Plumbing Pitfalls With Old Houses

July 26, 2022

Old homes from a bygone era are rich in character and history. With many dating back a good 50 to 100 years and beyond, they certainly have many stories to tell. Stories of families that have lived over generations, of major events that have occurred, and of changes in technology over decades. 

These houses do come with old technology though, and with old technology comes an increased potential for functionality problems in the home. For example, old homes with original or outdated plumbing may experience a variety of issues, if that existing plumbing technology has not been not well maintained. Let’s take a look at some of the most common plumbing pitfalls you’re likely to find in many old homes.

Buying or already living in an old house? Here’s what you should do first 

But first, whether you’re buying an old home or are already living in one, knowing the current state of its plumbing is crucial. A thorough assessment of the property by a licensed building inspector will highlight any structural issues with the property as well as any problems regarding drainage, moisture, rising damp and in some cases the electrical amenities of the home as well. 

For a more detailed evaluation of the plumbing though, you may wish to consult a licensed plumber. They will be able to inspect the three key plumbing zones of the property, those being the roof, the inside of the house and the outside of the house, and will focus on matters like:

  • The current condition of the roof and the gutters.
  • If any renovations or new paintwork on the roof has been done to rejuvenate the roof or merely cover up any problems.
  • Whether there are any access points into the roof space that may be purposefully concealed.
  • Substandard tiling in the house to cover up poor waterproofing.
  • Whether there have been any renovations to the bathroom or kitchen, and whether they were done by a trusted and licensed building contractor or a DIY job.
  • Whether there is a drainage diagram and if it is up to date.
  • The age of the hot water unit.
  • Whether the gas and water pipes are galvanised.
  • The age and composition of the sewer pipes.
  • Concrete cuts that may indicate previous issues with drainage.

If you’re already living in an old home and are perhaps looking to sell, or simply want to ensure your plumbing is up to current standards, you might also want to consider having these matters checked. 

Here are six examples of common plumbing issues found among old homes. 

Tree roots in the pipes

Tree roots and plumbing pipes, much like oil and water, are two things that shouldn’t mix. Sure – a well-established, decades old tree might be handy for providing shade, and can certainly be a beautiful feature of your yard. Who wouldn’t want that on their property?

Dig beneath the surface however, and you’ll discover roots of the tree growing in every possible direction. Tree roots will typically seek the easiest source of water they can find in order to keep thriving. In many cases that easy source is drainage or sewerage pipes, which they find their way into with relative ease – often through existing cracks. 

Image credit: Pexels

Tree root damage is among the most common plumbing related problems found in old homes. It can result in a variety of problems, including blockages in the pipes, and cracks and breaks that result in pipe leakage.

Pipe relining or replacement are often the most effective methods of addressing tree root damage. Replacement is largely regarded as a last resort option, so it’s wise to consult a licensed plumber to determine the best approach for your situation.

Roof leaks

Roof leaks can be quite common on older properties. From missing or cracked roof tiles, to gaps caused by storm damage, there are many ways that rain can breach your home through the roof. Once water permeates your home it can lead to moisture damage or flooding and require costly repairs. 

If you’re looking to purchase an old home, look for signs of water intrusion. Unless the house has been subjected to significant storm damage which has resulted in flooding, water intrusion can often be difficult to detect until it is too late. As the water has come through the roof, that water intrusion will often present itself as discolouration or water spots on the ceiling or walls. 

Old fixtures

Classic tapware and other plumbing fixtures may have their aesthetic charms, but might also no longer perform to the same standards of days gone by. The materials from which they were made may have begun degrading, certain elements might break, and leakages and other issues might occur. 

If your home or the old home you’re looking to buy has old plumbing fixtures, consider having them replaced – or at the very least inspected – by a licensed plumber to minimise the likelihood of future plumbing issues. This might include replacing existing valves, taps, handles and other components. Replacing them now before they cause problems in the future may benefit your plumbing and your bank account. 

Pipe corrosion 

To prevent corrosion and weathering, iron plumbing pipes in older homes were typically galvanised with molten zinc. Unfortunately, that galvanisation doesn’t last forever. The zinc corrodes, leaving the exposed iron vulnerable to the elements and enabling it to rust. That rust results in pipe failure, which can result in everything from leakages to noticeably reduced water pressure. 

These days plumbing pipes are usually made from copper, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other forms of plastic. Updating to new copper or PVC pipes can reduce the likelihood of corrosion and any subsequent plumbing problems. If you do opt for repairing your existing pipes, we recommend only fixing the parts that have suffered damage as repairing the pipe in its entirety may be costly. 

Image credit: Pixabay

Shifting pipes / Pipe belly

In older homes, plumbing pipes are commonly installed underneath the house or within thick slabs of concrete. As these older houses have a tendency to move gradually, this movement causes the pipes to shift downwards. This results in a buckle in the pipe which enables a “belly” to form. A pipe belly can impede water flow, or cause pools of waste to form which can lead to substandard drainage, blocked sewers and poorly flushing toilets. 

If your pipes have shifted over time which has resulted in pipe belly forming, you may need a plumber to fix the issue. 

Substandard plumbing repair attempts

One of the biggest problems with plumbing in old homes can actually be problems caused by previous plumbing attempts. Those prior efforts may have been DIY attempts made by homeowners doing the best with what they had, or professional work that fell well below standard. Whatever the situation, if you’re considering purchasing an old home, it would be wise to have a licensed plumber inspect your plumbing from top to bottom. They can make sure your plumbing meets Australian plumbing standard AS/NZS 3500 and is going to do well by you. 

Image credit: Pixabay

To recap…

There is certainly a degree of romance that surrounds the idea of buying an old home, particularly with its classic construction, antique features and picturesque design. But despite those romantic notions, it’s important to understand that old properties that retain old or original plumbing may present complications for you and your home. 

Among the most common issues related to plumbing in old homes are:

  • Damage caused to pipes by tree roots
  • Leaks in the roof
  • Old, worn out plumbing fixtures
  • Corroded iron pipes as a result of galvanisation wearing away
  • Shifting pipes or pipe belly
  • Poor previous attempts at DIY home plumbing

If you’re concerned about the condition of the plumbing in your old home, or the property you’re about to buy, it may be wise to request a complete inspection by a licensed plumber. It’s the best way to get a clear, detailed insight into the state of the plumbing; information that can be so crucial whether you’re planning to buy or sell an old home. 

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