Sewer Pipe Materials: What Are Your Pipes Made Of?
Pipes are one of the keys to our modern civilization. They deliver water to our homes, schools, and businesses. They enable us to drink and cook with clean water as needed, and bathe and wash in comfort. They also carry waste away from our homes and communities to sophisticated treatment centers, keeping our buildings free of airborne germs and disease.
Without pipes, our lives would be considerably different! As our building structures age, though, the pipes age alongside them and will eventually require maintenance and replacement.
The lifespan of a given pipe depends on several factors, including location. Pipes in colder climates can be subject to freezing, while pipes in coastal areas can age more quickly because of their proximity to corrosive saltwater. Aside from location, material is another driving factor in the performance and longevity of any given pipe.
Today, we take a look at common pipe materials, and discuss their features, benefits and risks.
1. Orangeburg Pipes – Orangeburg pipes refer to bituminous fiber pipes that were popular between the 1940s and 1970, before PVC and ABS became materials of choice. They were originally designed as conduits, and ultimately became the standard sewer pipes of their day. Orangeburg pipes were formed from shaping several layers of wood pulp and treating it with a specialized tar to make the form. One of the first companies to mass-produce the pipes was the Fiber Conduit Company, based out of Orangeburg, New York. In 1948, the company would change its name to the Orangeburg Manufacturing Company.
A cheaper alternative to metal for sewer pipes, Orangeburg pipes became popular during WWII as cast-iron materials were needed to support the war. They were marketed as a “no-corrode” pipe, however, the material proved to be less durable than metal and didn’t perform as well. Early on, manufacturers and installers realized the pipes would deform and collapse if not properly “bedded” or supported at install. However, even those that were properly bedded would not escape intrusion from tree roots, which had the same effect.
Though they were a preferred material and adhered to the modern building standards of the mid-20th century, it is no longer considered acceptable in most U.S. building codes. The life expectancy of Orangeburg pipes is purported to be up to 50 years, however, they’ve also failed in as few as 10. If your home or building was built before 1980 and you think you may have Orangeburg pipes, schedule an inspection with a professional plumber. Only a professional inspection can help you determine the kind of pipes you have and the condition they’re in.
2. Cast-iron Pipes – Able to support 4,800 pounds per linear foot, cast-iron pipes are known for their strength, longevity, and density, which can help with noise reduction. These factors made it a common material of choice nearly everywhere for the better part of the 1900s.
Despite its obvious advantages over an inferior material like the Orangeburg pipe composite, however, cast iron has its own risks and challenges when used in sewer pipes—most of which arise from age. As cast iron ages, it can corrode and deteriorate. As the material progressively degrades, the pipe itself fails, causing leaks and worse. In coastal areas, and South Florida specifically, the proliferation of condos and high-rise buildings that desired noise-reducing pipes drove demand. But the longevity was not as promised.
Structures within a mile of the ocean are individually unique, and the building materials are highly influenced by the salt and water. Additionally, Florida has many seasonal residents who only use their condos some months of the year. This means pipes are only used some months of the year as well. This polarizing wet/dry cycle accelerates natural oxidation, causing the pipe to age faster.
Luckily, there are options for replacing cast-iron pipes before they become a problem. Learn more here.
3. ABS Pipes – Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, also known as ABS, is often used in drain-waste-vent (DWV) pipe systems and sewer systems. It is also sometimes used in electrical and chemical applications. The material is a thermoplastic known for its durability and rigidity, and its resistance to abrasion. The material performs well under cold and hot temperatures, but has been known to deform under prolonged sun exposure. ABS is comparable to PVC, however, it is not as flexible, and the joining techniques of the materials are different. The choice to use ABS piping or PVC in sewer lines is a matter of application and circumstances.
4. Clay Pipes – Clay was one of the first materials used for pipes, with artifacts dating back thousands of years. It’s also the most environmentally friendly option on this list, typically comprising water and organic ingredients. Unlike iron, clay is not corrosive and is unaffected by acidic wastewater, making it a seemingly more attractive alternative. If installed properly and not impacted by ground shift or tree roots, clay pipes can last for millenia.
But, they’re not without risks. First, they’re difficult to handle compared to something more conventional like ABS or PVC. They’re also very heavy, which can drive high shipping and transport costs. Clay is also susceptible to root intrusion. Over time, tree roots can grow into loose clay joints, expanding and breaking off the clay as the roots grow, ultimately causing crumbling and failure. Clay has high compressive strength, meaning it is not likely to be crushed, but it also has a low tensile strength, meaning under extreme pressure it can fracture. These problems can be avoided by encasing the clay pipes in a protective concrete layer, but this drives up material and labor costs as well.
5. Galvanized Pipes – Prior to about 1960, galvanized steel piping was a common material for pipes in homes and buildings. Steel and iron pipes were dipped in a protective zinc coating designed to prevent corrosion and rust. Unfortunately, this plan did not work exactly as intended. While the galvanized materials replaced many lead pipes, the naturally occurring zinc for the coating is impure, which allowed small amounts of lead and other metals to enter the piping system. If there were connections to lead pipes at any point, the lead issue would be even more hazardous.
What’s more, despite this effort against corrosion with galvanization, which did indeed extend the life of many of the pipes, the pipes eventually rust from the inside anyway, leading to poor performance, leaks, and health issues. Ultimately galvanization doesn’t prevent corrosion, it simply adds a layer to help. Rust can still build up, and the pipe can still eventually corrode, requiring replacement.
6. PVC Drain Pipe – PVC, or polyvinyl chloride is a hard durable plastic, and ranks third in the world’s most widely produced synthetic plastic polymers. PVC is a great option for drainage pipes because it is appropriate for applications in high temperatures, and is resistant to acids and alkalis, which can be found in wastewater. PVC drain pipes come in a variety of different sizes and are extremely durable, able to withstand high pressure, making them ideal for certain environments and most drainage applications.
Like ABS, PVC is an excellent choice for sewer pipe applications, especially for new pipes. When installed, the pipes are typically impervious to ground shift and root growth, making PVC a more attractive choice than its predecessors like clay and iron. Unlike ABS, however, PVC is more flexible, making it a more optimal choice in specific installations.
For thousands of years, we’ve relied on the technology of pipes to modernize our world. While they deliver us the modern conveniences we’ve become accustomed to, they can also wreak havoc when they fail. If you’re concerned about your pipes, don’t wait until you have a problem. Schedule a consultation with Pipelining Technologies today.