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After inspecting all the fixtures, associated pipes, and fittings in the interior rooms, the rest of the plumbing inspection is carried out in the basement. Some homes are built on ground level and do not have a basement. In those cases, this portion of the inspection will be performed as part of the interior room inspection. Water-supply pipes Look for the entry of the water-supply pipe. It will be located near the foundation wall and will usually have a meter near the inlet. If you cannot find the water-service entry, ask the homeowner. Sometimes it is concealed behind boxes or storage shelves. The inlet service pipe will generally be made of copper, brass, or galvanized iron. However, in some older homes, you might find that the pipe is made of lead. A lead pipe can be detected by the type of joint between the sections. Lead pipes have wiped lead joints that appear in a horizontal section as a spherical bulge. (See FIG. 13-8.) There is usually a joint near the foundation wall. If you do not see a joint, you can gently scratch the surface of the pipe. If the pipe is made of lead, the surface will be relatively soft, and the scratch will expose an area with a silver-gray color. Although a lead water pipe might be acceptable in a plumbing sense, it can be a potential health hazard. Depending on the quality of the water, some of the lead might dissolve out. Since the amount of lead that a person can safely absorb is limited and cumulative, by drinking this water over an extended period of time, the maximum tolerance level can be reached. If you find a lead inlet pipe, you should have the water analyzed for lead content. In many communities, the local health department will do the analysis free or for a very nominal charge. If the lead content is high, the pipe should be replaced. Again, Basement inspection 169
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Fig. 13-7. Mixed plumbing as seen from a hallway wall hatch. Some of the fittings are deteriorating (note the rust and mineral deposits).
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Fig. 13-8. Lead inlet water pipe. Note wiped joint (bulge) near shutoff valve.
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remember that replacing the inlet pipe is not the responsibility of the water company; the cost must be borne by the homeowner. During my inspections, I periodically find a lead inlet pipe. When I do, I always recommend to the prospective home buyer that as a precautionary measure the water should be analyzed. In one home, located in White Plains, New York, an analysis of the water revealed that it had seven times the allowable concentration of lead. Needless to say, that pipe was replaced. If the water flow from the plumbing fixtures is low and the piping in the house is good (all copper or brass pipes and fittings with no leaks), the problem will be a constriction in the inlet water supply or low pressure at the street main. On several occasions, I have inspected houses where the old water pipes were completely replaced with new copper pipes and still the water flow was low. Further inspection revealed that even though the house had been repiped, the old galvanized inlet pipe had not been replaced. Under normal soil and water conditions, this pipe should last about forty years. As these pipes age, rust deposits build up on the inside, restricting the flow. Also, a galvanized iron 170 Plumbing
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pipe will eventually corrode from the outside and leak. Replacement can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the length of the line and ground conditions. When domestic water is supplied by a utility company, the inlet pipe will lead directly to the house distribution piping. In some areas, depending on the quality of the water, there might be a water softener or a filter between the supply and distribution piping. Normally, however, you will not find a storage tank (similar to that needed in a well-pumping system) between the supply and distribution piping. If you do find such a tank, you should suspect a low-pressure condition at the street main. When the water pressure in the street main is low and there are simultaneous demands for water by the houses on the street, the flow to each house may be inadequate. To compensate for this condition, a storage tank is often installed to provide a reservoir to supply water during these periods. Water drawn from the tank is then replaced when the plumbing fixtures in that house are not being used. If you see such a tank between the inlet supply and distribution piping, record the fact on your worksheet.
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When domestic water is not supplied by a utility company, it will be supplied by a wellpumping system. Such systems are discussed in the last section of this chapter. At the house inlet side of the water-supply pipe, there will be a master shutoff valve that can close the water supply to the entire house. Sometimes there are two valves, one on each side of the water meter. See whether the valve is operational. Close and open it. Over the years, because of lack of use, the valve often freezes in the open position. Distribution piping Water is supplied to the various fixtures throughout the house by distribution piping. The distribution system begins by the inlet supply pipe just after the water meter and consists of two components: supply mains and fixture risers. The supply mains are usually suspended from the basement ceiling and can be readily inspected in an unfinished basement. The fixture risers run between the supply mains and the fixtures and are usually concealed behind the walls. For the most part, the risers cannot be inspected. In addition to copper, brass, and galvanized iron pipes, many communities also allow the use of plastic pipes for both hot- and cold-water distribution. Some communities, however, will allow plastic pipe only for use in cold-water lines. Trace and inspect all of the exposed water pipes in the basement. You will find that there will be a branch takeoff pipe that leads to the domestic water heater, and if the house is heated by steam or hot water, there will be a cold or hot takeoff leading to the boiler. As a point of interest, over the years, cold-water copper and brass pipes take on a darker color than the hot-water pipes. Sometimes you might find sections of cold piping sweating profusely. This is not a problem condition. It is merely condensation
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and can easily be eliminated by insulating the pipes or reducing the amount of moisture in the air with a dehumidifier. Faulty plumbing does not necessarily mean that there is a steady stream of water leaking from a pipe or fitting, although if that is the case, immediate correction is necessary. Of particular concern are indications of aging and deterioration. Look specifically for signs of past and current leakage around fittings and valves. Look for mineral deposits, corrosion, and patched sections. The presence of galvanized iron pipes and fittings in a copper and brass plumbing system is a potential problem, as discussed previously. If you see iron pipes, you should make an estimate of the amount and anticipate their replacement. Copper pipes often take on a greenish cast, particularly around the fittings. Although this condition looks as if it could have been caused by water leaking from the joint, it is not. It is usually caused by the soldering flux. A leak, on the other hand, usually shows up as an encrustation of mineral deposits around the joint. Brass pipes found in residential structures will usually be red brass or yellow brass. You can often tell the difference by the color. Red brass, however, is not really red but a yellowish brown. Yellow-brass water pipes are more vulnerable to corrosion and dezincification (zinc leaching out of the brass into the water) than red-brass pipes. The projected life for yellow-brass pipes is about forty years; seventy-five years for red brass is not uncommon. The weakest part of a brass pipe is the threaded joint. With some older yellow-brass pipes, the threads are paper thin. If force is applied to one of the pipes (with a wrench during a repair or even by leaning on the pipe), the joint could easily rupture. Usually weak joints can be detected by a slight encrustation of mineral deposits. If you find encrusted joints on brass pipes, you should anticipate repair or replacement of those sections. Basement inspection 171
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When the distribution pipes are brass, look along the length of the pipes for signs of leaks. Brass pipes are vulnerable to pinhole leaks along their length. Depending on its chemical quality, the water in the pipes can cause some of the zinc in the brass to dissolve. When this occurs, pinhole openings can be seen along the length of the pipe. Because of the small size of the openings, water drips from the holes very slowly. In many instances, the water will evaporate before it drips, leaving whitish mineral deposits around the opening. (See FIG. 13-9.) Eventually the deposits can self-seal the leak, although the pinhole openings will get larger. I once inspected a house that had this problem. The owners had moved out in the beginning of the winter before they found a buyer. As a precautionary measure, water was drained from all of the pipes to keep them from freezing over the winter. My inspection took place the following spring when the water was turned on. The sudden surge of pressure in the pipes was enough to loosen all of the deposits, and water started to leak out
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all along the pipes so that it looked like a sprinkler system. If you see brass pipes with mineral encrustations along their length, even though there might not be any current leakage, those pipes should be replaced. Drainage pipes The wastes discharging from toilets and sinks flow from the fixtures down to the sewer or septic tank by means of drainage pipes. As with the distribution piping, only the portion of the drain line that is in the basement will be visible for inspection. In those houses built on ground level or those with finished basements, the drainpipes will probably not be visible and cannot be inspected. Drainpipes are generally made of cast iron, galvanized iron, copper, lead, or plastic. Very often the drainage system will consist of a combination of the different types of pipes. This is acceptable. The problems encountered in the distribution system when using iron and copper pipes together or lead pipes do not exist in the drainage system.
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Fig. 13-9. Brass water pipe with pinhole leaks, a condition caused by leaching zinc. Note mineral deposits on underside of pipe.
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