or upgrades to their plumbing systems, which ranked fourth in importance after roof, electrical and HVAC repairs. According to the survey, 42% of building managers cite their biggest plumbing challenges as frequent malfunctions, and 41% point to the incompatibility of older and newer materials.

What Are the Different Types of Pipes?

A building’s plumbing system involves copper, stainless steel, brass, and/or plastic parts and equipment. It's made up of pipes, fixtures and two different subsystems—one that brings freshwater in and one that removes wastewater. There are several different types of pipes used in commercial plumbing systems:

  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has a wide variety of plumbing uses, from drainage pipe to water mains. It is most commonly used for irrigation piping, home and building supply piping.
  • Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) can stand temperatures up to about 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and can be used for hot and cold water.
  • Copper pipe is commonly used in the construction industry for water supply lines and refrigerant lines in HVAC (heating, cooling, and air-conditioning) systems.
  • Galvanized pipe is steel or iron pipe that has been galvanized with a zinc coating, which keeps water from corroding the pipe.
  • Stainless steel pipes are expensive, but especially good for areas in which corrosion is a major concern and strength is a priority.
  • Brass pipes are rust-proof and corrosion-resistant. They are among the most durable and long-lasting for commercial plumbing installations.
  • Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) is a polyethylene material which has undergone a change in molecular structure using a chemical or a physical process, whereby the polymer chains are chemically linked. Cross-linking of polyethylene into PEX for pipes results in improved properties, including elevated temperature strength and performance, chemical resistance and resistance to cracking. 

Seven Indicators of Plumbing Problems

When your plumbing system starts to break down, several signs will alert you to an issue. Sobieski, commercial and residential contractors offering HVAC services and recipient of the 2014 Excellence in Construction Award by Associated Builders & Contractors, and award-winning heating and cooling company Sinclair, based in Lubbock, TX, highlight a few of the most important indicators to watch out for:

  1. Stains: Water stains on walls and underneath plumbing pipes can indicate leaks, meaning pipe replacement will soon be needed, Sobieski points out.
  2. Leaks: Sobieski adds that obvious leaks and drips are the most reliable signs that a plumbing problem requires pipe or fixture replacements. 
  3. Pipe and tubing damage: Look for dents, dimpling, flaking and discoloration. Damage or changes in the physical characteristics of plumbing pipes and tubing can signal the need for replacement, Sobieski notes.
  4. Water color: If your employees notice a discoloration in the water that's coming out of your building's taps, it could be a sign that the water pipes are corroded and need to be replaced as soon as possible.
  5. Foul odors: “Unpleasant or downright offensive odors coming from plumbing fixtures could indicate a blockage in the sewer vent stack,” HVAC contractor Sinclair points out. As these gases build up over time, they can lead to dangerous sewer leaks that can affect your entire commercial property.
  6. Low water pressure: This could indicate a blockage in your plumbing system’s supply lines. The pressure loss may have been gradual (which doesn’t necessarily indicate an urgent problem), but if the loss is sudden then there could be a broken or completely blocked pipe in your system, according to Sinclair.
  7. Lead in pipes: Lead is a major concern for buildings that were constructed before 1978, as there is a chance that these fixtures could contaminate a facility’s drinking water. “Modern plumbing systems use copper, brass or PVC pipes,” Sinclair explains. “Each of these materials has a different lifespan and isn’t meant to last forever.” For example, PVC pipes must be replaced after 24 to 40 years, while older brass pipes can last up to 100 years.

In addition to addressing pipe-related issues quickly, companies can upgrade to more modern fixtures  (i.e., faucets, toilets, flush valves, etc.) to help reduce headaches and repair/replacement costs, while also significantly reducing water consumption.

“By identifying common problems with plumbing fixtures that can indicate long-term problems and by comparing data on repair costs vs. upgrade costs combined with projected savings,” FacilitiesNet advises, “managers can make smart repair-or-upgrade decisions.”

Predictive and Proactive Plumbing Maintenance

For managers who want to proactively address their building’s plumbing issues, FacilitiesNet also recommends a mix of preventive maintenance (PM) and predictive maintenance (PdM). This includes inspecting fixtures periodically, and repairing, replacing or upgrading valves as needed.

Other proactive steps include keeping up with fixture innovations, selecting the best quality fixtures for the application requirements, ensuring that both proactive maintenance (PM) and preventive maintenance (PdM) practices are scheduled annually and making sure employees are in place and ready to handle the work.

By developing an alert system that prepares you to respond to the indicators outlined in this article, building managers can prevent large repair bills and the persistent problems that appear when plumbing problems are ignored.

Download the 2019 Aging Buildings Report to learn how facility managers like you are planning for and prioritizing projects to keep their aging buildings operating safely and efficiently.

 

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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