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Understanding Cast Iron Drain Pipes in Home Ownership: A Home Inspector’s Perspective

Updated: Jun 25

Cast iron plumbing has been used for many years and is still being manufactured today. It was once the preferred choice for drainpipes and is common in older homes. In contrast, modern homes typically use PVC or ABS piping, which is cheaper, lighter, less prone to corrosion, and easier to repair, making them the current standard.

Having cast iron plumbing in your home is neither inherently good nor bad, but several factors, particularly the age of the pipes, warrant consideration. Let's explore the benefits and drawbacks of cast iron plumbing!

WHAT IS CAST IRON PLUMBING?

Cast iron pipes were widely used in sewer drainage systems, specifically in Drain, Waste, and Vent (DWV) systems, particularly in homes built before the 1970s (and in some areas, until the early 1980s). These pipes were favored for their durability and ability to handle water flow without damage. Despite their advantages, they are rarely installed in modern residential buildings.

WHERE IS CAST IRON PIPING FOUND?

Homes constructed before 1975 commonly feature cast iron plumbing, though it was still used into the early 1980s in some regions. While durable and strong, cast iron pipes have significant drawbacks, primarily due to deterioration over time, often from the inside out. This deterioration can lead to sewer backups without any visible signs of issues.

According to InterNACHI, cast iron waste pipes in Florida typically last between 40-60 years, though some homeowners have reported deterioration after about 25 years. Therefore, homes with original cast iron piping may now be experiencing plumbing issues.

DISADVANTAGES OF CAST IRON PIPES

Cast iron pipes were chosen for their strength, but over time, homeowners and builders have recognized their limitations and the availability of better materials. Common issues with cast iron plumbing include:

  • Corrosion: Often starts inside the pipe and is not visible.

  • Weight: Cast iron is heavy, leading to potential sinking and cracking. It is also more challenging to repair.

  • Clogs and slow drains

  • Sewer backups: Can cause water damage, unsanitary conditions, pest infestations, and mold growth.

  • Expensive and messy repairs: May require slab removal, leading to high costs and possible temporary displacement from the home.

  • Insurance coverage: Check your policy for exclusions, as repairs may not always be covered.

DANGERS OF CAST IRON PIPES

While cast iron itself isn't dangerous, the joints often contain lead, posing health risks if consumed. Since these pipes don't carry potable water, the risk is minimized, but repairs should be performed by qualified professionals. Additionally, hydrogen sulfide gas from waste can react with cast iron, producing sulfuric acid, which corrodes the pipes, causing rust and clogs.

SHOULD I BUY A HOME WITH CAST IRON PIPES?

Deciding to buy a home with cast iron plumbing is a personal choice. These pipes shouldn't automatically be a deal-breaker, but due diligence is necessary. During the inspection period, have a licensed plumber inspect the pipes to assess their condition. If they're damaged or corroded, repairs or replacements may be needed.

ADVANTAGES OF CAST IRON PIPES

Despite their tendency to deteriorate, many older homes still have functioning cast iron plumbing. In some cases, these pipes can last over 100 years, depending on the location and soil type. Cast iron is durable and strong, and some municipal and commercial buildings still use them successfully. Additionally, cast iron pipes are quieter than other materials.

WHAT TO DO IF YOUR HOME HAS CAST IRON PLUMBING

First, confirm if your home has cast iron plumbing. A home inspector can help with this. If it does, it's wise to have a licensed plumber conduct a thorough inspection, often using video-scoping to check the pipe interiors.

If the pipes are in good condition, regular annual inspections by a plumber are recommended to monitor their state. Review your homeowners’ insurance policy for any exclusions related to drain piping and sewer backups. Consider setting aside funds for potential future repairs.

If the pipes show signs of deterioration, prompt replacement of damaged sections is advisable. Trenchless pipe repair, which involves relining the pipes with an epoxy material, can be a less invasive and more cost-effective solution than traditional methods, provided the pipes still have some structural integrity.

In conclusion, proactive maintenance and timely repairs can save you money and prevent messy and unsanitary conditions.

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