Used pipes + new shower = nasty water. How to fix?
October 10, 2014 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Landlord installed a new shower in my rented home. Did all plumbing himself, used second-hand (salvaged?) copper pipes and metal fittings. Now the shower water is gritty, burns my eyes, and has clogged 2 shower heads with disgusting debris (photo inside). What is causing this?

I posted in August about my (not-very-handy) landlord's decision to tear out and renovate the bathroom in my rented home. As you all predicted, this was not a 1-day project. It took a month... a full, long, miserable month. But in the end - there was a shower, of sorts.

I used the new shower for 7 days. Not good. Each use left my hair gritty and gross. Also, almost no water pressure - I could barely rinse off the soap. After checking that he'd opened all valves fully (he had), I figured he must have installed a cheap and/or low flow shower head. I ordered an expensive new shower head for myself.

Here's where it gets gross.

On Wednesday, I unscrewed the landlord's shower head and discovered why my hair was gritty and why no water pressure. The thing was completely clogged with brown slime and what appeared to be chunks of rust. This head was new when installed and had been used 7 times. Nasty, but maybe some debris is to be expected from a plumbing install?

Installed my shiny new shower head. First shower - woo hoo! High pressure, great to actually feel clean again!

Second shower - nope. It started sputtering- then my eyes started burning. Badly. I took off the shower head and found this. Chunks of white gunk, chunks of brown gunk, other unidentifiable bits of disgustingness.

Do you think this is from the used pipes? Copper, don't know where he got them but they did not look new. He did a sloppy job at the pipe joins, lots of gunk on the outside - maybe also gobbed some on the inside?

I know that water heaters can sometimes put debris in the water, but I didn't have this problem with the other shower (in the basement). It still works fine and does not burn my eyes. (This is city water, btw.)

I will call the landlord, of course - but since his "skills" are what created this situation in the first place, I'd like to hear what you think the cause might be and your recommendations for a fix. For those of you who missed my earlier thread, the landlord is not a licensed plumber or contractor - his handiwork is pretty kludgey.

Thanks again!
posted by falldownpaul to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Could be pipe corrosion, rust, lime scale, etc, from long unused pipes. You can let the shower run with no shower head on it for an hour or so see if it clears out.

Dude, you've gotta move.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:28 AM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

If I were you I'd be inclined to just run the shower with no showerhead on it for a while and see if that clears out the debris from that install. The burning eyes is the most troubling part of this story, but it's also a little hard to figure how some substance that would cause burning eyes stayed hidden in the pipes during that "woo hoo" first shower only to be released during the gritty second shower. Is it possible that you just got soap in your eyes because the shower was playing up?
posted by yoink at 9:29 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh god I remember your earlier question.

I still agree with the advice given there about contacting your city's building department and having an inspector come out. Your landlord has done something NOT OK to your plumbing here and you need to make sure he fixes it.


God please call the city about this. This is really really really not ok.
posted by phunniemee at 9:29 AM on October 10, 2014 [22 favorites]

There is no way this work is even vaguely legal.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:39 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I am gagging as I read this. Fuck the landlord, he's done enough already. Straight to the city building department as suggested above and see what they think about his DIY plumbing skills.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:41 AM on October 10, 2014

Best answer: Non-corrosive copper pipe, used or otherwise, is not going to be the source of this. It is unlikely to be the hot water heater either (corrosion there will settle to the bottom). The gunk on the joints is solder and while sloppy, isn't something you have to worry about getting in the water supply. If it isn't leaking under pressure, the joint is fine.

Metallic debris would be something disturbed further down the line possibly where the copper goes into an older ferrous metal pipe. This would be a temporary thing and easily flushed out. However, looking at the picture this sludge looks a little more "organic" although I'm hard pressed to see how it would build up so rapidly in a new shower head.

I would start by cranking the hot water up to around 140 degrees (the hotter water can help mitigate some bacteria) removing the shower head and letting it run for for ten minutes or so. If this doesn't do it, it is time to call a real plumber to figure out the source. The color and the fact that it is caustic makes me think this best done sooner, rather than later.
posted by cedar at 9:43 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Quick clarification / info add -

I also thought about running the shower for awhile to "flush the pipes" - but since it's been used 9 times now, wouldn't that do it?

There was no white gunk in the original shower head which was used for 7 days. Just brown slime and flakes of what appeared to be wire or rust. The white gunk apparently showed up on day 2 of using the fancy new shower head. That's when it began to sputter and that's when my eyes burned - and nope, no soap in the eyes, hadn't got that far yet.
posted by falldownpaul at 9:43 AM on October 10, 2014

Is there any chance that he, whilst installing used pipes, might also have installed a secondhand water heater?
posted by jon1270 at 9:43 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Taking the shower head off and letting water run through the pipes at full blast will help more than the 9 showers, yes, to answer that question.

But seriously please believe us, this is not an ok situation. Please advocate for yourself here. This is beyond the tangible problem of shower gunk.
posted by phunniemee at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

I get the feeling that you've been dealing with this crazy landlord for so long that you've lost some perspective on how totally unacceptable all of this is. Which I really sympathize with -- I have done the same thing! I spent all winter working at home from an apartment where the heat and hot water didn't work 50% of the time! I had a friend stay in an apartment so infested with roaches that they were literally falling off the walls because she was anxious about moving!

So I'm telling you, from an outside perspective: this is all completely ridiculously unreasonable. After your previous question, I'm kind of shocked you still live there.

Moving is terrible, but this situation sounds untenable.

You don't need this kind of pointless stress and trouble in you life.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:48 AM on October 10, 2014 [15 favorites]

I have nothing to add other than please don't take another shower, especially if your eyes are burning.

I just got out of a terrible landlord situation, and believe me when I say that it was very difficult to move, but what a difference a healthy home makes.
posted by mamabear at 9:51 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

please don't take another shower

I doubt this is a necessary precaution. It's really, really hard to imagine--even if your landlord is a truly appalling handyman--that there's any serious danger involved here that can't be mitigated by simply allowing the water to flush the pipes for a reasonable amount of time.

It's worth noting that even when licensed, bonded pros work on your plumbing, you're likely to get a considerable amount of junk caught in your faucet filters afterwards.
posted by yoink at 10:01 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

First of all, you need to save all that gunk that came out, or gather new in case you have to have it analyzed later -- and take photographs of collecting it. I would also let the water sit in the pipes for 24 hours and collect the initial pint that comes out and save that in a glass jar.

Not all used copper pipe necessarily carried pure water in its previous use, and that symptom of burning eyes makes me nervous.

You might be able to get your utility to analyze the water simply by telling them strange stuff came out in the shower and burned your eyes.
posted by jamjam at 10:11 AM on October 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


1) Read through your local tenants' rights laws very carefully. Get in touch with an advocate, if at all possible.
2) Contact the local code inspector. Explain details. Get inspector out ASAP. (Warning: if issues are bad enough, the inspector may declare the property uninhabitable.)
3) This will annoy the landlord. Seriously, that's tough. He doesn't get to do stuff that leads to injury.
4) Your landlord needs to get a plumber out who actually knows what he's doing. With any luck, item #2 will make that happen. If it doesn't, point landlord to what you found while doing item #1 on this list.
5) #4 will cost the landlord money. I just spent $5K to replace a furnace that had developed some dangerous issues; spending lots of money happens if you're landlording. If the landlord is unwilling to do necessary repairs, then some combination of a) him ceasing to be a landlord and b) you ceasing to reside in this property needs to happen.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:21 AM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

God, what if he used pipe that was previously a drain pipe or something? Yuck.

You saying it looked like rust or wire makes me wonder if something like a metallic scrubby isn't stuck in the pipes and is slowly breaking down. Would explain the grit and the burning if it had some sort of cleaner left in it.

But either way, you can't fix this yourself. Have the landlord get a plumber or get one yourself, and I wouldn't use that shower again until the water has been tested and is coming out clean.
posted by catatethebird at 10:22 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know you're hesitant to do anything, but you need to remind yourself that your landlord is hurting you to save money. This isn't theoretical or iffy. He is damaging your health because he is cheap. Sure, it's due to (extreme) negligence instead of active malice, but not from ignorance -- he knows that this sort of work requires permits and inspections and should include plumbers. He knows all these things, and he doesn't care, because he's more worried about a few bucks than the health of the person paying him to provide a good living space. Do you think he would do this in his own house? Of course not. You need an inspector and a plumber, and you need one today.
posted by brainmouse at 10:26 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You need to move. STAT. Report the landlord to your local tenant rights association and/or local government once you have moved out.

The white rocks are a sign that your hot water heater is about to fail in short order. Your landlord may have installed a "new" hot water heater that he bought used.

The slime is probably from the second hand pipes that have sat unused for years. Try running it with no shower head.

On preview of the comment immediately above, the photo actually looks like the slime that comes out of clogged drain pipes. This could contain all kinds of nasty chemicals and bacteria, including fecal bacteria. Lovely. Another reason you need to move AND report your landlord.
posted by tckma at 10:27 AM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Mod note: Couple of comments deleted. Folks, I know people want to exhort OP to take action, but please be mindful that you don't cross the line to hectoring. If you feel too frustrated to comment, take a break and come back to the thread later. Thanks.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:43 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

jamjam's middle sentence gave me a frisson of apprehension. just to take one example, what if it were not water, but sulfuric acid flowing through those pipes beforehand? then there would be a coating of copper sulfate on the interior. it's poisonous, it's where the word "vitriol" comes from.

document and analyze, there could be a big payday in front of you. you come into court showing evidence of having inadvertently showered in rodent shit and vitriol, juror brucie gonna give you between 150-250 thousand dollaz.

i would also like to register my dissent from lord justice yoink's opinion, because it lets the landlord off the hook of his absolute duty to provide you with an uncompromised shower. this appears to be a compromised shower, which you are testing with your body.
posted by bruce at 10:48 AM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Review your tenant's rights, stop paying rent and move.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:51 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

lol okay, sorry i'm furious that the OP is egregiously being taken advantage of by an incompetent idiot i guess

OP, please, I beg you, call the city. Dial 311 and just read the text of this question and your last one to whoever takes your call. It's so hard living long-term with unreasonable horrible shit like this, and you eventually reach a point where you can no longer judge whether or not your complaints are valid, because your baseline of normality is so far off kilter. It really seems like you've reached that point, and it can only get worse from here if you can't bring yourself to put your foot down ASAP.

The gunk in your pipes could be literally anything. They could have come from an industrial site using toxic chemicals. They could have come from a waste processing facility. God knows what this moron is going to do to your living space next.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:52 AM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

the photo actually looks like the slime that comes out of clogged drain pipes. This could contain all kinds of nasty chemicals and bacteria, including fecal bacteria.

For your landlord to have used old drain pipes to carry water to your shower head he would have to be some kind of plumbing savant. That wouldn't be a rookie error; it would be a deliberate, highly difficult, piece of sabotage. There would be no normal, straightforward way to hook drainpipe or sewer pipe up to any part of the existing domestic water system.

what if it were not water, but sulfuric acid flowing through those pipes beforehand

Seriously, what? People are really letting their imaginations run away with them in this thread.
posted by yoink at 10:54 AM on October 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

I am also a landlord and like many in the thread I am appalled by this situation. I'm not sure why you feel this is okay to put up with--maybe you have a great deal on rent; maybe you love the location; maybe something, I don't know--but seriously, none of this is okay in the business relationship that your tenancy is and you need to stop sucking it up.

As a landlord who really freaking hated dealing with some irritating (but not expensive plumbing) issues in the last year, I can't second thomas.j.wise's steps loudly enough, so I'm copying and pasting these points in particular: Your landlord doesn't get to do stuff that leads to injury and if the landlord is unwilling to do necessary repairs, then some combination of a) him ceasing to be a landlord and b) you ceasing to reside in this property needs to happen.

This is not a self-help situation. The plumbing in your apartment was inadequately installed and your landlord is not behaving appropriately.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:57 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're taking action, take a sample. Preferably more than one sample. A couple small jars of contaminated water (one of which you can show to your landlord as a bargaining chip, and the other you can show whomever you have to go to if the landlord doesn't take action). Also capture the gunk in your shower-head. Pictures are nice, but physical gunk is way better. Record video of the sampling if you worry someone's going to accuse you of faking it. Sample, label, record. Maybe you'll never have to use them, but this is a good opportunity to collect evidence that could help you later. (keep them in your fridge-- it'll slow bacterial action without killing them)

Record evidence of every conversation about this-- if you are in a one-party recording state or nation, record phone calls and direct conversations. If not, take notes as to who, when, where, what was said.

I also agree with running it headless for an hour. Sample (above) at the start of the hour, and sample again afterwards.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:57 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just a thought but I wonder if the burning could be caused by the flux your landlord used when he soldered the pipes (and subsequently failed to flush out)?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:59 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a landlord and a more than competent general handyman, contractor, and specifically a competent plumber. And I remember your previous question.

I have no fucking idea what he plausibly could have done to change the situation from no-debris to what you've got going on here. My best guess is the copper pipes were used previously to run something other than water?

It doesn't matter. Everything about this is illegal and unacceptable, and it pisses me off that slumlords like this color people's perception of my profession.

If nothing else, as a favor to me, call a tenant's rights organization and your city's building inspection department. Follow their advice and also look for a new place. This guy doesn't deserve your rent (though I am not advising that you withhold it).
posted by cmoj at 10:59 AM on October 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

Ok, so I went back and read your previous post. I am so sorry. If you've been there 16 years, then it's presumably been bearable before this, which is why it's so hard to contemplate moving. And your cat would hate it. Etc.

You mentioned in your previous post two things: you believe your landlord wanted to replace the shower to maybe sell the house, and he acted very weird when you wanted to stay in the house while he did the work. The second one indicating that he knew you might notice him doing hinky/illegal things and not wanting you to see them (this would be my assumption given no other explanation). Or that he didn't know what he was doing (also plausible).

Has he been your landlord all along? Was he always like this? Has your plumbing given you much trouble before? My mind went to weird ideas like "he's trying to force you to move out" but I assume he would have that right regardless, sabotaging your shower is a lot of work to go to for that.

But maybe he's been doing terrible repairs all along and it just didn't get bad enough for you until now?

If you've been there that long, what about the other tenants? Do you know them? Could you talk to them? Did he replace anyone else's plumbing?

This whole scenario seems so off. But absent some sort of miraculous intervention of him letting someone else take over/fix things, it does seem unlikely that your situation is going to get better. I would seriously consider moving. Which doesn't rule out going after/reporting this guy, if only for the sake of the poor person who rents after you.
posted by emjaybee at 11:37 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

If he used second-hand tubing, it's likely there is crap inside the tube that could be as simple as just plain dirt and stuff to anything you can imagine, just from laying around on the ground etc. If it's benign, it may flush out by running the water full-force without the shower head (the shower head restricts the flow). Unless you're prepared to simply move and forget it, I think you need to either force the landlord to deal with the issue properly, which may lead sooner or later to you being booted out, or pay a plumber to come in and fix it yourself.
posted by dg at 12:25 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Armed with your input, I phoned the landlord and explained what was happening, then asked if the pipes had been used previously and if so, for what? He wouldn't give me a straight answer! "Uh... they are all just... copper pipes. Nothing... in them." I asked a second time and he denied that they were used. He said that he will come over to run the water and check the other faucets in the house. I appreciate everyone's pipe / plumbing insight - as well as all of you who just care about my well being. Thanks for everything.
posted by falldownpaul at 12:26 PM on October 10, 2014

> He said that he will come over to run the water and check the other faucets in the house

You understand that he's not impartial here, right? I'm sure he's going to find everything is tickety-poo, or needs just one small adjustment. You need to get authorities in there to make him obey the law. This is not how people are supposed to live.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:31 PM on October 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

The burning part really worries me. What on earth is getting in your eyes? You are way too calm about this, IMO, I'd be raising hell.
posted by zug at 1:41 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had very similar results in my own home when doing a plumbing repair (but no burning eyes).
If the copper pipe hooks up to a galvanized pipe that is old, this can occur. Galvanized pipes rust from the inside and when you mess with them (like, making a repair) it spits loose a lot of rust/debris from the galvanized pipe.
Connecting copper to galvanized requires a dielectric so the two metals don't react over time.
Copper pipes are used in plumbing supply lines because they stay clear and rust free. Waste lines are made of lead or plastic. So even if they are used pipes, they were likely previously used for supply.
Go look at the repair and see if it hooks up to an old galvanized line. If so, that is the source of the debris, not the copper lines.
When galvanized get really bad, you will have almost no flow due to internal corrosion. Did the landlord make the repair due to low flow? If so, the fix here is probably to remove all of the galvanized in the house. Any downstream galvanized can still produce debris.
In my house, before repair, any small thing would generate debris, even turning the water off for a short while would disturb all of the debris and I would have to clean the chunks out of my faucets and shower heads like you show here.
My infrequently used bath took about 6 months to be debris free after installing a new fixture.
Perhaps do some googling and find out more about galvanized pipes, check if the copper hooks up to them. I really think this is the source of the debris and is very common and safe. But frustrating and disgusting. Good luck.
posted by littlewater at 3:45 PM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

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