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Commercial Property

Aging Buildings - Plumbing Systems

Modern plumbing can often be taken for granted, but once there’s an issue, it can be detrimental to the integrity of the building, especially after the building is 30 years old.

Maintaining plumbing systems can prove challenging because most of the piping is out of sight, primarily concealed in walls and under slabs. It can be easy to overlook maintenance until a problem occurs. The following are some of the many issues that can arise due to damaged or aged plumbing:

Water Damage - the average cost for water damage restoration is between $3.75 and $7 per square foot. It can be costly repair project that can render a space uninhabitable for weeks at a time.

Mold - Exposure can lead to congestion, eye and skin irritation, and trouble breathing. Black mold can form if the problem is ignored, causing more severe symptoms, including upper respiratory infections, chronic lung illness, and chest inflammation.

Water Quality - Poor water quality due to plumbing issues can potentially lead to adverse health effects, including gastrointestinal illnesses, nervous system or reproductive effects, and chronic diseases such as cancer.

Why Failures Can Happen

Plumbing Failures can be the result of several factors, including:

Out-of-date piping components—Plumbing pipes have changed a lot over the years. Past piping that is no longer adequate includes:

Polybutylene—This relatively inexpensive and easy-to-install piping was installed in millions of buildings from the 1970s to the 1990s. However, it later became apparent that standard water treatment chemicals, (such as chlorine and antibacterial products), caused the material to become brittle, leading to cracking and breakage. As the pipes degraded, water quality issues emerged as chemicals leached into the water. Polybutylene cannot be repaired and must be replaced, as building codes no longer recognize it in the United States and Canada.

Galvanized iron—This steel or iron piping was coated with a protective layer of zinc to limit water corrosion. It was installed in many structures built before 1960. However, it generally doesn’t last more than 25 years, and when the zinc coating eventually corrodes, it can reduce or completely block the flow of water. This buildup increases the risk for leaks and may affect the water quality since metals begin to seep into the water supply and cause discoloration and an unpleasant taste.

Lead—Lead piping was widely used in water supply systems until it was banned in new U.S. plumbing systems in 1986. Around that time, communities began to recognize the health effects of lead exposure, including anemia, kidney and brain damage, and even death.

Metals such as brass and cast iron—Pipes made out of metals like brass and cast iron are subject to corrosion and should be replaced.

Water heater failure—Every water heater will give out at some point due to their constant subjection to pressure. Their failure may come in the form of a slow leak or sudden combustion, which usually results in a crack or big burst that releases water. A typical commercial water heater that is properly maintained and cared for should last about 20 years, but be aware of the following signs when scouting for water heater failure:

o Lack of hot water—The most common sign of a failing water heater is insufficient hot water.

o Popping or rumbling noises—These noises are typically caused by pockets of air boiling in the hard water and mineral buildup that accumulates on the surface of the water heater.

o Cloudy water—Murky and foul-smelling water are both signs of water heater failure.

o Leaking or faulty pressure relief valve—Mineral salt, rust and corrosion buildup can cause the pressure relief valve to freeze and stop functioning.

o Leaking tank water—Pooling water beneath the tank may indicate that the heater is cracked and needs to be replaced.

Nowadays, copper is commonly used in the construction of plumbing systems. While its lifespan is close to 50 years, it won’t last forever and should be updated and maintained as necessary.

Risk Management Actions

Plumbing issues can be difficult to identify until it’s too late. Facilities managers should watch for visible water damage and signs of mold, clogging and weak water pressure. The following actions should be taken to mitigate the risks resulting from failed plumbing systems:

Have the system inspected. The frequency of plumbing inspections will vary based on the building’s use and functionality. Still, they should be conducted at least once a year to reduce the risk of system deterioration. Areas with exposed piping can be visually inspected, while pipe cameras can examine covered areas.

Replace old systems. Facilities managers should know what plumbing system is in the building and make the proper plans to replace older piping and parts.

Be proactive. Water damage is costly. Early replacement of parts is much less expensive than waiting for a plumbing disaster before taking action.

Plumbing is an integral system that needs to be updated and maintained for a building to function correctly. By being proactive, facilities managers can ensure their structure remains safe and operational.


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