Pipe Problems

“It’s a lead pipe lock”

What on earth does this saying mean anyway?

It is, of course, a common idiom for something that is assured. It seems to me that it comes up most often in the context of sports prognostication. On a radio show out of Washington just the other day, the commentator said, “Tom Brady will throw for three touchdowns this weekend – lead pipe lock!” In other words, in this guy’s mind, there is no chance that Brady is going to throw for less than three scores.

The origin of this phrase is debated. Some think it is derived from “lead pipe cinch”, a reference to the metal cinch or clamp that holds a race horse’s saddle steady. The jockey who can stay on his horse has a better chance of winning. Others hold that it is a reference to the steel bands that held lead pipes together, a union stronger than the surrounding pipe.

In my nerdom, I hope the reference is to archaic plumbing practices.

Most people don’t think of plumbing as advanced technology in the way that we do electrical systems or the burgeoning Smart Home technology that allows you to open and close the garage door, monitor security, and turn lights on while you’re sipping from a coconut thousands of miles away. Still, plumbing has dramatically improved over time. It wasn’t that long ago when heavy cast iron, lead, and even wood were used as part of home plumbing systems.

When galvanized steel pipe was introduced around the turn of the 20th C. it was a vast improvement over older piping materials and cheaper than copper. Figuring out that putting a zinc coating on steel (galvanization) prevents it from rusting was a major break-through.

Thousands upon thousands of houses built through the 1950s (and even later in some areas) have galvanized plumbing. Many 18th and 19th C. homes, where indoor plumbing was retroactively added, do as well. New homes, however, do not. Metal plumbing is heavy, expensive, and difficult to install. We also now know the great drawback of galvanized pipe: it rusts from the inside!

This pipe is from a kitchen built in the 1950s. I've actually seen much worse!

This pipe is from a kitchen built in the 1950s. I’ve actually seen much worse!

The zinc coating on the steel does not last forever and eventually wears off. The acidity of water, the thickness of the coating, and age are all factors that determine the life expectancy of a given pipe. Read-up on galvanized plumbing and most sources will say that it lasts anywhere from 50 to 70 years. In my experience inspecting homes in the Winchester area, 50 is the more accurate estimate.

The use of galvanized plumbing began to wane after WWII, but let’s do some simple calculations with 1960 as an end date. 1960 + 50 = 2010. Hmmm. Yup. This means that, though it can be found in countless homes in our area, virtually all the galvanized piping out there is living on borrowed time.

So how can you tell if a pipe is rusting from the inside? More often than not, small holes on the outside of the pipe give an indication of the problems within; the tip of the iceberg, if you will. Another way to tell is water pressure. Generally poor water pressure or, and this is what I see more frequently, variances in pressure from room to room, can also be a hint.

I'd be willing to bet that this spot reflects problems on the inside.

I’d be willing to bet that this spot reflects problems on the inside.

Sure, miles of intact galvanized plumbing are still channeling water to sinks, tubs, and toilets, but – forgive me – it’s a lead pipe lock that it is deteriorating.

Grab a flashlight! These are easily missed in dark basements and crawlspaces.

Grab a flashlight! These are easily missed in dark basements and crawlspaces.

Like electrical wiring, much of the plumbing in our homes is not readily accessible. It’s tucked away in walls and under floors. My encouragement, as someone who loves old homes, is to be diligent about looking over the pipe you can see, in your house or a prospective one. Understand that galvanized plumbing has the potential to be an expensive fix and plan accordingly. Don’t assume that the lack of a gushing leak means that problems aren’t present.

– Joe