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We live in a house that was built in 1905 — with galvanized steel water pipes and cast iron drains, neither of which can be counted on to last for a century plus. Two years ago we had the water pipes replaced with copper, this year replaced the drains with plastic. One lesson from the experience is that the real problem is not fixing pipes but getting at them. How hard that is, and how much damage the process does to the house, depends very much on where the pipes are and how the house is constructed.
We were lucky in several, but not all, ways.
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Our house, unlike almost all of its newer neighbors, has a full basement. A full basement is makes much of the piping easily accessible without having to cut through walls or ceilings. Presumably you can do the same things with a crawlspace, but less easily.
I like to offer our basement as evidence that our house cannot really be in California despite the evidence of address and GPS, since the presence of a full basement instead of a crawl space is contrary to California practice. So is the absence of a garage, my second piece of evidence. Garages in California, at least our part of it, are not for putting cars in. They are a replacement for the missing basements — workshops, storage, occasionally extra living space.
A second convenient feature of the house is that the kitchen has a floating ceiling, a framework holding ceiling tiles suspended just below the real ceiling with pipes in between. To get at the water pipes all the plumbers had to do was remove ceiling tiles. If one or two of them get broken in the process I can buy replacements at Home Depot, easier and less expensive than repairing a sheet rock ceiling . The kitchen is, conveniently, underneath one of the two upstairs bathroom and its pipes.
Unfortunately the cast iron drain pipes for that bathroom turned out to be a little higher, between the kitchen ceiling and the bathroom floor, so to get at them the plumbers had to cut holes in the ceiling — but putting back the ceiling tiles makes the real ceiling, and the holes in it, invisible. Also unfortunately, the other bathroom is above the sheetrock ceiling of another room, which the plumbers had to cut through.
That is the full list of convenient features. To get a vent running up from a second floor bathroom the plumbers had to cut through a wall. The bathroom has pretty, and unreplaceable, wall paper, so they instead cut through the painted sheetrock wall on the other side of the pipe. When everything is finished they will mend the sheet rock and we will have to hire a painter to repaint where they have done so.
The first, and obvious, conclusion is that we should have had both plumbing jobs done at the same time, since some of the access work would be the same for both.
More Things I Learned
It turns out that drain pipes are supposed to have vents to let air in above the pipe. Houses built in 1905, at least this one, don’t. It is not clear that the lack of a vent has significant costs — our house went for a hundred and eighteen years without one and we did not notice any resulting problems in the decades we lived in it — but the building code requires them. Replumbing requires a permit from the city, the city inspects the job after it is finished and if they find anything not up to code the plumbers have to fix it.
Which raises another question, interesting to me both as a home owner and an economist.
The representative of one of the plumbing companies we considered warned me that, with an old house, city inspectors might find things that they would insist on our correcting. He offered to do the job without a permit and, if the city somehow found out, tell them that they were about to pull a permit and just hadn’t gotten around to it. I do not know if that tactic would work, or how likely it is that the city would notice; the plumbers we ended up hiring got a permit.
The situation raises two issues that interest me as an economist. One is to what degree the regulatory scheme implemented by permits and inspections provides a useful service, to what degree imposes unnecessary costs. The other is the enforcement mechanism, whether the costs to homeowners and plumbers of evading the regulation are large enough to deter them from doing so.
The fine on a contractor who violates the regulation is $5000; in addition to paying it he is required to buy a permit and do the additional work. The permit for the drain work we had done cost the company that did the work about a thousand dollars. Putting in the vents required by the building code cost about four thousand. We will have to wait until the job is inspected to discover if the inspectors find anything that still doesn’t conform to code and has to be fixed.
If we assume that the vent was unnecessary and that the inspectors find no problems, doing without the permit would have saved us five thousand dollars. Getting caught would have cost us plus the plumbers1 $10,000 (fine plus permitting cost plus extra work). That makes violating the regulation a net loss if the probability of being caught is more than 50%, a net gain if it is less.
It would be interesting to know what fraction of jobs that require a permit are done without one.
Implications for House Design
Our experience got me thinking about ways houses could be built that would make both big plumbing projects such as ours and minor ones such as fixing a leak easier. The obvious way to do it is to put all of the pipes in places where you can get at them without cutting through walls or ceilings. The floating ceiling design of our kitchen is one example. Another is our kitchen closet, which had a vertical drain pipe running up one corner — I was going to list that as a third convenient feature until it turned out that the revised plumbing doesn’t use it. Generalizing the examples, one could design a house where all of the plumbing pipes were in closets, behind removable panels or, in a warm climate, on the outside rather than the inside of the house.
I raised the idea of doing it that way with one of the plumbers. His response was that commercial building sometimes were designed that way, residential ones were not, and that he would prefer that his own house not be. As best I could tell, that was an aesthetic decision.
Which suggests another possibility, leaving the pipes in plain view and making them part of the aesthetic, perhaps brightly painted.
In Media Res
The plumbers started on Tuesday, told us they would finish Wednesday. Wednesday they told us they would finish Thursday. Thursday they said they had finished everything on the first and second floor, would be back Friday to finish work in the basement. At that point everything was functional, although part of it wouldn’t be during the Friday work, so we asked them instead to come back and finish next week.
I have been trying to post every three days and I don’t think my postscript qualifies as a post so am putting this up now.
Planning for Plumbing
My first conclusion is that one should not trust plumbers to tell you how long they will take, at least for an old house. Part of the problem may be what they discover in the process, which in our case was not only the absence of vents, which they probably could have discovered by looking in the attic and observing that they didn’t come through, but also the fact that one of the places they initially wanted to put a vent was blocked by a brick chimney. Whatever the reason, they predicted two days and are taking at least four. The previous set were over by substantially more than that.
The second, which should have been obvious, is that cleaning up after the plumbers is a pain. They tried to minimize it by using plastic sheets to cover the kitchen table, the stove, and other things, but enough dust and rubble got through their defenses to make a good deal of work for us.
If you have plumbing done, assume it will take at least twice as long as they tell you, add a few days to that for cleanup and general recovery, and don’t schedule anything that depends on a functional house for a few days after that. Don’t, for example, schedule an SSC meetup, typically bringing twenty to fifty guests, for Saturday when the plumbers have told you they will be done by Wednesday.
We cancelled it yesterday. Tomorrow I get to find out how many people missed both the email cancellation and the online announcement.
P.S. The first comment on this post is from someone with extensive experience as a contractor in California. By his account the chance of being caught doing work without a permit in the sort of thing we were doing is essentially zero, and he never pulled one. Other comments have additional information.
It sounds as though the only reason to have a permit is that if you ever sell the house you are obliged to tell the seller if there has been work down without a permit. But if, as commenters seem to think, working without a permit is normal, I wouldn’t think the buyer would much care.
I assume that costs to plumbers get reflected back to us in the price they charge.