Re-bath tub reliner (C) Daniel Friedman How to Determine The age of Building Plumbing Piping, Drains, Materials & Fixtures

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Here we provide a photo guide to determining the age of a building or its plumbing system, piping, and fixtures by examination of visual clues. The age of a building can be determined quite accurately by documentation, but when documents are not readily available, visual clues such as those available during a professional home inspection can still determine when a house was built by examining its components, building materials, even nails, fasteners, and types of saw cuts on lumber.

Here we list some helpful clues to answer the question "how old is the house?" and we provide photographs of key visual clues useful for determining the age of a building. Also see AGE of a BUILDING - how to determine and ARCHITECTURE & BUILDING COMPONENT ID.

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Guide to the Age of Plumbing Materials & Plumbing Fixtures as Indicators of Building Age

PHOTO of gas light fixture which we discovered still was fed by an active gas line in an 1860 New York Home

Photograph of an active gaslight found in a 1900 home in New York.

Often old gas lines have been disconnected entirely and sometimes they have been re-used to route electrical wiring to new light fixtures or to gaslight fixtures which have been converted to electric.

Don't assume that an old gas fixture or valve on a wall or found in a fireplace are inactive.

We turned-on and lit this fixture which gave a bright surprise to everyone.

Age of Supply & Drain Piping: Chart of Dates When Different Types of Plumbing Piping Were Used in Homes

Chart showing when different types of piping were used in homes (C) CarsonDunlop

Prior to 1800 in Northameria pipes were made of wood, from hollow trees or carved from solid wood hewn from trees. Cast iron piping was not produced in the U.S. before ca. 1825.

Plumbing fixtures and piping materials offer considerable age in dating a building, including easy clues such as the presence of a date of manufacture stamped into many toilet tanks to the periods of use of types of water supply piping (lead, galvanized steel, black iron pipe, copper, plastic piping) and building drain piping (lead, cast iron, copper, plastic, clay).

Often on older buildings multiple types of piping will be present as repairs and changes have been made in the building plumbing system.

At left, our chart of plumbing types and years of use is provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop.

The chart shows that lead water service piping was in common use in North America from 1900 to 1940. During that same period Galvanized steel pipes were also in use, extending up to about 1950, while brass water supply piping also was in use as early as 1900 or even the later 1800's, but fell from common use in new construction by 1935.

Copper water supply pipes came into widespread use in 1935 and extend to the present, while plastic water supply piping (polyethylen, PVC, etc. were not in common use before 1970. PEX plastic supply piping for water distribution and in some cases for heating water distribution has been in wide use since the 1990's.

Lead water pipe and cast iron drain (C) Daniel Friedman

Cast iron piping used for in-building drain piping as well as sewer lines is shown at How to Locate the Main Building Drain, and at How to Use a Power Snake on Building Drains you can see a common splice-in of ABS plastic drain piping into an existing cast iron sewer line.

Clay drainfield piping or "drain tiles" is shown in fragments in our article on sewer line replacement, at Determining Need for Replacement. We also provide this photo of another type of octagonal clay sewer and septic piping that was often used in drainfields as disjointed sections.

Lead water entry piping (see LEAD PIPES in BUILDINGS) connecting a building to the street water main is shown in our photo (left) where you can also see gray-painted cast iron drain piping. See LEAD IN DRINKING WATER, HOW to REDUCE.

Orangeburg drain & septic field piping, most widely used in drain piping and septic fields, was made of ground wood fibers bound with an adhesive mastic (coal tar), typically looking like black"tarred" piping. Orangeburg piping was first used in Boston in 1865. Orangeburg pipe is not orange - its name comes from its main producer, the Fibre Conduit Co., in Orangeburg, New York. After 1948 the company changed its name to Orangeburg Manufacturing. Black coal-tar impregnated fiber piping was widely used in North American from 1950 to 1970.

Orangeburg drain piping and sewer piping was not made just by Fiber Conduit. Other manufacturers included American Piping Co., J.M. Fiber Conduit, Bermico (Brown Manufacturing), and American Manufacturing

Details about all types of building supply and drain piping materials and heating pipes are found at PIPING in BUILDINGS, CLOGS, LEAKS, TYPES.

Bathubs Help Determine the Age of a Building

While nearly any home inspected in North America will have an indoor bathroom at present, in 1921 only one percent of homes had an indoor bathroom.

Claw foot tub (C) Daniel Friedman Claw foot tub (C) Daniel Friedman
  • Claw-foot cast iron bath tubs - 1835 - 1903. Our photos (above) show an antique cast iron claw foot tub that we salvaged, cleaned, and re-installed during restoration of an 1860's house in Wappingers Falls, NY. Free-standing cast iron or replica claw foot bath tubs and similar freestanding tubs without the feet are still available, as we show in this photo of a modern free-standing bathtub. In 1883 Standard Manufacturing and Kohler began producing cast iron bath tubs in the U.S., initially described for use as a hog scalder or horse trough (but suitable for bathing). Wikipedia cites five styles of claw-foot bathtubs:
    • Classic Roll Rim, Roll Top, or Flat Rim tubs
    • Slipper tubs - one end is raised and sloped
    • Double Slipper Tubs - both ends of the bathtub are raised and sloped
    • Double Ended Tubs - where both ends of the tub are rounded.
    • Pedestal Tub - Pedestal tubs, unlike the styles above, do not have claw feet but rest on a pedestal that is in floor contact all around the tub - dates to Crete, 1000 BC.
  • Porcelain covered cast iron bathroom tubs - ca 1905 to present.
  • Colored porcelain bathroom fixtures - 1928 (Crane Mfg.) to present
  • Porcelain coated pressed-steel bath tubs - ca 1960 to present
  • Fiberglass bath tubs - ca 1975 to present
  • Solid acrylic bath tubs - ca 1980 to present, vacuum molded from sheets of acrylic reinforced with fiberglass;

Re-bath tub reliner (C) Daniel Friedman

  • Bath tub re-lining processes - e.g. Re-Bath, using a 1/4" thick polymer-cover that is dropped into and re-covers an existing tub.

    Re-Bath™ stocks 1000 tub shapes and can fit nearly every tub shape made in the U.S. since 1920 with a new liner. Because the Re-bath liner is a molded copy of the original bath tub (now hidden below the liner) you might have difficulty determining when this product has been installed. There are several clues, but the simplest is to notice the Re-Bath name on the tub overflow control.

    Another bath tub rejuvenating option is bath tub refinishing using a combination of tub scratch filler, surface etching, a primer, and an acrylic urethane top coat, or an epoxy tub paint.

Can the Age of a Water Heater Tell Building Age?

How can we determine the age of a residential water heater? By looking at and decoding data on the water heater's label. It would be unusual to find an original water heater in a building built before 1970 in the U.S. so don't assume that the water heater age is the building age for an older home.

Rheem water heater (C) Daniel FriedmanNearly all modern water heaters, electric, oil fired, or gas fired, include data tags and stickers that indicate the year and month of manufacture of the water heater.

That doesn't tell you exactly when a water heater was installed in a particular building but it does indicate the age of the water heater itself.

However most manufacturers encode the year and month of manufacture of their water heater in the product's serial number so that the water heater age is not immediately obvious, but it can be decoded. .

Our photo (left) shows a gas-fired Rheem™ water heater. The label containing the unit's serial number is probably at the water heater top left. The label above the gas control at the water heater bottom typically contains water heater lighting instructions.

For details about determining the age of water heaters, see AGE of WATER HEATERS where we include a chart which Scott LeMarr has generously shared. For the most complete and very detailed HVAC and water heating equipment data tag and age decoding information anywhere, Alan Carson and Bob Dunlop, Carson Dunlop, Associates, Toronto, offer Carson Dunlop Weldon & Associates Technical Reference Guide to manufacturer's model and serial number information for heating and cooling equipment ($69.00 U.S.). At Water Heater Life Expectancy Comparisons we list factors that determine the life expectancy of a water heater.

How to Use the Date Stamp in Toilets as A Way to Date the Age of A Building

Antique toilet (C) Daniel Friedman Date stamp shown in a modern toilet tank lid (C) Daniel Friedman

Does the toilet date stamp tell the age of a building? Well not exactly, but lots of toilets include a date stamped or embossed into the interior of the toilet tank, often in the toilet tank lid, as we show in our photo (above right). That embossed date stamp indicates the year of manufacture of the toilet. If the toilet is original to the home that may give us a clue about the age of the building. Of course if the toilet has been installed during a plumbing update it will be newer than the home. In our example the example toilet was manufactured 30 July 1994 but the toilet was installed in a home built in 1920.

Sir John Harington is credited with invention of the first flush toilet (for Queen Elizabeth I in 1596), but the flush toilets were not produced in volume before the water closet designed by Alexander Cummings - 1775.

Indoor toilets using a high wall-mounted local water reservoir (and a pull chain flush valve) have been in use in the U.S. since around 1890. An early wall-tank flush toilet is shown in the sketch at left.

Flush valve toilets that operated by (high) municipal water pressure (and excluded a local water reservoir tank) have been in common use in the U.S. since around 1920.

Modern tank type toilets that incorporate their water reservoir right atop the bowl have been in common use in the U.S. since around 1940. Reader Kathy Bohon points out that the date stamp on a toilet tank or lid is a useful age indicator provided that the building plumbing system has not been renovated. Of course since the toilet will have been manufactured before it was installed, or if the toilet was re-used from another structure, in either case it's date will be a bit earlier than that of the building.

Also see
  Toilet Types, Flush Methods

History and Dating of Low Flush Toilets

Low-flush toilets that reduce the quantity of water used began in popular use in the U.S. by 1980, but you may need to look closely inside the toilet tank to identify some models.

low flush toilet information stamp (C) Daniel Friedman low flush toilet information stamp (C) Daniel Friedman

Toilet low flush indication (C) Daniel Friedman
Look for a label (photos shown just above) in the tank lid stating "This toilet complies with ASME / ANSI A112.19.2M. This fixture qualifies according to ANSI test procedures as a low consumption water closet with an average consumption per flush of 1.8 gal or less." As this tag may have been removed, also look on the toilet tank or base for a low flush designation included in the porcelain coating such as we show in our photo (left).

Simple plastic retrofit internal reservoirs allowed toilet manufacturers to leave the toilet exterior size and shape intact even when going to a low-flush water savings design. At TOILET OVERFLOW EMERGENCY you can see one of these toilet models.

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