A “lifetime building component” may be a correct reserve study term but is actually a misnomer, in that nothing lasts forever. This is particularly true of piping systems. To generalize, galvanized steel pipes have a life expectancy of 30-50 years, copper 40-75 years, cast iron 50 to 75 years but it is not unusual to see pipes failing prematurely. Because most reserve studies have a horizon of only 30 years, HOAs rarely plan for pipe replacement. Unfortunately, that can result in system failures, water damage to buildings and personal property, mold, and loss of use.
Cause of Pipe Failure. Many factors affect the life expectancy of plumbing systems.
- Manufacturing Defects. Residual stress from improper manufacturing increases the chance of cracking and pinhole leaks later on.
- Improper Installation. Premature failure can result if lines are improperly installed. This includes contact with concrete or dissimilar metals, lack of pipe support, and poor workmanship.
- Design Defects. Undersized drain lines can lead to clogs, excessive corrosion and premature failure.
- Location. Drain lines on ground floors suffer from the combined gravitational effects of cumulative use and corrosion.
- Improper Use. Garbage disposals introduce grease and food residues which adhere to the interior walls of pipes causing stoppages and backups, and often premature corrosion.
- Corrosion. All metals corrode in contact with water, air and chemicals. Corrosion can be internal such as through contact with water and caustic cleaning chemicals, and external such as from salt air with proximity to the ocean or contact with acidic or alkaline soils.
- Patterns of Occupancy. In occupied homes, pipes maintain a consistent moist environment. Homes which are used only sporadically, pipes can dry out, which leads to cracking. Piping in high-population buildings typically sees an accumulation of more corrosion and buildup.
- Lack of Maintenance. Lack of routine preventive maintenance, such as hydrojetting of main sewer lines, can lead to premature failure.
- Highrise Considerations. A midrise or highrise building adds another level of complexity with sophisticated mechanical systems, utilizing pumps to distribute flow throughout the buildings through large diameter steel piping. Each part of the system is prone to failure and has the potential for catastrophic water damage.
Telltale Maintenance Patterns. A good way to determine whether the pipes in your building are nearing their life expectancy is to watch for emerging maintenance patterns. There will be increasingly more pinhole leaks, clogs and backups, more homeowner complaints, and more service calls. Particularly if you are managing resultant mold due to water damage from plumbing leaks, it may be time to evaluate replacing the system as a whole rather than making spot repairs.
Pipe Replacement? Evaluation methods include videoing and hydrojetting sewer and storm drain lines, physical inspection, destructive testing, pipe sampling and analysis and prototype repairs to typical units. Pipe replacement costs vary significantly due to the accessibility problems. The costs associated with opening walls in units to expose the plumbing lines and repairing those walls can be greater than the pipe replacement itself. There are many options, and combinations of options, that should be considered in a pipe replacement project that can be made only after a thorough investigation.
Alternative Technologies. Pipe coating and lining are attractive options because they do not entail expensive destruction and renovation within units. These processes all need to be carefully considered for their appropriateness. Often, a combination of strategies is the best approach.
Hazardous materials are often encountered in re-piping projects. It is wise in the planning phase prior to establishing the budget, to incorporate a pre-demolition survey so as to determine the prevalence of hazardous materials. If there has been any type of pipe failure, with resultant water damage, anticipate mold. It is not unusual for mold remediation to add a 25% or more to the total cost of a project.
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