What is Repiping?
Do you have copper plumbing, and are you suffering from pinholes and constant leaks under the slab or in the walls? Do you have gray polybutylene pipe that keeps blowing apart? Repiping your home is the process of eliminating your old system and replacing it with a new CPVC piping system that will be redirected through your attic. Although it requires minimal drywall repair, there is no destruction of your slab, tile floors or cabinets saving the structural integrity of your home and the expense of repairing leak after leak.
Repiping is not a regular kind of plumbing issue. While occasional plumbing issues are normal and an expected part of homeownership, repiping is not. Many plumbing repairs are minor, and some can even be performed by the homeowner; however, if you are having continual plumbing issues, including major loss of water and/or water contamination, particularly if your home is old construction, it may be time to consider repiping.
Complete home repiping may seem like a daunting task, but it more than pays for itself by cutting down on plumber services and the expensive water bills associated with constantly repairing leaky pipes. Understandably, many homeowners are reluctant to consider undertaking such a huge plumbing project; however, if the signs point to multiple issues within your home plumbing system, doing it all at once can be a more convenient and cost-effective option than constantly calling your plumber to fix relatively minor issues. Repiping cures several plumbing woes including:
- Low water pressure
- Yellow, rusty or brown water
- Odors from rust and other contaminants built-up in pipes
- Unexpected burst of scalding hot water, such as after water in a sink, the washing machine turns off or a toilet is flushed
It is unavoidable that repiping causes some considerable downtime in your home water service; however, a skilled professional team can perform the project with minimal disruption to your daily routine.
Repiping Services Include:
Isolation of leaks
Repiping whole home
Repiping single lines
Repairs under the slab or tile
Repairs inside walls
Warning Signs It Could Be Time to Consider Repiping Your Home
If you are remodeling your kitchen or bathroom, you might consider repiping since those are areas where water is consumed. If it is a partial repiping, and you are going to take down walls and cabinetry to update your space, you should update the plumbing to ensure the look is preserved and avoid costs down the road.
Your Home Is Fifty Years Old or More
Up through the mid-twentieth century, galvanized steel was the primary material used in plumbing. While galvanized steel is strong, it generally succumbs to corrosion after about fifty years and needs replacement. Even more modern pipes – such as polybutylene (poly) piping – does not last forever, so keep an eye on plumbing systems that could be reaching the end of their lifespan.
Rust and/or Minerals Are Building Up in Your Water
The two telltale signs of rust and mineral buildup are low water pressure and reddish-brown water coming out of the faucet. As rust or minerals accumulate over time, they slowly begin to constrict the flow of water resulting in low water pressure. Red or brown water results when bits of rust break off from the pipes into your water supply, affecting your water quality. It takes a long time for this much buildup to occur, so by the time you notice red or brown water, it is past time to consider repiping to fix the problem.
Multiple Pipe Leaks
A common analogy used to describe your plumbing system is to compare it to the circulatory and nervous system of the human body. Just as blood vessels and nerves are wound through the skeletal frame, so too, are the various branches of cold and hot water pipes leading out from your home’s water intake pipe and hot water heater. At the same time, these pipes remove waste from your house into a sewer or septic system. Just as blood vessels are subject to clogs, pipes do as well. Also like the human body, sometimes the clogs are the result of misuse, but just as often, it is old age as time wears things down.
While you can expect occasional isolated pipe leaks from time to time, frequent or recurring leaks are usually a sign that the entire system is deteriorating and requires replacement. You can keep replacing pipes as they burst, but if you are doing this frequently, there are likely other problems occurring where you cannot see them and could cause other problems besides low water pressure due to pipe leaks.
One such hidden problem is slab leaks. When homes are built on a slab – a layer of concrete poured over soil or gravel – the plumbing runs beneath the concrete. Should the plumbing beneath the house foundation leak, that is a problem that requires quick attention. In addition to age, slab leaks are caused by cracked pipes, a usual occurrence in areas that are high in clay soil content that shift and exert pressure on the pipes. If pipes are installed close to hard surfaces, there is a risk of abrasion. Pipes vibrate when water passes through them, and the vibration cause the pipes to knock against the hard surfaces creating knicks to the pipe material and eventually holes. There is also the usual issue of general corrosion over time.
Because slab leaks occur beneath the concrete foundation, the signs of a leaking pipe are not always obvious. The longer you allow a slab leak to run unabated, the more likely the home can suffer major damage.
Signs of a Slab Leak Include:
Cracks In the Foundation
and/or Basement Floor
Hot Spot In the Floor
(Indicating a Leak in the
Hot Water Line)
Continual Sound of Running Water When All House Taps Are Closed and Appliances That Use Water Are Not In Operation
Higher Water Bills Without Increased Personal Usage
Your Carpet Is Damp
Your Flooring Is Warped
Bad Smell From Floors or Walls or Musky Smell In Your House
Uneven Growth In Lawn or Foundation Plants
Visible Shift In the Soil
Around the Structure
Strange Water Heater Behavior
You Have Low Water Pressure
You Find Mold Under Your Carpet
You Will See Flooding In Your Yard, Mushy Patches of Grass or Ruined Landscaping
You Have a Cracked Slab
Slab Leaks: What Causes Them and How to Repair Them
Slab leaks are a fact of life in areas where soils are unstable. Homes built on concrete slabs or using pier and beam construction where basement walls can crack and break from the pressure of shifting soils.
Slab construction became popular during the post-WWII construction boom because it was faster and cheaper. A rebar-reinforced four- to six-inch-thick concrete slab is poured directly on a prepared surface. Plumbing lines are run beneath the slab, where they are difficult to reach. Sometimes the plumbing joints leak or the pipes crack beneath a slab, and then you have one of the most serious problems you could imagine – a slab leak. As water runs under the house, it erodes the soil. This removes support for the slab and puts more strain on it and may cause it to develop cracks from hairline width to an inch or more, and then all that water has a clear path into your house.
Depending on the extent of the leak, you may experience serious water damage to flooring, walls, furniture, appliances and more. As you can imagine, fixing a leak beneath tons of concrete is not a DIY plumbing job.
Plumbing Materials Can Cause Slab Leaks
Slab leaks can also result from some type of failure in a home’s plumbing system. The failure could be caused by faulty installation, weakened water lines, chemical reactions of metals in the earth to metals in the plumbing system or soil shifting beneath the slab.
Let us consider the materials the pipes are made of which often is a function of the age of the plumbing system. The materials themselves sometimes are the problem. Unless you were able to see the original plumbing work during construction you will have little idea of where the lines run, what they are made of and how good the installation work was done.
Cast Iron Pipe
Cast iron pipe was the staple for most homes built prior to the 1960s, although plastics have become more popular since. Cast iron plumbing lines above ground in a house does offer some advantages. Cast iron is quieter than plastic because it vibrates less, so you do not hear water running through the lines as readily. It is very durable and will not burn, which can be important in case of fire; however, unprotected cast iron installed as underground service lines can be corroded by water and minerals in the soil. To address that, some cast iron pipes made today are sheathed in a protective material. These are far superior to the old pipes commonly used into the 1960s.
Galvanized Steel Pipe
Galvanized steel pipes were also common in homes through the 1950s. Like cast iron, galvanized steel is strong but susceptible to corrosion. Galvanized pipe is also more prone to clogging. The coating inside the pipe eventually wears off leaving the pipes vulnerable to rust and mineral buildup that can clog the lines with minerals and waste matter. The useful life of galvanized steel pipe is about fifty years.
Rigid copper pipe remains a popular choice today especially for hot- and cold-water supply lines. Flexible copper pipe is used for water supply lines to appliances such as refrigerator icemakers and dishwashers. Copper is durable and corrosion resistant. Copper pipe comes in different wall thicknesses. Underground lines should be run using copper pipe with the thickest walls. Even then, careful installation is called for. A dent in a water line can eventually wear thin from the constant flow of water and eventually open a small hole in the pipe.
Plastic pipes are corrosion resistant and can be used above or below ground. Plastic resists corrosion and is relatively easy to work with. Most common types include:
- ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) – Black in color, ABS was the first plastic pipe used in residential plumbing. There have been problems keeping ABS joints together which has led some municipalities to disallow it in new construction. A failed joint beneath a slab will result in a costly slab leak. Also, ABS can deform when exposed to direct sunlight, so it is not suitable for all above-ground installations.
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride pipe) – PVC is the more commonly used plastic plumbing pipe now. Colors indicate intended usage including white for drain lines and irrigation, blue for potable water, green for sewer water, purple for reclaimed water, and gray for electrical conduit.
- CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride pipe) – Similar to PVC, but the chlorination process gives CPVC different physical properties. CPVC’s ability to withstand higher temperatures makes it more suitable than PVC for hot water lines.
- PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) – The newest plastic plumbing pipe, PEX, is used as an alternative to PVC, CPVC and copper. It is flexible, cuts easily and uses compression fittings which makes PEX relatively simple to install, but it also has some drawbacks. Making secure connections requires some skill, and its flexibility can cause vibration and movement problems. If not carefully secured, PEX can be abraded by movement over structures such as floor joists and rafters.
Expansive Soil Shift Is the #1 Cause of Slab Leaks
While the materials used, and how they are installed, in under-the-slab plumbing can result in slab leaks, by far the biggest cause is the shifting of expansive soils that homes are built on. The American Society of Civil Engineers says about 25% of all homes in the United States experience damage due to expansive soils. In fact, the ASCE estimated the total cost of damage caused by expansive soils is around $2.3 billion per year in the U.S. alone. According to geology.com, that is more than the cost of property damage caused by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes combined!
A slow slab leak keeps putting water into the ground beneath a home, which creates even more soil expansion that ultimately can lead to substantial damage. The buildup of hydraulic pressure beneath a slab will be released somewhere. Upward pressure eventually finds its way to any weakness or crack in the slab. In some cases, wet spots develop in hardwood floors and carpeting; in the worst cases, the floor erupts like a geyser, flooding the home.
Options for Slab Leak Repair
If you need slab leak repair, you will have some decisions to make. The age, materials and condition of a home’s plumbing system will dictate whether the job calls for repairs or replacement of a section of plumbing or a complete repiping of the plumbing system beneath a home.
Our plumbers use three of the four most widely recommended methods to repair slab leaks, including pipe re-routing, tunneling and, when necessary, breaking through the concrete slab from the top. We make our recommendation after carefully studying the job and any complicating factors.
Sometimes it makes sense to avoid digging altogether and reroute plumbing above ground. For example, if a short section of pipe is the problem, and it can be worked around by installing new plumbing lines, rerouting may provide a quicker and less disruptive solution.
In some cases, such as when a home’s plumbing lines are encased in concrete and cannot be reached without destroying the slab, it may be best to repipe the whole house. Water supply lines can be routed around the slab instead of beneath it. The plumber will determine where new pipes can be installed such as in walls, through the attic, closets and other structures that may conceal and protect it. In some cases, a little creative woodworking can add a new feature – such as crown molding – to hide the pipes. Water continues to run through the old plumbing while new lines are installed, so you do not have to move out while the work is being done. Then, the old lines are shut off, and the new ones are opened.
Break Through the Slab
The shortest distance to the source of the problem may be straight down through the concrete slab, but that also may be the most disruptive and most expensive. Because of this, we cut through the slab when other options are not available or are less attractive for some reason. There is no one size fits all solution.
Likewise, foundation building and repair companies caution that not all slabs are alike. They are engineered for the location especially considering soil type and depth. Some slabs should not be cut into at all, although properly repoured patches are secure. Breaking through the slab has some serious disadvantages for homeowners. First, you must live somewhere else while the work is being done as the water is shut off, the noise from jackhammers and saws is deafening, and the dust in the air requires you to cover everything. In addition, the soil that is removed either is left in a big pile in your home while work proceeds or is taken out with wheelbarrows. The flooring in affected rooms usually must be replaced – it may be difficult or impossible to match some hardwoods or tiles, for example – and you will have added costs for lodging and meals. As should be apparent, breaking through a slab to repair a slab leak can also be quite expensive.
Tunneling Beneath the Slab
In our experience tunneling beneath the slab offers several benefits for homeowners:
- You can stay in your home while work is in progress
- The mess is kept outside of your home
- It is often the least expensive choice
Most homeowners prefer tunneling if they have expensive flooring. Some of the flooring, perhaps a room or more, would be destroyed by breaking through the slab from the top. Some plumbers dig their own tunnels; others use engineers who do the digging and certify their work.
Structural integrity is vital to a plumber working in a tunnel that can extend well beneath a house. Tunnels are dug about three feet by three feet to allow adequate working space. Correctly replacing the dirt that was removed is essential. When the new plumbing has been installed and tested, we refill the tunnel with the soil previously removed. We dampen the soil as we go and use metal tamps to pound it firmly back into place.
Trenchless Pipe Repair – Pipe Lining and Pipe Bursting
Pipe lining, or cured-in-place-pipe (CIPP), has become a popular option for many homeowners because it involves no trenching and very little digging to gain access to the problem area. The concept is simple: broken water lines can be repaired by lining the inside of a broken pile with an epoxy coating that dries and hardens to form a new pipe. It is worth noting that the CDC has raised health concerns regarding the cured-in-place-pipe method for repairing plumbing lines. Often, contractors that provide the service offer no warranty. Underground pipes that have become corroded, have holes or cracks are the main candidates for this type of repair.
First, a cutting tool removes debris and buildup, then the line is rinsed. A resin-coated liner is placed in the pipe along with an inflatable tube, and air pressure presses the liner against the inside of the pipe. It dries in a few hours forming a new plastic pipe inside the damaged pipe.
As good as this sounds, the process is not foolproof. In fact, some contractors who do the work lack the confidence to provide a warranty. Problems develop when the epoxy does not adhere to the pipe wall properly, or when the coating is not evenly applied. Any subsequent leaks are more difficult to repair because no heat can be used. You may have no choice then but to repipe, which could have been done at the outset, and pay a second time to solve the same problem.
Pipe bursting, also called pipe splitting, is sometimes used to replace badly damaged water lines. It also is a trenchless solution, but instead of lining the inside of the damaged water line with epoxy, a new pipe is inserted with a “bursting head” that is a little bigger than the diameter of the damaged pipe. It destroys the old pipe as it is pushed or pulled through.
Does Homeowners’ Insurance Cover Slab Leaks?
In a cruel addition of insult to injury, many homeowners find to their surprise that their homeowners’ insurance will be of little help paying for slab leak repair. Insurance companies deal more in the sudden and catastrophic than gradual damage over time. They usually chalk up such gradual damage to poor maintenance for which they are not liable. If a pipe beneath the slab were to burst suddenly, your policy may provide some coverage, but that is not how most slab leaks work. They may go years without being detected, slowly dripping away money and washing away soil. Seepage, or leakage, is usually provided by optional coverage that most people do not purchase mainly because they are unaware it exists.
Those who have leakage coverage in most cases will have coverage for foundation and slab repairs but not the expense of the plumbing work. Their consolation is that the foundation or slab work usually is the biggest part of the cost. If you have this coverage, it is essential to know if there is a sub-limit on the total amount covered. A sub-limit limits the insurance company’s liability for specific types of coverage which usually includes seepage. Do not assume it is the full amount of your property coverage.
An Ounce of Prevention…
Now that you know your home is likely to have been built on unstable, expansive soil, that you may have a slab leak of which you may be entirely unaware for years, and that your insurance may not cover the damage, prevention does seem worthwhile, yes? Here are some things you can do:
- Keep the Soil Around Your House Moist Year-Round – We can go for weeks on end with no rain, which makes this step essential. There should be no gap between the foundation and the soil. If you do not have an irrigation system, use a garden hose a couple of times a week or use a soaker hose. Don’t overdo it. About ¼ inch each time is sufficient. Target the water to land about 10-15 inches from the house.
- Be Careful What You Put Down the Drain – Chemical drain cleaners and other household cleaners are harsh and can damage plumbing lines. Fats, oils and grease can clog drains as can pieces of bone and fruit pits.
- Test the pH of Your Water – Water that is too acidic can have the same effect as harsh chemicals, and remember, it is in your water lines all the time. A plumber will be glad to do this for you, if you would rather not do it yourself.
- Check Your Home’s Water Pressure – Most home plumbing systems are built to maintain 40-60 PSI. Higher pressure puts additional stress on pipes and joints that can result in leaks at weak spots and pipe connections.
- Get Annual Plumbing Inspections – This is something most people never do, but an annual plumbing inspection is as important as annual tune-ups on your air conditioning and heating systems. Any leak repaired is likely to save enough on your water bill to pay the cost of the inspection.