Can I fix my lead pipes?
May 6, 2009 7:35 PM   Subscribe

Can I fix my lead plumbing? The plumber says, "No."

I want to move my bathroom sink one foot to the right. I have taken out the wall, and found the hot and cold water supply pipes. They are galvanized, which I can deal with. The drain pipe is lead, however. It runs horizontally to a vertical lead pipe, which goes down to a cast iron bell on the floor and up to a galvanized vent pipe.

I don't wish to cut the lead pipe and then attach a new pipe, using a rubber sleeve, unless I can be sure that it will not leak in my wall. I guess that this means that I need a professional. The plumber I asked says that he has to rip out the old lead, in order to comply with regulations that require all lead pipes be removed during renovation. He also tells me that the porous nature of the lead means that the old pipe would not accept solder well, now that it has had 60 years worth of water and gunk in it.

(As an aside, when I took out the old wall, behind the sink, I found more than a thousand double edge razor blades. They had been dropped through that slot in the back of the medicine cabinet over the decades.)

What say you, about the DIY nature of lead plumbing, and the assertion that it all must go? I live in Houston, TX, and the house is over 60 years old.
posted by Midnight Skulker to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
He's right about it being next to impossible to solder old lead pipe like that.

Lead pipe is soft. What I'd do is slowly swedge (IE: stretch out) about the last 4" of the horizontal pipe until it would accept the next larger size plastic pipe. A muffler pipe expander works pretty good for this. Then I'd use a rubber and stainless double band clamp over the whole thing. Those clamps are rated for direct burial. You need to swedge the pipe and then internally sleeve it with the plastic so the lead pipe doesn't collapse when you torque the clamp down. It won't leak. If you're feeling paranoid about it you can buy a plastic cement used to adapt abs/pvc to cast iron which you could lather on the lead before sliding the plastic in.

It'll be a tight squeeze getting the rubber over the lead pipe because it is the right size for the plastic. A little water based personal lubricant of your choice or copious amounts of liquid dish soap will make it slide over a lot easier.
posted by Mitheral at 8:20 PM on May 6, 2009

Lead's a motherfucker. Most of the guys who can still do caulk/poured lead joints are retired. The younger guys are trained on the methods, but really, no-one has used poured-lead joints since about 1975.

He's right about code violations, too - pretty much, if there's any inspections or permits, you gotta make it code. Most plumbers would prefer not to lose their licenses, to they refuse to do it below code.

The vertical lead could be replaced with a bit of no-hub cast iron, if you can either cut off the bell or get that one joint lead-caulked. the no-hub could then have a sanitary tee, and a plastic arm. Really, that's your best bet. Trying to transition with a band onto lead pipe is an iffy proposition.
posted by notsnot at 8:24 PM on May 6, 2009

You can download the local building codes regarding plumbing here. A quick perusal reveals a number of regulations regarding the use of lead in plumbing; since it is still OK to use in some situations I am skeptical that it would have to be removed. Reading the code and then getting a second opinion seems reasonable.

Your razor blade story is not at all unusual. I had always associated the razor blade disposal in walls thing with hotels (and have stayed in many an older hotel with a razor blade slot in the bathroom), but evidently the same idea was used in houses and apartments.
posted by TedW at 8:31 PM on May 6, 2009

Most of the guys who can still do caulk/poured lead joints are retired.

That is a good point; although it may be possible to use lead pipes in compliance with the code, it might be hard to find someone who is willing and able to do so.
posted by TedW at 8:37 PM on May 6, 2009

Don't do it, it's not worth it. If we were fifty years in the past, I would tell you I would have to replace the whole lead pipe with a new, longer lead pipe anyway. Wiping together two stubs of pipe is likely not worth the effort.

Cutting out the old and replacing with PVC/ABS (I don't know what Houston's position on no-hub is, if you're lucky it'll be like NYC's and single family homes don't require it) is easy as pie and well worth it because you will know it is fixed. Seriously, I've faced this problem down more than a dozen times and it is just not worth the headache.

Alternatively, if you can hide it/ are not using a pedestal sink/ and have room between the trap and the bottom of the sink, just pipe over to the existing trap.

Get more than one quote before you hire anyone and good luck!
posted by From Bklyn at 12:08 AM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would be surprised if the code required you to remove lead drain pipes. Lead isn't all that bad- plenty of water supply pipes are still lead, and TONS of older copper solder joints are lead. The inside of the pipe forms a coating that keeps nearly all the lead out of the water. In a drain pipe, it had zero effect on your drinking water, and I'd bet that nary a drop of lead ever gets back into the water supply.

Anyway, if I were you, I would probably do as Mithereal suggests, except use copper drain piping. For that short of a run, it shouldn't be all that expensive. And it should be pretty trivial to get a good seal between the lead and the copper with some flux and a propane torch.
posted by gjc at 3:56 AM on May 7, 2009

The problem with using copper drain pipe for a short run is that you have to find someone to sell you a short run of copper pipe. If you have to buy the whole stick it'll run you $150, last time I checked. I'd go with PVC and the rubber (Fernco) boot. Lube it lightly with dishwashing soap to make sure it seats properly and you're in business.
posted by electroboy at 6:17 AM on May 7, 2009

Thank you for the useful and information filled comments. I hired a plumber, rather than try the method that Mitheral suggested. However, I still find it to be the best do-it-yourself suggestion.

The several plumbers I got quotes from had respect/fear regarding the local inspector. They all had the same basic response, and that was a complete removal and replacement. The plumber I hired, and his helper, took about 4 hours to remove the old lead, clear the joint with the cast iron in the slab, and yank the galvanized vent stack. They took an hour to install a new PVC drain and stack, and an hour to move the water supply lines. They charged me $785, and I feel that I got value for the money.

Now I am waiting for the inspector to eyeball the fix and sign off. Then I will close the wall and install the sink.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:51 AM on May 8, 2009

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