Updating Old Plumbing: What to Know Before You Start

A wrench and copper pipes over home plans on white paper.

It’s a good idea to update old plumbing, but it’s never a good idea to take on a DIY project before you have all the knowledge you need. Before you start updating old plumbing, find out what you should know about your pipes and how to maintain them over the years to come.

Know the Warning Signs

A corroded, rusty pipe

Check your exposed pipes at least once a year for signs of trouble. Discoloration, flaking, and dimpling of pipes are all symptoms of corrosion that could soon lead to leaks. (Even a tiny leak is an indication that you need to check your plumbing and start replacing and upgrading piping. Tiny leaks will only become much bigger leaks over time.) Low pressure is an indication that you have water leaks you can't see, perhaps in the supply line leading to the house. Discoloration of the water is another telltale sign of corrosion. Brownish or yellowish water is a sign of rust, which suggests that your pipes are beginning to decay. Look for these warning signs, and you'll know when it's time to start updating an outdated plumbing system.

When to Replace Plumbing

In some cases, even if there are no major problems, you'll be forced to replace pipes because of the material used to make the pipes. Though lead pipe is durable and can last for a century, it's incredibly hazardous to your health. Lead can leach into your drinking water and create serious health risks, so any and all lead piping must be replaced wherever it's present.

You may also want to consider replacing old, galvanized piping. Once galvanized piping starts to corrode, it must be replaced in whole sections because patching the pipe is not an effective long-term solution. Some homeowners opt to replace all their galvanized piping at once when it begins to corrode, but this can be expensive, so some take the more economical approach of replacing only bad sections when necessary.

If your home has polybutylene pipes, otherwise known as PB pipes, you'll want to replace these completely. This material was used from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, and manufacturing has since stopped. PB pipe is notoriously hard to work with and prone to problems. In the long term, the maintenance and repair of PB pipe will cost you far more than replacing it all with a better material.

Drain Lines

Someone working on a sewer line.

Plumbing isn't just about bringing water to your home; it also allows the water to drain. If you have leaks or you notice other problems with your water, the issue may be with your drain lines. A plumber can use a camera to check your sewer line for leaks, breaks, and other problems that could be effecting your overall water system. In time, clay sewer lines begin to age and corrode and may need to be replaced entirely.

Replacing Old With New

If you're replacing your plumbing, there are several material options. Copper is an easy material to work with, but costly, and the copper market dictates how much you'll end up spending. Copper also corrodes more quickly than other plumbing materials because that's the nature of the metal. Many homeowners are choosing plastic piping in newer homes because it's affordable and durable. There's another benefit to plastic pipes: they don't freeze in winter. Plastic pipes are made to expand with water when it freezes, so homeowners who live in cold environments often find this the most cost-effective and low-maintenance choice.

Consider Movement

When you're replacing plumbing lines, you don't have to follow the existing routes. If you're replacing your plumbing anyway, now is a good time to consider moving that sink or toilet that you've been thinking about. If you want to make changes to your fixtures or add any new fixtures to your home, the best time to do so is when you're already replacing water and/or drain lines.

Updating your plumbing will prevent your water bills from spiking due to leaks and keep your water safe and healthy for everyone to use. But updating plumbing is costly and can become a pretty big job. Find out what you need to know first, and update your plumbing the right way.