If you live in a home built before 1960, chances are your plumbing system is made of galvanized steel or iron pipes. Galvanized pipes were the standard in homebuilding for decades, but times have changed, and many homeowners are making the switch to alternatives like copper.
But do you really need to worry about galvanized pipes? In this article, we’ll get into a little background on these older pipes and talk about what they mean for the health of your home and its plumbing system. If you happen to have galvanized pipes in your home, we’ll give you tips on how to decide if you should keep them or have them replaced.
What Are Galvanized Pipes?
For most of the modern era, lead pipes were used for building plumbing systems, even for drinking water. Thankfully, we eventually realized that lead pipes are a significant public safety hazard, and iron and steel were identified as alternatives, except for one little snag: iron and steel rust over time.
Enter galvanization. By coating iron and steel in a protective layer of zinc, pipes had a buffer zone against the elements. Starting around 1960, these galvanized pipes became the staple in homes all around the world. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a perfect solution.
Issues With Galvanized Pipes
As time went on, it became clear that there were some problems with galvanized pipes. While a freshly installed network of galvanized steel plumbing typically works without a hitch, after 30 or 40 years, a few issues start to pop up:
- Rust buildup. Galvanized pipes are often victims of corrosion and rust over time. Galvanization doesn’t stop rust; it just creates a new layer on the pipe that is exposed to rust first. But as years and decades go by, the protective zinc layer eventually becomes completely corroded.
- Low pressure and leaks. Homes with galvanized pipes can eventually suffer problems with water pressure and even leaks or pipe bursts. Pipe leaks often occur at the pipe joints — typically behind walls — where the buildup of water and moisture can go unnoticed for long periods of time. This could eventually lead to structural damage, toxic mold and expensive repairs.
- Potential health risks. The zinc layer in galvanized pipes often contains impurities like lead or other heavy metals. Lab tests have found that galvanized pipes can have up to 10 times the amount of lead deemed hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. Once corrosion sets in, these contaminants can work their way into your drinking water.
- Rust colored water. Once the interior of galvanized pipes have been corroded enough, iron can get into the water, giving it a rusty brown color.
If you live in an older home, there’s a pretty good chance your plumbing network is using this outdated material. But how can you know for sure?
Do I Have Galvanized Pipes?
You don’t have to go digging through building records to determine if your home has galvanized pipes. Just find an area of exposed pipe and scratch it with a nickel or screwdriver to reveal its true color. If it looks like a penny, you have copper piping. If it looks metallic gray, you probably have galvanized steel or iron pipes.
Cleaning Galvanized Pipes
Doing a complete cleaning of your entire plumbing network is probably too extensive for a do-it-yourself project. You can clean the outside of galvanized steel by using a water and laundry detergent solution or distilled white vinegar. If you’re comfortable with shutting off your water main, bleeding your pipes and removing pipe joints then you can clean smaller sections of your pipes by soaking them in vinegar. But, if you’re looking at a network-wide buildup of rust and corrosion, you’re best long-term solution is to just have your plumbing network replaced with more reliable, modern piping.
Should Galvanized Pipes Be Replaced?
The short answer is yes, you should definitely look into an upgrade if your home is outfitted with galvanized pipes. Replacing your old pipes with new copper pipes might be an expensive job, but it can save you a ton of money in the long run. However, if your pipes seem to be in a good state currently and you aren’t planning on living in your home for several decades, you might be fine with just a little minor maintenance.
The first thing you have to consider is the potential to save money on future repairs. Since we know that galvanized pipes break down over time, replacing them can significantly lower your chances of expensive leaks, pipe bursts and water damage.
Water damage that builds up over time can lead to some serious repair bills. And the small, undetected leaks that cause invisible water damage also waste hundreds, even thousands of gallons of water every year, costing you even more on your utility bills.
Getting Smart About Plumbing
- Upgrade your plumbing network with modern, copper pipes. In addition to being resilient to rust and corrosion, copper pipes don’t pose a risk for lead or other nasty substances. A brand-new copper plumbing system can last up to 75 years.
- Learn about different ways to maintain healthy plumbing in your home. Winterizing your pipes, learning how to deal with clogs, and taking care of your garbage disposal can save you a ton of money in the long run. Small changes can lead to huge benefits.
- Use a smart home water security system like the Flo Smart Water Monitor and Shutoff. It proactively monitors your home's water pressure and flow, as well as ambient temperature, to detect even the smallest microleak. And all that information is sent directly to your smartphone, so you can check up on the state of your plumbing wherever you are. If your pipe bursts, your system can even shut off your home’s water in order to protect it from serious damage.
In the current landscape of plumbing technology, galvanized pipes are slowly becoming a thing of the past. New construction projects virtually never use them. If you’re looking at ways to make your home last far into the future, replacing your old plumbing network should make its way to your to-do list."