FORT MYERS, Fla. -- - A warning before you buy a new home or re-model on the one you're in: there could be hidden problem that will cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Your pipes could be a money pit lurking beneath your home, even though it may look perfect in every other way.
Fort Myers homeowner Jeremy Henley found out the hard way. He and his wife bought a beautiful two story 1920’s era home a couple years ago. He says it wasn’t long before the trouble started – with something as simple as a clogged toilet that couldn’t be cleared.
The culprit: Cast iron pipes. “Cast iron just wears away over time,” he says. “It causes blockages to where you have to replace it.”
Jeremy says the problems have led to everything from a $700 water bill from the city (because of leaks) to a total remodel job for one of the bathrooms. He says the repairs have totaled in the “five figures” – an expense the family did not anticipate when they bought the home.
Fort Myers Beach homeowner Brad Dobbs and his wife La Jean found themselves in a similar situation, even though their home is at least 40 years younger than Jeremy’s. “Nothing was draining, so we knew it was time to do something,” says Brad.
It wasn’t just a cast iron pipe problem. A plumber found galvanized steel when he investigated the clogs in Brad and La Jean’s home. “The old galvanized pipe has basically corroded shut.”
Since the bathrooms and kitchens have to be torn up to replace the pipes, he and La Jean are looking at a big bill since it will require remodeling too. “It's very expensive,” says Brad. “We're probably going to be $20,000 into it by the time it's finished.”
UNKNOWN AMOUNTS OF SEWAGE ARE LEAKING INTO THE GROUND
Jack Ragan, the owner of Integrity Plumbing Solutions says part of the problem is the corrosive nature of Florida’s water and soil. “It begins corroding from the outside while the water and sewer gases are corroding from the inside,” says Jack. “It's a double whammy.”
Jack says the result can mean the outflow into your home’s drain pipe ends going where it shouldn’t. “Rather than going through the pipe clear to it, it just goes down into the ground,” says Jack.
He adds you may not notice all the problems at first because they may not be immediately visible. “The challenge with the drain piping is it’s under the floor where you can't see it,” he says.
A website called pipelawsuit.com associated with Morgan & Morgan – which is bringing a class action lawsuit over cast iron pipes – claims: “Each month, residential homes leak more than 216,000,000 gallons of raw sewage into Florida’s water supply.”
Fox 4 reached out to the Southwest Florida Water Management District to see if they have any data on residential sewage leaking into the environment. Their public information officer, Susanna Martinez-Tarokh responded: “I checked with our staff and it looks like these are issues that the FDEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) handles.”
When we reached the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to ask if they had any statistics on this, Media Relations Manager Dee Ann Miller responded: “This is not a statistic we have.”
CALL THE PLUMBER BEFORE YOU BUY
So what you can do to keep your home’s sewage from seeping into the ground and avoid the surprise expense of replacing pipes? Jeremy recommends you do something before you buy a home.
“Get it inspected by a plumber, not just a home inspector, but by a plumber as well.” he says.
Jack Ragan says visible upgrades don’t tell the whole story. “Often there has been remodeling done, and what's visible has been replaced with PVC what's not visible under the concrete generally hasn't,” he says. “It's tricky to be able to tell.”
And he says even if a home inspector notes on the report there are cast iron pipes, it may not be enough. “Usually all they'll note on there is the description - ‘cast iron pipes’,” he says. “The trouble is, to most people it doesn't mean anything.”
“And if you Google cast iron drain piping in other parts of the country, it says it can last up to 90 years - where the water is much better,” he adds. “But it’s a whole different story here in Florida,” says Jack.
Like Jeremy, Jack recommends hiring a qualified plumber to inspect the pipes before you buy, even if that means paying the plumber in addition to a home inspector. “If you spend a couple hundred dollars to find out, you may avoid a $10,000 issue you would only see only after you buy the house, so it’s money well spent.”
Jack says it’s important to look out for the very first indications of trouble. "Early signs for a homeowner is there are blockages,” he says. “Eventually the integrity of the pipe is compromised.”
“The bottom will split and if there are trees, you’ll have root intrusion,” he adds.
And he says there are other signs of broken pipes. “With an open sewer line, vermin can come out the piping which is no longer sealed,” he says. "A roach infestation can be an indication of a sewer line that has failed.”
DIFFERENT PIPES CAUSE DIFFERENT PROBLEMS
While Jack says many of the problem pipes he sees are made of cast iron, he adds other metal pipes can give way too. “We have seen the copper piping fail,” he says.
Jack says the age of your home can be an indication of the health of your pipes. “Most homes built in our area prior to the 1960's were cast iron,” he says.
But cast iron pipes were also installed in homes for many years beyond on the ‘60’s – including the 70’s and 80’s. And that’s also when many copper pipes were used. Many people don’t realize problems with those until they get the infamous “pinhole” leaks associated with copper.
Jack says, after that, the industry began to more fully embrace the PVC pipes used today.
Jack, whose son works with him now, started out installing pipes when his dad was in the business 50 years ago. “As a boy working with him, my job was to help him put in these cast iron drain pipes which is the best product we had the time,” he says.
“So, beginning my career was putting in cast iron and now toward end of my career, it’s tearing out cast iron and replacing it with PVC pipe.”
Keep in mind, buying a home isn’t the only time you should probably pay close attention to the pipes. The Fort Myers Beach homeowner we talked spoke with, Brad, advises you to check the health of your pipes before you remodel.
He says he and his wife had considered re-modeling long before the pipe replacement job.
Before they knew the pipes were going, they never even thought about the possibility of having to replace them. “If we had done our remodel job in without having done the drain, then a few years down the road - having to do the cast iron - we would have to tear all that out,” he says – meaning they would have to pay twice as much as they’re paying now.
For now, he’s just glad to get it done – despite the short-term inconvenience. “We have no toilet right now,” he says.
But, lucky for them, they have a back-up plan parked in their yard. “We have a little camper holding tank so we can use that, but not too much.”
PREVENTING CLOGGED PIPES
In the meantime, there are things you can do to keep things flowing in your pipes – even if they’re old.
Jack says rule number one is very simple. “From a plumber’s perspective, if it doesn't come out of your body and it's not toilet paper, it shouldn’t be going down your drain,” he says. He says this applies to many products that may be marketed as “OK” for your plumbing. “A lot of your products you buy - wet wipes and feminine products and so on - claim they're safe to flush,” he says.
“They may get through the toilet, but they don't deteriorate. So, they can eventually accumulate in the drain line and cause blockages,” he says.
He says with newer PVC pipes, there may be fewer problems. “But with the cast iron, it’s very rough on inside and it will catch these fibrous materials and hold them until you have a blockage,” he says.
He recommends buying the cheaper, thinner toilet tissue – as opposed to the pricey, thick “cushy” stuff – because the thinner paper is more likely to deteriorate and not get caught on the pipes’ rough spots. You also want to avoid putting oil down your sinks since it can coagulate and stop things up.
And finally, he recommends avoiding using harsh chemical drain clearing chemicals like Drano, since they can contribute to the corrosion of the metal pipes. He says your better bet is a natural enzyme cleaner.
COSTING YOU MORE THAN JUST A PLUMBER'S BILL
There may be one more very good reason to pay attention to a home’s pipes: It can affect the value of the home.
Attorney Mark Nation – who’s working on the Morgan & Morgan class action lawsuit over cast iron pipes explained his take on it the following statement:
“When someone is trying to sell an old home with an old cast iron plumbing system the buyer’s realtor knows that the house has these old pipes. Likewise, the buyer’s insurance company knows the house has the old pipes. Some insurers won’t insurance homes unless the old pipes are replaced. So, the buyers are routinely forcing the seller to reduce the price of their homes to compensate the buyer for having to upgrade the plumbing.”
He also explained what the class action lawsuit it about in the following statement:
“Here is a synopsis of our cases: Homes and businesses built before 1975 were built with sewer plumbing using cast iron pipes. When the home or business was built those pipes had an internal diameter that was sufficient to handle the volume of water and waste from the toilets, showers/baths, dishwashers and washing machines. Not only did they have sufficient internal diameter to handle the volume of water or waste generated by the home, but they were also a “closed system” meaning that there were no openings or cracks for water or waste to escape.
Finally, the pipes were angled with a downward pitch so that gravity pulled the water and waste away from the home and into the sewer or septic tank. But, over time those pipes invariably have corroded, rusted and deteriorated. They have also cracked and broken and they have bellied, and back pitched. Bellying means that they now dip and curve, and back pitched means that instead of being angled away from the home, sometimes the pipes are angled toward the home.
All those problems cause back ups of sewage and water into the home. If that happens then your homeowners and business owners insurance must pay to repair the water/sewage damage. But, most policies also have a special coverage that requires the insurance company to pay to tear out and replace any portion of the building necessary to access and remove the old plumbing system.
Often, the cost to tear out and replace the parts of the building necessary to access the old plumbing system will run between $50,000 and $150,000 depending the home. For large businesses or condos it can be more.
Our cases involve situations where the homeowners or business owners own insurance companies refuse to pay for the water/sewage damage, and where they refuse to pay the cost of tearing out and replacing the parts of the building necessary to access the old plumbing system.”
The bottom line: know what’s under a home before you buy it, sell it, re-model it or just keep living in it. Sometimes, you may not want to know what’s under there, fearing the expense of the fix. But, in the long run, knowing could save you money in a messy situation where ignorance is not bliss.