Old Louisville Sign

Buying an Old House – The Plumbing System

Lots of people love the idea of living in an older house. They love the “character” that only old houses can bring.  I get that.  But I’m seeing a trend of people wanting to go this route with no knowledge of what it really means to own an old house-or the cost of keeping one up and running.  Anyone who has lived in an old home for any real amount of time will tell you its a labor of love.  Old houses need constant upkeep (more so than their younger counterparts), and if you have ever tried to re-hab an old house, you know it can feel like a huge hole in your yard that you dump money into every day.  You know, “the money pit.”

My city, Louisville, KY has an area of town known simply as “Old Louisville,” which is packed full of old Victorian style solid brick houses.  It is the third largest such district in the United States.  Old Louisville also has the largest concentration of homes containing stained glass in the nation.  Pretty cool, eh?  Needless to say I get to inspect lots of big, old houses. That, too, can be a love-hate relationship.

Let’s dive into the plumbing system of an old house.  Old pipes can look fine on the surface, but looks can be deceiving. Over the past 100 years or so, several different types of material have been used for plumbing in homes.  Clay pipes, cast iron, and galvanized steel were the most commonly used forms back in the day.  All of these have been replaced with modern plastics in recent years, but millions of homes still have the old systems; and one day they will have to be replaced due to failure.

For clarity’s sake, the supply line is the pipe that brings water into the home and distributes it throughout. The waste lines are the pipes that take the sewer water away from the house.

Clay Pipes

Clay pipes (or vitrified clay pipes, if you want to be technical about it) are what most sewers were made from in the 1800’s to early 1900’s.  Clay pipes have been around for much longer than that though.  Some of the earliest pipes ever discovered date back to about 4000 BC in Babylonia.  The issue with having a buried clay pipe in your yard is that they are known for cracking or breaking over time because clay is brittle.

A clay waste (or sewer line) is comprised of many short sections of pipe that fit together.  They’re short because the pieces are heavy, but short sections mean lots of joints where bad things can happen.  Cue the tree roots.  When a breech in the wall of the pipe happens, roots, dirt, and everything in between begin to settle inside the pipe.  Over time this will lead to a clogged waste line in the middle of the yard.

At this point there are two options. You can either dig up the yard and replace the pipes, or hire a company that does “lining services.” That is, they claim to use the old pipe as a chase and pull a new liner through the old pipe.  I’ve never seen this done, but in theory it seems possible. 

Clogged Sewer Waste Pipe
Here you can see how tree roots can work their way into clay pipes.

Cast Iron

Cast iron pipes have been around a long time as well.  It’s not uncommon to see cast iron sewer pipes last 80-100 years, sometimes even longer.  However, cast iron pipes have a certain type of failure that is easy to spot…rust.  The thing to remember is that cast iron rusts from the inside out. That means that while it may look fine on the surface, your pipe could be paper thin in reality.  Long horizontal runs of cast iron pipes also crack quite frequently, a result of corrosive sewer gases.  When you are looking at an old house, and you see cast iron pipes, pay attention to the areas of rust around the collars of the connections. That is where I typically find them failing.  Also, if you are seeing pipes that look freshly painted, it could be someone trying to cover up a badly rusted sewer pipe.

Failed Cast Iron Pipe
Here is an old cast iron waste pipe that has had silicone smeared all over it to try and stop a leak.


Rusting Holes in Sewer Pipe
Here you can see pin hole leaks that seal themselves shut by rusting over.


Split Cast Iron Pipe
A horizontal run of a cast iron sewer pipe that has cracked from years of corrosive sewer gas exposure.


The thing to remember is that cast iron rusts from the inside out.  That means while it may look fine on the surface, it could be paper thin in reality.  If the cast iron is around 80-100 yrs old, it’s getting close to the end of its life.

Galvanized Steel Pipes

Galvanized Steel Pipes were used as both supply and sewer pipes up until around the 1950’s in Louisville.  When steel has been galvanized, it has had a zinc coating applied to the steel to help prevent rust.  Once the zinc coating wears off, the rusting begins.  Galvanized steel water pipes are bad news.  They rust and close up like an artery that has seen too many cheeseburgers. You can also get some pretty nasty tasting water from steel supply pipes. Louisville’s water is voted as some of the nation’s very best tasting tap water, and you wouldn’t want to spoil it with crud filled water pipes.  Obviously when this happens it cuts the flow down dramatically as well.  Like I said, bad news all around.

Rusted Galvanized Water Pipe
Here is an old galvanized steel pipe. Notice how it is rusting on the inside.  This will continue until it stops flowing water all together. But more importantly, do you want to drink water from this pipe?

Supply lines are not the only problematic pipe when it comes to galvanized pipe.  Lots of old houses have waste lines made of the same stuff.  They, too, suffer from the same fate of rust and buildup over time.  Most of the time I see this stuff being used as main sewer lines throughout the house, that tie into a cast iron main sewer stack to head out to the sewer at the street.

Old Abandoned Sewer Pipe
Here is an abandoned galvanized waste line in a crawlspace.  Notice how it’s an old piece of galvanized pipe connecting into a cast iron main stack. Those two typically go hand in hand.


Clogged Galvanized Sewer Pipe
A close up of a clogged galvanized sewer line. This home was about 75 yrs old. Most of the old plumbing had been upgraded to modern PVC pipe.


So, as you shop for your new (old) house, pay attention to what you see in terms of plumbing pipes.  A total plumbing replacement job on a big house is “new car money.”  If you notice little bits of PVC pipe sprinkled in here and there, that is a sign that the owners have had problems in the past, but didn’t want to bite the bullet and spend the big money to have it all replaced.  It’s inevitable. These old pipes will fail.  You just don’t want to be caught off guard when they do.


  1. I am renting a house built in the 50’s, so I have a first hand experience dealing with outdated plumbing. I agree that a lot of people looking into buying an older house have no idea what to expect. When my husband and I buy our first home, we will definitely take a good look at the pipes. After looking at the picture of the rust on the inside of that pipe, I’m thinking it would be a good idea to have the outdated fixtured replace right away.

    1. I just offered a contract on a house built in 1964 and did a sewer inspection today. The case iron pipe has some build up and flaking but no tree roots or clog in the system. The build up is more than expected for a 56 year old house per the person who did the camera inspection. Wondering if I should buy this house or not. How much build up is too much? He also said that I will likely not have any problems from this but no guarantees of how it would go.

  2. We have a 1940s house. Our main concern has been the plumbing. We had the bathroom redone, and opened all of the walls, and lifted the floors. We had a galvanized tub drain replaced ( opening a wall in the front hall going down to the basement, and up to the 2nd story tub to do it), and had all the water lines replaced with L grade copper. We had the venting redone. Our main objective was to thoroughly inspect, and replace anything that was needed. In doing the job, the plumbers chose to leave a short horizontal line of cast iron from the toilet to the cast iron down stack. Shortly ( 2days) after the entire bathroom reno was completed, and all the walls closed up, this short line had a crack that caused water to rundown the walls, and damage the ceilings below it. This has now been repaired, everything dried out, and redone,but it ended up being a costly choice in judgement for the contractors, as they had to do all of the repairing of damage. They say they think the vibration of the saw cutting the old pipes during the reno caused the crack. They are confident the vertical cast iron pipe that leads to the basement from the bathroom is fine. Let’s hope so!
    This coming spring we will be replacing the sewer and water lines from the street to the house. After that, we hope we are ok. The house is beautiful. I want to feel safe and happy here.

    1. Hi Mia,

      Hate to hear about your leaky pipes just after a long renovation. If you keep having problems, they can always cap off the system and pressure test it with air just like they do on new construction to see if anything is leaking. If air can escape the pipes, so can water. Good luck!

  3. Thanks for your post! I genuinely enjoyed reading it.
    I will make sure to bookmark your blog and will come back
    at some point.

  4. I wish I would have known this before I bought my house. My sewer lined failed a few months after moving in and my home inspector did not give me any warning about any of this! Why would they not say something?! Ugg….

    1. Hi Amy,

      I’m sorry to hear about your trouble. I wish I had a good answer for you about your home inspector not saying anything to you about potential issues with these old materials. You’d need to ask them about that. Sometimes inspectors don’t want to scare you off the house and risk losing the referrals of the agent. It happens. In case you don’t know they are services that can clear out roots and blockages with an auger style bit. It’s won’t last forever but can buy you a few years before you have to replace the pipe. Good luck!

  5. Greetings! Recently completed a 100% overhaul of original plumbing in a 1911, 3 story, brick home with a full basement. All the old piping was replaced with new PVC (Sewer) lines and Pex (supply) lines. Also replaced the 4″ line exiting the rear of the home with SCH40 PVC from the basement wall to the connection with the city line. Only pipes we did not replace were under the basement floor. We’ve had no issues, thankfully.
    My issue is with the interior, perimeter drain tile system. Must assume that all along the perimeter of the basement floor, there are 12-18″ drain tiles (pipes) buried to weep/wick exterior wall water from getting under the basement floor. My question is how and or where or should this collected water exit the network? It has to go somewhere. Does it or should it connect with the main sewer line, or is it a separate drain system? House was built in 1911 in Detroit.

    1. Hey! What you are describing sound like a sump-pump perimeter drain system. Groundwater is collected around the foundation walls and drained into a crock in the ground where a pump is triggered by a float switch to eject it up and out into the yard. Again, this is only groundwater, not sewage. If you don’t see a crock/pump in the basement then it’s possible it was never built with one. I see that from time to time here in Louisville and you really don’t have a choice but to add one.

  6. Hi sir, thanks for this info. I’ve own my old house since the mid 1980s. It was built in 1907. Everything is working good and replace PVC all above ground. The problem is my basement washer drain just got clogged, draining slowly over about 10 minutes. And I am sad to admit not having a proper cover on it. I did use a plunger but didn’t help. I’m worried about using a drain auger because I don’t know what the pipe is made of. At the top of the drain at the concrete floor it doesn’t look like a lot of rust. Thank you in advance. I hope you read this. Please let me know if you think a hand auger is alright or what I should do. Thanks again

  7. What’s the best way to unclog cast iron drains which leads to a 1947 drain tile with a full basement ?

    1. Hi Jill – You’ll want to have the lines camera scoped first to know what is causing the blockage. If you have a tree root problem you might be in replacement territory. Don’t go in blind and waste time and money without knowing what you are up against.

  8. What’s the best way to unclog cast iron drains which leads to a 1947 drain tile with a full basement ?

    1. Hi Jill – You’ll want to have the lines camera scoped first to know what is causing the blockage. If you have a tree root problem you might be in replacement territory. Don’t go in blind and waste time and money without knowing what you are up against.

  9. Does anyone know any plumbing company that does non excavation pipe repair in Marshall, Texas? We have a home built in the 1930’s with an under the slab crack. We need to know something today!! Would welcome advice.

  10. Does anyone know any plumbing company that does non excavation pipe repair in Marshall, Texas? We have a home built in the 1930’s with an under the slab crack. We need to know something today!! Would welcome advice.

  11. Hi, glad I found this post. Bought a house built in 1953; no alarms from inspection. I didn’t move in right away b/c I had the hardwood floors refinished. Twice now a drain in the basement floor has backed up w/black sludge.

    The first time I noticed it was just after washing dishes in my kitchen sink (dishwasher line needed adjusted/backing up in dishwasher). Not more than a gallon of liquid/sludge.

    Three weeks go by, I’m full-time living e.g. showering, running the dishwasher, all normal stuff except laundry. Drainage around house needed repairs (just completed 4/16) b/c water was backing up in window well and coming in the basement window above washer/dryer.

    Waiting on glass block window w/dryer vent before I hook up the washer/dryer. Worked in yard all day Sunday, 4/18, came in took shower. Black sludge returned; could almost fill a baby pool.

    It was snaked the 1st time and I was told to use an enzyme-based drain cleaner to help clear the sludge. Been doing that, no issues again until Sunday. The AC line runs to this drain also so I didn’t consider capping it off. I’m not sure if this is an overflow drain only or something else and now but wondering if I can cap it off. If I do, where will this sludge go?

    I do have a sump pump less than two feet away from this drain plus another drain (?- smaller hole in the floor where a sink may have drained to) in between the drain backing up and the sump pump.

  12. You may be just the guy I’m looking for!! I had a hole develop in my yard and I don’t know what the clay pipes (I think) I’m seeing are. I live in George Rogers Clark Park, so while not technically Old Louisville, it’s close enough. Who do you think I should reach out to identify these pipes? MSD?

    1. Hey Matt – I’ll email you so you can send me some pics. I keep my email off the site to cut down on spam. :)

  13. So glad I found this.
    1927 house connected to city sewer main. Recently had my line checked with camera and all is well except for a small crack in my sewage line that is going to be repaired.
    My lines is at back of house and runs out about 20 feet to an alley n then connects to main…
    BUT why am I smelling a STRONG sewage smell at the side of the house outside?
    Again my line is in the back. The smell is around the side. Its awful.

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