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Preventing Burst Pipes in Aging Buildings

By Jack Rubinger
Published: May 10, 2021
Key Takeaways

Most buildings are more than 20 years old - and that age puts their pipes at higher risk of bursting.

Caption: Piping system Source: imantsu / iStock

Burst pipes grab headlines whenever they happen at a school, a hospital, or anywhere else that a lot of people gather.

One of the problems is that many of these services are housed in aging buildings. Almost three-quarters of buildings in the United States are more than 20 years old. The odds that a plumping issue will cause a disruption at these facilities is fairly high.

According to a 2019 report by Grainger, 66% of facility managers view plumbing as one of the most critical areas to address in an older building. This issue is compounded due to the pandemic. Many buildings that were normally bustling wtih activity have spent weeks or months with very little foot traffic. That means water wasn't flowing nearly as often as it normally would, and when water doesn't flow, organisms and chemicals can build up in the plumbing. It only takes a few days of stagnant water for these to build up.

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Burst water pipes can have devastating effects on buildings, valuables, and any nearby properties. The water damage that results from it can also foster moild, which has long-term health effects for those who occupy the building.

(Learn more in 7 Safety Tips for Mold Cleanup and Remediation Tasks)

There are, thankfully, some things that facily managers and owners can do to prevent pipes from bursting, even in a building that has been standing strong for decades.

Consider Your Piping Material

Metal piping is the traditional option for plumbing systems. Although it's relatively expensive, it is a very durable option.

While that durability can help preventing bursting, metal piping can corrode over time, flake rust, and result in rusty tap water.

Plastic piping is generally easier to work with and is less costly to install. It's easy to cut and fight into tight areas.

The drawback with plastic is its durability. It simply can't withstand as much as metal piping. It's also not as heat-resistant. Moreover, there are additional restrictions when using them (they typically cannot be used in plumbing systems that carry drinking water or water under high pressure).

Copper pipes are a more modern option and quickly becoming the popular choice for piping. It provides great water quality, free of contaminants. It has more longevity than plastic pipes.

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However, because copper is a soft metal, it tends to crack more easily than other pipes when the water in them is frozen.

Insulate the Pipes

Keep pipes and water tanks well insulated at all times. Industry-standard piping insulation materials include:

  • Mineral or glass wool
  • Rigid or flexible foam
  • Polyethylene or other polyurethane-based insulation
  • Calcium silicate
  • Cellular glass
  • Aerogel

Exposed pipes tend to expand and contract when temperatures fluctuate, which increases the risk of bursting.

It is recommended that you insulate any exterior piping as well. Outdoor pipes are more susceptible to freezing and a burst can cause soak through to the building's insulation or its wooden components.

(Find out Why Winterization Is Important for Health and Safety)

Keep the Heat On

Turning the heat off when the facility isn't in use might seem like a cost-saving measure, but it's not worth the increased risk of pipes bursting

Keeping the heat running every hour of the day will keep the temperature of the water in the pipes stable. This will reduce the chances of it freezing and causing bursts.

You can still reduce the heat when the building is unoccupied - it simply doesn't need to be as high when it's empty.

Limit the Damage

When a pipe does burst, it's important to take immediate steps to prevent further damage from occurring.

Start by locating the shut-off valve and turning off the water supply. If you can't find the shut-off valve and the leakage is serious, call the fire department. They will likely know how where to find the valve and may be able to help locate the source of the leak.

Bring in a commercial plumber and have them inspect the burst pipe or pipe system to help locate the source of the rupture.

If water has leaked on electrical systems, turn off the electricty at the main switch and contact an electrician.

Be Prepared for the Worst

With any luck, your pipes will remain sturdy. But that's not something you can bank on.

Assume that some of your pipes will burst at some point and be prepared for it. Routinely service the pipes and maintain the plumbing and piping systems, especially before winter.

And keep all the emergency contacts you will need on hand. The commercial plumber who will help you deal with a leak, the electrician who will help you deal with the immediate aftermath, and the property or building managers who will help you get things back into full operation.

Mold begins to grow within 72 hours of water damage, so it should be dealt with quickly. With enough preparation, it will be.

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Written by Jack Rubinger

Profile Picture of Jack Rubinger

Jack Rubinger has 10+ years of experience writing about workplace safety, construction, lean manufacturing, warehouse management, visual communication, healthcare, agriculture, education, and technology. His articles have been published in a wide range of media, including ISHN, EHS Today, New Equipment Digest, Industry Week, and many others.

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