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Getting to know galvanized steel plumbing

Interesting factoid from Wikipedia: Galvanization is the process of applying a protective zinc coating to steel or iron, in order to prevent rusting. The term is derived from the name of Italian scientist Luigi Galvani.

What is galvanized steel piping?

Galvanized steel plumbing pipes are pipes made of steel, and coated with zinc to prevent rusting. This is commonly done by dipping the pipes in a molten zinc bath. These pipes and fittings were commonly installed in homes prior to 1950 (some sites say it was used until the 1960s). Over time, the galvanized steel pipes begin to rust or corrode from the inside out, resulting in reduced water pressure and restricted water flow. This presents an increased risk of leaks or ruptures occurring in the pipes and the potential for flood damage. Corrosion also occurs to steel when it is connected directly to copper or brass.

What is the life expectancy?

Galvanized steel pipes have an average life expectancy of 40 to 50 years. Since these have not been installed since, at the very latest, the 1960’s, these would all have passed their expected lifespan. If your supply lines are made of galvanized steel, there is constant water pressure pushing the water towards the faucets, placing pressure on the corroded pipes. If your waste lines are made of galvanized steel, there is less pressure on them, as the waste liquid is just flowing out of the home, and the lifespan may be a bit longer.

What should you do when something goes wrong?

Galvanized steel will corrode over time, and it is almost impossible to tell this is happening just by looking at the pipes from the outside. The pipes rust away from the inside out, causing weak structural properties resulting in leaks and collapses. They will also develop calcium deposits inside of the pipe. These pipes can eventually become completely clogged with calcium build-up resulting in low water pressure and rusty water.

Watch for these tell-tale signs to spot issues before the galvanized steel pipes begin to leak or even rupture:

  • Rust around your pipe joints and pitted rust spots on your pipes.
  • Brownish water coming out of your faucets – Rust can end up in the water itself. This will be obvious if the water appears brownish or rust-coloured after it has been left off for a long period. This is due to the water sitting in the pipe long enough to accumulate enough rust to make itself visible to the naked eye.
  • Lower-than-usual water pressure. As the pipe’s internal diameter becomes narrower due to calcium build-up, the water has a much smaller path to traverse. This restricted flow reveals itself as lowered water pressure since there is simply not enough water making it through to provide the water pressure you need.

Unfortunately, if you are experiencing issues with your galvanized steel pipes, the best remedy may be completely replacing the galvanized plumbing that has been affected. According to Cost Helper, the cost to replace galvanized steel plumbing in the average house ranges between $1,500 and $15,000.

Is there a risk of lead contamination?

The service lines, which connect your home’s plumbing with the water main, are normally made of copper. However in older cities in the Eastern parts of the US and Canada, may still have service lines made of lead. Many homes have had this lead service pipe removed and upgraded with modern plumbing material, however for homes that had galvanized plumbing while their lead service lines were in-place there exists another area of concern. Galvanized piping has been found to accumulate lead that has leeched into the water from the old lead service lines. As the galvanized plumbing corrodes (as it inevitably will do), it releases this built up lead back into the water.

What will your home insurance company want to know?

Insurance companies will want to know exactly what type of plumbing you have in your home. If you’re not sure, there is an easy way to check. Find where the piping enters your home and then scratch it. If the piping is:

  • Copper, the scratched area will have the look of a copper penny.
  • Galvanized steel, the scratched area will be a silver-gray color.
  • Plastic, which is usually black in color, you will be able to see a clamp where it is joined to the water supply piping.

If you have galvanized steel plumbing, your insurance company may require you to have it replaced with copper or plastic piping before providing coverage. Or they may increase your water damage deductible or limit the amount of coverage provided.

Will my home insurance cover water damage from burst plumbing?

Typically, home insurance policies include coverage for any sudden or accidental escape of water in your home, including ruptured water lines, or overflowing appliances. This is why insurance companies ask what type of plumbing you have in your home. They need to be able to accurately assess the risk in order to charge the right rates and provide you with the right coverage. Sometimes, depending on your plumbing situation, a company may not be able to insure you at all, and you’ll need to shop around, and likely pay a higher rate, if you can find coverage at all.

Don’t let this tempt you to tell a little white lie to your insurance broker. This can be construed as “misrepresentation” and can void your policy when it is discovered. Your best course is to always tell the truth. If you discover that the only solution is to replace your plumbing, the expense will be a lot less than finding out, after a loss, that you have no insurance coverage.

When you have a home insurance policy in place, remember that there are always exclusions and limitations. It is extremely important to read your policy wording, with an emphasis on any water exclusions. You can contact your insurance agent or broker if you have any questions. In most cases, there is a requirement that you either shut off your main water supply or arrange to have your home checked daily if you are going to be away more than a few days during the winter. If you fail to do this, damage caused by frozen or burst plumbing may not be covered. The requirements differ from one company to the next, so before you go away on vacation, you would be wise to give your broker a call to make sure you’re complying, and that coverage will be in place.

Other tips to prevent water damage inside your home:

  • Know exactly what type of plumbing you have, especially if your home is older. Life expectancies vary, and as mentioned above, your insurance company will want an accurate picture of the risk they’re taking on. If your plumbing is past its “best before” date, you could be at risk of leaks, or even worse, bursting pipes.
  • Check the grout in your bathroom. Water can leak through any small cracks, resulting in dampness behind the wall. This can lead to rot or mold, which is never a good thing.
  • Think about installing a leak protection device on your plumbing system. Some of these can actually shut off the water when it senses an inappropriate flow.
  • Scout out any water in the basement after a big rain. If you see water anywhere, it could be because your foundation has some small cracks. You may need to make some repairs, or it could be time to install a sump pump. Maybe your window wells aren’t draining properly, and water has come in through the basement windows. This can be a fairly simple fix, so add this to your maintenance checklist.
  • Check any water supply hoses on your appliances, such as washing machines or dishwashers. They usually come with rubber hoses that get brittle and crack as they get older. These can be replaced with stainless steel braided hoses, even if you haven’t yet spotted any cracks or other signs of wear. Keep in mind that all hoses have a life expectancy, so check with the manufacturer.
  • Store valuable possessions high up on shelves, not in boxes on the floor.

Tips to stop water from coming into your home:

  • Remove any snow that may have piled up against the side of your house. As it melts, it can seep into your foundation.
  • Make sure the ground around your house, slopes away, and not towards, your house. You want water to run away, not to run towards your house (and into your basement).
  • Inspect and clean out the gutters around your roof. These can clog, sending water down between your walls. Also, make sure the downspout is directing water away from the foundation.
  • Look for missing or worn-out shingles on your roof. Also, see if any flashing is missing or has come loose. Have these repaired before the rainy season hits.

If you have any other questions, you can always contact Square One at 1.855.331.6933 for more information.

Information sources:

Galvanized steel plumbing
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