6 Plumbing Problems You May Encounter in an Older Home

The historic charm of an older home brings to mind many architectural and design features of the good old days—including crown molding, original hardwood floors, stained glass windows, and more. However, older homes come with a whole host of less-than-charming features as well, including outdated plumbing. Rusty pipes, leaky fixtures, and old technology are just a sampling of what you might encounter. Fortunately, it pays to be vigilant—and knowing what to expect from your old home can keep you safe from expensive plumbing emergencies.  

If you’re a new owner of an old home, keep an eye out for these six plumbing problems.

1.      Old pipe materials

Plumbing technology has come a long way over the years, and pipes are the perfect example. Today’s materials are much safer, and less prone to decay. Any home built prior to the 1990s might be hiding pipes made from materials that are no longer approved by U.S. building codes. Here are a few of the outdated piping materials you might find in your old home.


Lead is one of the oldest, and most dangerous, materials used in piping. At one time, builders considered lead an ideal metal for plumbing due to its malleability and durability. But, it was discovered that lead is extremely toxic, and exposure results in everything from joint and stomach pain to irritability, fatigue, and memory loss. Lead can also cause serious developmental delays in children.

The use of lead has been restricted since the early 1920s, but it wasn’t banned completely until the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended in 1986. If you have a very old home, this toxic metal may be lurking in your pipes, and in your water supply. You can test your water by contacting your water utility company or county health department. If your water test positive for lead, you can reduce your risk in several ways.

  • Only use the cold water tap for drinking and cooking. If you need hot water, heat it on the stove.
  • Flush your pipes by running cold water through the faucet if it hasn’t been used in the last six hours.
  • Use a faucet filter or in-fridge filter for clean drinking water and peace of mind.
  • Consider replacing your pipes altogether with newer, safer materials.


Galvanized pipes are made of iron and coated with a layer of zinc. Over time, this layer erodes, leaving the pipes extremely vulnerable to corrosion, leaks, and breakage. This causes a wide range of problems, such as:

  • Discolored water
  • Low water pressure
  • Clogged pipes
  • Sediment left behind in the tub, shower, or sink

Galvanized pipes are commonly seen in homes that were built prior to the 1960s. Sometimes, galvanized pipes last 60+ years, but most of them rust and begin to fall apart long before reaching that milestone.


Polybutylene caught on like wildfire when it was introduced as a replacement for aging copper pipes in the 1970s and 80s. Controversy occurred when the manufacturer was hit with a class action lawsuit after the plastic in the pipes became brittle, flakey, and cracked upon exposure to oxidants in public water systems. As a result, polybutylene is no longer manufactured, maintained, or approved by building codes.

Polybutylene was widely used in mobile home installations. However, any home built in the 1980s to the early 90s may have these plastic pipes somewhere. It’s best to have any existing polybutylene pipes replaced before they fail.

2.      Old fixtures and connections

Time isn’t always kind to faucets, fixtures, and supply line connectors. Years of wear and tear and corrosion can lead to leaks, restricted water flow, broken or difficult to turn knobs, and more. Even the simplest tasks such as brushing your teeth or filling a cup of water to drink can be difficult.

You may be tempted to just “grin and bear it”, and consider the quirks of your plumbing system as part of the charm of an older home. But, this mindset could end up costing you a lot of money. Just imagine coming home to find that the rusty, leaking water line under your sink finally bust, causing thousands of dollars in water damage. Save yourself the headache and replace faulty fixtures before they cause a disaster.

3.      Potentially difficult repairs

The saying “they don’t build them like they used to” is very true when it comes to the old-fashioned craftsmanship found in older homes. For example, walls were often made of thicker wood framing or plaster, rather than drywall, making them much harder to cut into.

It may be more difficult to get a clear quote when potential surprises lurk beneath your floors and walls. Even the most routine plumbing jobs can turn into more hassle than you (or your plumber) bargained for. Make sure and communicate with your plumber before the job to ensure that they know to expect the unexpected in your older home. Additionally, you can talk to your neighbors or other seasoned old home owners to find out which contractors they recommend based on their own experiences.

4.      Outdated drain technology

Older drain and waste systems relied heavily on gravity to ensure proper drainage. This system may have worked well enough when the home was new, but homes settle over time, creating sharper dips in the piping where there weren’t any before. These dips are known as “pipe bellies”, and they can result in sewer odors, slow drains, and frequent clogs. The only real solution is to have the pipework re-done entirely. But, in the short-term, you can counter the effects with a drain cleaning.

5.      Questionable repair history

When a home is several decades, or even centuries old, the question isn’t “if” the home has had plumbing repairs over the years, but “who” did the repairs in the first place. In an era before professional and licensed plumbers, many DIY repairs were done either by the homeowner, or by a local handyman. Everything from unsecured pipes to fixtures installed backwards and improperly sloped showers to haphazard pipework could end up costing you a significant amount to repair.

One way to counter this is to have a thorough inspection done before you buy the house, so you can understand what plumbing has been updated and where. The inspection can give you a framework of the state of your home’s plumbing, and help you anticipate any complications.

6.      Sewer line problems

Tree roots can pose a problem to the sewer lines in older homes. With decades to grow uninterrupted, roots may have already made themselves comfortable throughout the plumbing system. Gnarled, tangled, and messy roots can cause everything from annoying slow drains to complete blockages and foul-smelling sewage backup. A video inspection can give you the inside scoop on what roots may have made themselves at home in your sewer lines. Once you know where the roots are, you can work with a plumber to remove them.

Old Home? New solutions

From removing stubborn tree roots to using video inspection technology to uncover the cause of a decades-old sewer line blockage, old home problems have innovative new solutions at Chas Roberts. Contact us so you can spend more time enjoying your old home, and less time battling with its frustrating plumbing.