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Know the Life Expectancy of Your Community's Pipes – Before they Fail

Know the Life Expectancy of Your Community's Pipes – Before they Fail

Like most things in life, pipes don’t last forever. To accurately estimate the useful life of the piping systems at your property, as well as plan for maintenance costs and large capital improvement projects, it’s critical to understand how the environment, geography and other factors impact the resilience of those systems.

When it comes to different pipe types (i.e., polybutylene, copper, galvanized steel pipe), each has an overall expected usable life based on their material. But when you look beyond the manufacturers’ data and national averages, location is key.

With over 25 years of industry experience, we know that in certain areas of the United States, piping systems are failing at a faster rate.  While nationally the average life of polybutylene (“poly”) pipes is 26 years, in states like North Carolina and Virginia, poly pipes are failing up to ten years earlier.  Likewise, for galvanized steel pipes, the average life nationwide is 50 years, but in states like California, we are seeing galvanized pipes fail in as few as 18 years.   We have seen some copper pipes in perfectly good shape at 75 years old, while others have sprouted pinhole leaks at only 10 years of age due to the quality of the copper and the corrosiveness of the water. Cast iron pipe is expected to have a usable life of 50 years or more based on manufacturers claims, but there are reports of newly made Chinese Cast Iron that are failing at a much faster rate.

For reasons “why” these certain piping systems have a shorter than anticipated life span in certain regions, it’s important to examine not only those specific geographies, but also any corresponding environmental factors.

One environmental factor impacting the life expectancy of piping systems is hard water.  As shown in the USGS map below, based on a study by the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program, certain parts of the country have higher amounts of water hardness than others.  According to the USGS, water hardness is the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in the water.

HardWaterMapWhile hard water is not considered harmful for human consumption, over time it causes scale build up inside pipes and around fittings and components.  When this happens, we typically see a reduction in the lifespan of the system, a lowered efficiency of water heaters and an increase in clogged pipes.  And, as the scale builds, the inside of the pipe eventually gets smaller, leading to less water flow and lower pressure.

In addition to the data collected by the USGS, Fannie Mae has published a table for the multifamily industry showing the estimated useful life of various building systems and components – including those systems related to plumbing, heating, and cooling.

If you are unsure about the condition of your pipes or the type of piping system within your building, contact us to arrange for a free property evaluation and assessment of your piping system.

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  • Phil

    John, am I reading the chart wrong? We are in the San Francisco Bay Area and have problems with galvanized pipes failing now. But, according to the chart, our hardness is low.

  • Phil,

    Thanks for taking a second to read my article and for the note. While the article focuses primarily on the negative impacts of hard water, hard water is not the only contributor to corrosion. In short, galvanized pipe can corrode expeditiously if the water chemistry is extreme. Meaning it will corrode faster if the water is exceedingly hard or exceedingly soft. That said, the key factor to consider as it relates to corrosion is the age of the piping. If the age of the pipe in question is younger when compared to the corrosion averages for the area, then one must then take a closer look at what other factors that could be contributing to premature corrosion. As noted in the article, the national average (this is a figure based on the failures reported to us by our customers) for galvanized steel pipes is 50 years, but in states like California, we are seeing galvanized pipes fail in as few as 18 years. In your specific case, however, with a building located in the San Francisco Bay area, I would suspect that your water quality is very good and likely not the leading contributor to corrosion. I say this because we recently performed some analysis for a community in your area whereby we took water samples from 10 different floors within the building and the results indicated that, using a part per million comparison of dissolved solids, the water quality was better than that of leading brands of bottled water. Is your pipe corroding throughout the entire community or only at specific locations? Lastly, how old is the pipe in question?

  • The pipes started failing at about 28 years, which seems a little early. We are having massive failures and spend alot of money to repair because we have to jackhammer thru the kitchen floor, etc. An average repair is about $3500. We've probably done 50 units in the past 4 years.
    We are also having problems with our water heaters failing earlier than expected

  • Agreed, this does seem early. If you can tell me which utility company supplies water to the community then I will be happy to do some additional research for you and post my findings here for the benefit of others within the Multifamily Insiders community that may be experiencing similar problems.

  • It's the Hayward Water Service.
    Also, we are on the Hayward fault but the problems seem to be more about corrosion.

  • Phil,

    So, I've spent some time looking at a good amount of data as it relates to the quality of water you receive from Hayward Water by way of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and I wasn't able to identify anything that would lead me to believe that the water quality is a concern, specifically as it relates to corrosion. That's not to say however that a deeper dive into the data wouldn’t reveal something to the contrary, but let’s assume for the sake of the conversation that water quality is not the issue. If we are to assume that water quality is not the issue and considering that your complications have been sub-slab, this leads me to believe that your likely dealing with a corrosive soil issue, especially if the pipe above the slab is not failing at the same rate as the pipe under the slab. The only data that I could readily identify as being relevant on the issue of expansive or corrosive soil in the area was a study involving the San Francisco VA Medical Center. The relevant portion of this report states in part "As noted previously, expansive soils generally result when specific clay minerals expand when saturated and shrink in volume when dry. Expansive soils can occur in any climate; however, arid and semiarid regions are subject to more extreme cycles of expansion and contraction than more consistently moist areas". So, although you may be correct that the slight fault movements alone may not be having a significant impact, when you couple the prospect of (a) slight fault movements (b) potentially expansive soil (c) potentially corrosive soil then the probability lends itself to a soil based issue.

    In short, I think you’re dealing with a soil issue Phil. If there is anything else I can do for you, please feel free to let me know. Hope this information is helpful in some way and I wish you all the very best of luck!

    Source: https://www.sanfrancisco.va.gov/ArchivedDocs/3_6_Geology_Soils.pdf