Whether you’re evaluating a potential investment property, estimating a maintenance budget for the year, or quite literally investigating a potential plumbing repair, understanding the types of pipes and materials in your building can be a critical ingredient for a property manager and investor. Below, we discuss common piping materials, their positives, negatives, and their usage.
Common Piping Materials in Real Property
In the days of yore, pipes were made of everything from wood and wood pulp mixed with tar to sturdier materials like clay and iron. Advances in technology and manufacturing have brought with them the use of newer building materials, but if your property was built before the 1970s, you are likely working with older stuff (assuming previous owners didn’t take care of major upgrades for you).
Older Piping Materials
Cast Iron. Many properties have pipes that are at least partially made with cast iron. The benefit of cast iron is that it’s very tough. Pipes made from cast iron can last for several decades without falling apart, so it wouldn’t be surprising if you have cast iron in the piping on your properties. If your property has cast iron pipes, they are safe to use as long as there are no major infrastructural problems with the pipes themselves. Cast iron has long been a popular choice for piping because it is incredibly strong. However, it is also prone to corrosion from chemicals and other substances coming through the pipes that weaken the iron over time (corrosivity tends to have serious impacts on potable water). Cast-iron pipes also can warp over time, which makes the plumbing less efficient. Property owners with cast-iron pipes can reinforce the cast iron as time passes rather than perform a full replacement.
Clay. Many properties have clay piping as well. And, like cast iron, clay pipes are safe to use as long as nothing is wrong with the pipes themselves. Clay holds up against chemical degradation well, but it is brittle and prone to cracks and leaks from things like tree roots. As with cast iron, property owners who have functioning clay pipes can reinforce them in place of fully replacing them.
Orangeburg. This type of material is made from wood pulp and pitch (as in coal tar), and it was an affordable alternative to cast iron and was especially popular during World War II when other building materials like cast iron were scarce. If you encounter Orangeburg in your property, you want to deal with it right away. Orangeburg has a higher failure rate than other piping materials like iron and clay, sometimes failing in as few as 10 years, and infrastructural upgrades may be pricier if you wait for your pipes to collapse before dealing with it. Whether you’ve got Orangeburg is largely a question of when your home was built — for good reason, Orangeburg went out of use in the 1970s.
Modern Piping Materials
Iron and clay are still common piping materials, but, increasingly, properties are built with materials like highly durable plastics and copper.
Copper. This metal came into use in the 1970s. Copper is useful for piping because it’s tough, more flexible than iron, resistant to most types of corrosion and can last as long as 70 years. If you are looking at piping upgrades and repairs and you are considering which materials to use, remember that copper is more susceptible to theft. While it’s less likely that criminals will excavate your yard to get at the material, they have been known to strip it from within homes.
Plastic. Highly durable plastic is becoming increasingly common in pipe upgrades — it’s inexpensive, lightweight, relatively easy to install, and it can last for 75 to 100 years. It also supplements other materials well for the spots where you might need to attach one piece of pipe to another, and unlike copper, it’s not as hot a commodity for resale and reuse purposes (if you are worried about thievery). That being said, plastic melts, which could be an issue if there is a fire at one of your properties.
Several types of plastic are available for plumbing — PVC, CPVC, and PEX tubing are all used in modern pipe building. PVC is good for joints and turning spots in the pipe, CPVC handles hot temperatures well, and PEX tubing is cheaper than copper, resists corrosion well, and doesn’t require as much seaming (or the joining of multiple pieces, which makes piping more vulnerable to breakdown, destruction and invasion from pesky plant roots).
Know Your Property’s Plumbing
In many ways, a property’s plumbing is its circulatory system, and an otherwise cosmetically stable and sound investment property could be hiding major structural risk. Understanding the materials out of which a property’s piping is constructed is critical to understanding the property itself. Hopefully, a well-constructed plumbing system is simply a box you can check off on your list of items to evaluate, but if it’s something you miss, you could be in for a dramatic and costly surprise.
Whether you own a large portfolio or are looking to get started, do yourself a favor and examine and record the piping in your buildings. It may also be worth explaining to your tenants to care about good pipe stewardship. Spending the money and effort to repair, reinforce, and replace where needed will likely prove to provide an excellent return on investment.