Home Remodels and The Water System

Why Old Home Owners Should Consider A Plumbing Upgrade

Anyone who has ever binge watched an HGTV show (e.g. House Hunters, Property Brothers, Fixer Upper), has resurfaced with some gripes. For example, it is not at all reasonable to reject a house because the interior paint color is lame. It’s paint. It can be changed. Also, what in the world is shiplap? And why must all homes be open concept?

Unfortunately, for those considering a real life home remodel, the complaints don’t remain so simple. This is true for anyone who is mulling the purchase or remodel of an older home, which may or may not be up to today’s safety standards. Particularly worrisome is an old plumbing system.

Homeowners should be wary of older plumbing

There are a few hard truths that every homeowner and, let’s be honest, home renter, should be aware of regarding their plumbing.

The first and most obvious truth: Lead is a dangerous and toxic contaminant found most often in drinking water in houses with older plumbing.

Lead poisoning can lead to learning difficulty, irritability, weight loss, hearing loss, fatigue, and seizures.

It’s also important to note that lead is bio-accumulative, which means it does not degrade and will instead collect in the body over time. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 10 to 20 percent of lead exposure comes from contaminated water. This number jumps to between 40 and 60 percent for babies who drink formula that contains contaminated water.

Second, if a house was built before 1986, there is a good chance it has lead plumbing. This is no small thing – United States census data from 2000 shows approximately 83 percent of homes were built before 1989.

And finally, even if the house was built after 1986, its plumbing may still contain lead. Between 1986 and 2014, “lead-free” plumbing was defined as plumbing that contained less than 8 percent lead. This is still an incredibly large and unsafe percentage. For reference, after 2014, lead-free plumbing was redefined as plumbing that contained 0.25 percent lead.

Risk of Lead In Your Plumbing

Don’t move out of the house just yet

While it’s likely that an older home has a larger-than-appropriate percentage of lead in the plumbing, that’s not always the case.

For anyone considering buying an old home, currently living in an older house, or considering a remodel, don’t panic just yet. It’s worth looking into what pipes the house is equipped with. A previous homeowner may have switched out the piping at some point. There’s also a chance that the house doesn’t have lead pipes at all and instead has pipes made of copper, plastic, or galvanized steel.

One of the first steps to discerning the type of pipe used for a house’s plumbing is identifying the service line, which can be located in the basement or towards the front of the house. After locating the service line, use a screwdriver to scratch the pipe lightly. If the color underneath the paint is brownish, the pipes are likely copper. A soft and shiny metal under the paint points to lead pipes and if magnets stick to the pipe, it’s galvanized steel. Allegheny Front offers a comprehensive write up on identifying and assessing a home’s pipes.

For more detailed information on where water in a city or town is sourced from, the EPA offers an annual Consumer Confidence Report.

Even if service line pipes aren’t lead, you may still experience lead leaching for one of a few reasons. Sometimes a house has undergone a partial line replacement, which means the service line is copper or steel, but somewhere underground it connects back to a lead pipe.

Or your pipes could be entirely copper, but the solder, or glue between metal work pieces, in the plumbing may contain lead. There’s also the potential for older brass fixtures, like faucets, to contain and leach lead.

It’s not always necessary to revamp the plumbing system

For someone planning a remodel, it’s prudent to consider testing tap water for lead and add some plumbing upgrades to the remodel list. For everyone else, there are still ways to avoid lead poisoning without completely uprooting and replacing a house’s pipes.

If a water test shows traces of lead, the first step is to flush pipes by running them for 30 to 60 seconds before drinking water. Always make sure, when flushing water, that the water is cold. Lead will dissolve into hot water more efficiently than it would in cold water. At that point, if you must, you can warm the water. Boiling water, though, is also not advisable – the concentration of lead in water will increase as water evaporates during the boiling process.

Filtration and water treatment is the most effective method to rid water of lead. Carbon filters are designed to remove lead. Other filtration methods include reverse osmosis and distillation.


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