The story of replacing some old galvanized steel water pipes with copper.
I manage this 8 unit apartment complex, built in 1940, where we are gradually creating cohousing. It’s not as old as a lot of the homes around here, which were built in the 20’s, and so far the pipes are (mostly) holding up. The water pressure is good, so presumably there isn’t too much rust build-up. If you go away for a day, when you come back your water will run brown for a bit, and there’s one exposed pipe that has rusted through enough to drip periodically. After awhile it plugs itself up again, when a bit of rust finds its way into the hole. So far, so good.
Right now, I’m having the shower in the biggest apartment rebuilt. That apartment has a shower separate from the tub – a nice, big shower in a bathroom with pink and burgundy tile. The shower was leaking when we bought the building (not the pipes, the shower pan and surround) letting water into the wall, and two years ago we tore out the tile in the shower and repaired the wall in the basement underneath. We didn’t have the money to fix the shower, so I rigged up a shower over the bathtub with a shower massager, put up a shower curtain and voila, the tenant has had shower-over-tub for a couple of years.
But for most of the last 76 years, people have used the separate shower, so the pink cast iron tub is pristine, as is the tile around it.
A highly recommended contractor is fixing the shower. I told him I wanted all the plumbing in the wall replaced with while the wall was open (of course). It took a couple of conversations to get all of the shower pipes replaced; there always seemed to be one or two sections of galvanized left, but in the end I got him to replace all of the pipes going to the shower, except one little stub going to the shower head. I gave up at that point; I can replace that later. He was conscientious about installing the right kind of connection where the old pipes met the new.
When the shower piping was done, I took a look, and said, “What about the pipes to the tub?” The tub plumbing shares the wall with the shower; they are back to back. He didn’t think the tub’s pipes needed replacing, and didn’t think that was part of the job he had bid. He said I was over-thinking it, and showed me one of the shower pipes. See, it’s not badly rusted. I don’t know how rusted is ‘badly’. It was (of course) completely rusted on the inside, but not in danger of rusting through any time soon. But to my mind, why seal it up in a wall that would be expensive to open up again? He said the tub valves were fine, they were brass after all, and would last forever. They need their washers replaced often, though.
Then there was the problem that the tub faucets are 11 inches apart, coming through holes in really beautiful tile that can’t be matched. Hardly anyone makes an 11 inch valve any more. I went to 2 specialty plumbing stores; the first one had a 10 inch, and the second one recommended 2 separate Price Pfister valves, that could be connected with pipe (which is how the original setup was made).
In the meantime, the contractor found an 11 inch valve on the Home Depot website, but it had a shower diverter (remember, the tub and shower have their plumbing in the same wall, but they are back to back and have separate faucets). The contractor said we could use that one, and he could plug the extra hole. I tried to order it, but they wouldn’t ship it to California (or New York, Guam, or Puerto Rico).
The building inspector came, and signed the plumbing off, with the old plumbing still in place to the tub. By this time I had given up on trying to talk the contractor into replacing the bathtub pipes and valves, so I said go away, I’ll get a plumber to do this part, then you can come back and finish the shower.
My cousin Sally helped me out, and I had the 11 inch valve shipped to her in Connecticut, where she re-labeled the package and shipped it to me (a long journey, since it started out in Chicago). I wasn’t even sure that when I found a plumber they would want to use this valve, but I have 6 apartments with 11 inch faucets that do have the shower-over-tub setup, all with 76-year-old plumbing, so I knew the valve would come in handy one way or another, and I wanted to have it on hand when I interviewed plumbers.
Once I had the valve in hand, I talked with 3 plumbers. All 3 said they would rather assemble a new setup with 2 separate valves. Oh well, I’m very happy to have the Chicago valve on hand for when I need it in one of the other bathrooms, and in fact if I travel to another state I’ll order a couple more.
The plumber I hired said he would buy the parts, to make sure they were the right ones. He was scheduled to come on a Tuesday, and he called me on Monday to say that he couldn’t find the valves. I said I’ll get them. While I had him on the phone, I asked if he planned to build the connection with copper. He said no, he only carried steel pipe with the right threads, but it would be fine, don’t worry about rust because that part won’t be under pressure. I’m not sure how pressure is relevant; maybe the pressure wears down the inside faster, so the corrosion progresses faster? As far as I understand it, rust is about iron, water and air.
I went back to the plumbing store where they had offered to sell me 2 valves. I asked, can these be connected with copper pipes, when building the valve? He said, you should use brass nipples and a tee. I said, can you sell me nipples the right length to end up with an 11 inch spread? He said I should have my plumber pick them up, because if they’re wrong, there’s a restocking charge. I said, how much are they? – they were around $10 each. I said I’d take the chance. So I got my measuring tape out of my purse, put the 2 valves 11 inches apart on the counter, asked for a brass tee, and said there, it looks like I need two 4-inch nipples. And voila, I had a perfect little tinker-toy assembly, made out of beautiful brass. After all that, it was the simplest thing in the world to screw the parts together!
At this point, I’m thinking oh well, sometimes you have to do everything yourself, but I’m very happy with the result.
So, all set, and the plumber came and installed the lovely new valve. I took a look, and he had galvanized pipe going down from the brass tee and out through the tile (presumably new? I didn’t check). I asked him to replace it with brass or copper, and he cheerfully complied. He took it outside and soldered it. Now it’s the middle of the night, and I’m thinking, shouldn’t it have been more screw-on brass nipples? I didn’t check the finished product. Something with threads is sticking out of the wall, because the faucet is screwed back on….
The original contractor is coming in the morning. I’m remembering what it was like to replace the faucet on the tub, when I rigged up the temporary shower-over-tub, and what it’s like every time I replace a kitchen faucet. The kitchen sink faucets are wall-mounted, so like the tub spout, they screw onto rusty stubs of pipe sticking just far enough past the tile to catch the threads. It’s a worrisome job, because they’re so old and rusty I’m afraid they won’t survive the transition, and then what will I do? I have to turn off the water to the entire building to replace the kitchen faucets; if there’s a break, 4 apartments will be without water until it’s fixed, and the pipes in question are in the wall, behind tile.
To think people have been trying to convince me to keep that old rusty pipe sticking out from the tile!
Morning update: I have now checked, and the pipe going from the lovely brass fittings I bought, to the tub spout, is copper that has been soldered into place. I should have told him to leave it, so I could go back to Globe plumbing and get 2 more brass nipples and an elbow; then the pipe that sticks out to the tub could be unscrewed and replaced from the surface, if the length was wrong. He soldered on a female threaded coupling and removed an adapter from the temporary spout so it would screw on. I had given him the nice, heavy old spout, and told him that I needed that to fit properly, snug against the tiles, when it came time to remove the temporary setup. Well, there is no way to use the old spout now. The original contractor is back, telling me not to worry, just buy a new spout. Very patronizing about any concerns I have, and as I write he is closing up the shower wall.
I was so happy with my lovely brass fittings, I just wish I had gone back for more, and not left it to the plumber.