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Take a peek at your pipework.

Homemaker house doctor Peter Fall takes a look at problem pipes.

They always say if you try cutting corners, your chickens will eventually come home to roost. And you'll pay for it.

It's going back a while but in the 1970s the country had a few economic problems primarily revolving around an oil crisis, but with bits of unrest in Africa. As a consequence, copper was in very short supply. I recall a time when copper pipe was rationed by the suppliers and a black market grew up in the secondary supply of pipes. Needless to say, the price of copper pipes went through the roof and the quality dropped significantly.

British Standard pipes were difficult to source so a supply of thinner wall pipe was found. Whether these pipes were by British manufacturers eking out their small supply of raw material or we were importing copper pipes from so called "inferior foreign suppliers" is immaterial. The end result was for a substantial period of time the majority of copper pipes were a lot thinner than the pipes we were used to using.

In theory, the reduced thickness of a pipe should have little effect on its performance over the years. After an initial internal oxidation, the pipes do not continue to corrode so they should be sound for as long as they are in use. Unfortunately that isn't always the case.

When copper pipes are installed they should be securely held in position by clips screwed back to floor joists or skirting boards. This stops them waggling about as water flows through and holds them securely to prevent them sagging with the load of the water. Unfortunately, fixing clips takes time and, therefore, they are often used sparingly ( if they are used at all.

Where the pipes are below the floor and they have to pass across any floor joists, they should be slotted through holes in the centre of the joist. This is difficult to do, so plumbers frequently cut a notch out of the top of the joists and lay the pipe just below the floor boarding. They might compound this by holding the pipe in place with a nail driven into the joist on each side of the pipe. Copper pipes corrode when they are in direct contact with concrete. To overcome this any pipes that are laid into a concrete floor should be surrounded in an isolating layer.

Nowadays we have pipes that are manufactured with a plastic coating just for this purpose but back in the 70s the pipe had to be wrapped in a grease impregnated tape, which the plumbers didn't like to use. So again corners were cut and the pipes sometimes were laid unprotected.

Over the years, many of these copper pipes have moved around under the normal influence of heating up, water flowing then stopping or just the effect of the floor boarding pushing up and down. The movement rubs the pipe against the adjacent joist, board or concrete, wearing it down, slowly but surely.

Eventually the thin wall of the copper wears through and a small but steady stream of usually hot water starts to weep or even spurt out of the pipe. If the pipe is bedded into concrete this will take some time before it becomes obvious. When it is under a timber ground floor it might never be obvious but if it's under the first floor you will soon start to see the tell-tale patch on the ceiling beneath.

So what can we do about it. The short answer is, very little, other than pulling out what is currently perfectly sound pipe and renewing it. It's a good idea when we renew the carpet or floor finishes in a room, to lift the floorboards and look what lies beneath. How are the pipes held in position?

If the pipes can move about or they are laid next to the underside of the floorboards then fix them securely or slot an isolating layer around so they don't rub through.

If you start to suffer a leak then it's a good time to look hard at the other vulnerable areas around the house, before your chickens come home to roost.

* Peter Fall is former president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He is managing director of Clear Building Survey, tel: 0800 072-9003 www.clearbuildingsurvey.co.uk
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 14, 2007
Words:729
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