Home & Garden Columns

About the House: A Partial Upgrade for Reluctant Showers

By Matt Cantor
Friday September 29, 2006

This is one of those subjects that is both important and a real snoozer. If you’ve been having trouble sleeping lately, stop now, rip this page out and take it to bed with you. Guaranteed snoring in 10 minutes or less. 

Many of our 80-something houses have lousy water pressure. Not all but many and if you’re one of the unlucky ones, I’m sure you’re sick of not being able to take a decent shower. 

That’s really it, isn’t it. The shower. Most people can live with the sinks having sluggish flow but almost everyone really likes a nice skin-scouring shower. A real follicle ripper. If the shower pressure has you trying every shower head from the Water-pik shower massage to those little military style ones and everything in between, you’re the person who needs to read on.  

Although complete plumbing replacement is easy to recommend and certainly appropriate for some houses, I’d like to talk about partial upgrades and what they can, and cannot, do because they can save money and, if done properly, make a huge difference. In fact, they might be a good enough fix for your flow problems that you’ll abandon, perhaps for many years to come, any plan for a complete upgrade. 

Now, before I launch, full steam into a description of how to go about this, let me say that I would always use certain situations to remove all older steel piping. If you have recently bought a house with a weak shower or have serious flow issues, you want to ask yourself how much other work you’re planning on doing in the near future. If you are planning on a kitchen and bath remodel or other work that might expose the piping, do as much of this work as you can at the time. 

If you have an older home with galvanized steel piping (looks sort of like pewter and has threaded fittings at the joints) and you’re planning on remodeling the bath, kitchen or other plumbed area, please, take the galvy out and put in copper. Even if things seem like they’re working alright, do it. You won’t want to be getting into these areas again … ever. And the replacement of piping when the wall is open is really quite easy and not particularly expensive. If you’re gutting the interior of a house, always replace the old steel pipe with copper. 

Over time, galvanized steel reacts with the contents of the water and becomes encrusted internally with minerals. It’s like arteriosclerosis. Eventually, you can cut out a foot long section of pipe and be unable to see from one end to the other. 

The cave-like interior can be so small that the meandering of the remaining vessel keeps light from passing from one end to the other. This encrustation also creates friction and slows the flow of water greatly. In some of these situations the pressure remains quite high but the physical state of the piping prevents more than a trickle from flowing from one end to the other. 

Another thing is happening simultaneously. In addition to the infilling mineralization, the old pipe is rusting through at the narrowed threaded fittings and leaks can commence. This happens more on hot pipes than cold but eventually, it happens to most piping. Nonetheless, the filling in is the big problem. If you’re lucky enough to have a house with 3/4” galvy, it might be just fine. There’s a lot more room in those pipes for mineral encrustment to accumulate than in the typical 1/2” piping of the first 40 years of the 20th century. 

Practices varied but typically, I’ll see 3/4” steel coming in around 1940 and those houses are far more likely to have good flow today. It’s the houses from the 00’s and 20’s that seem to be the worst, so let’s look at what can be done. 

My experience is that the most heavily encrusted portions of these pipes tend to be the lateral pipes. The ones that are lying down. Also, in one-story houses (even those with a high basement or garage below the house) the piping, or most of the piping is lateral and there are relatively short “risers” that climb up to the shut-off valves leading to the sinks, toilets, showers and tubs. These risers are certainly implicated in some cases of occlusion but I find this far less often than those cases in which replacement of the laterals solves much of the problem. So, this means that we have a strategy for a partial replacement. 

If you can gain access to the lateral pipes in the basement, crawl space or garage (remember to replace the firewall in the garage if you remove any of the plaster or gypsum board), you can replace them with copper lines. As a rule, it’s best to go with 3/4” piping, although 1/2” lines will work well for single branches, those leading to just one device, such as a toilet. 

If you’ve got a line that’s going to a whole bath or kitchen it’s best to stick with a 3/4” line. Remember, you’re also trying to fight an uphill battle against what’s left in the risers, so don’t skimp. The cost of the larger pipe is quite small. As usual, labor is the primary expense. By the way, learning to “sweat” (or solder) copper pipe isn’t impossible and I’ve seen more than a few homeowner jobs that looked quite good. 

If you replace the line between the main shutoff and the array of risers, you’ll still be coping with whatever’s left in the main run to the curb. This might leave you short of satisfaction, but the main run can be done later if you’re still not getting a decent shower so leave it for last. 

When you put in copper you’ll need to observe a special protocol in which you keep the copper and galvanized metals apart. You see, copper and galvanized piping joined together and filled with water make a battery and the sacrificial anode (no I don’t have a cold) is the galvanized steel piping. This means that the steel is being slowly torn apart, atom by atom due to the direct contact with the nobler metal, copper (snotty metal, copper). Therefore you will need to keep them apart by use of some type of di-electric device. 

The method I like the best by far is to use a nice big brass nipple. Brass prevents the ionic exchange and minimizes damage to the steel. It also maintains the grounding that your electrical system needs. We use our water piping system for the grounding of our electrical system and if you use that “other” dialectic device which employs a plastic sleeve for separation of the metals, you decrease the ground by a large measure (the water will carry some but not enough). 

The last thing to do is to make sure to strap the new piping thoroughly to minimize noise and wear on the system. 

If you do this right, you can gain flow without tearing up the bath, the kitchen or just about any part of the house. There’s also no real downside since copper can solder or “sweat” onto more copper almost anywhere with relative ease, so if you decide that you need to replace more piping, you’ll just finish the job you started without having wasted any effort. There is a certain amount of trial and effort involved in this method but it is often quite successful. 

Lastly, when you finally get around to the long delayed bath remodel, you’ll just remove the brass fitting below the floor along with the steel piping and connect right onto the copper lines.  

So, if you’re still awake, I apologize. I occasionally have trouble falling asleep myself. Maybe a nice shower will do the trick. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.