A Plumbing Primer

This article will improve your understanding of your home plumbing system. If you're inexperienced, you'll certainly need to do some reading on your own before you tackle even the simplest plumbing task. 

The early kinds of modern plumbing pipe were mostly lead and cast iron, and later, galvanized steel, also called wrought iron. If your home is older, chances are you've got one of these older plumbing systems and you'll have a hard time doing the repairs yourself.

A lead pipe is very soft and easily bendable. In that sense, it's well-suited for plumbing and was commonly used for supply lines. Lead pipes are durable, but when problems do occur, they're difficult to fix. To seal joints and splice sections, molten lead has to be wiped around the pipe by hand using a special cloth. You may recognize these joints in your plumbing system by the distinctive egg shape.

Cast iron was used for waste water lines because it doesn't corrode easily. Cast iron is nearly impossible to cut with a saw. Plumbers score and crack it with special tools. Leave cast iron for the plumbers to handle.

From about 1910 to 1969, galvanized steel was the standard supply line pipe. They can last for quite a long time but they have some inherent weaknesses. Eventually they will rust and spring leaks. And they allow mineral deposits to build up, clogging the pipes and causing reduced water pressure at the faucets. 

Galvanized steel pipe maintenance is usually within the capabilities of the advanced do-it-yourselfer. However, completely refitting a large portion of the system isn't easy, because you have to cut proper pipe lengths and then thread the ends so they screw into fittings. Check out our store for a large selection of plumbing tools. Once you've looked into it, you can decide whether you want to hand the job over to a professional or take it on yourself.


By the 1970s, plumbing systems turned from galvanized steel to copper. It lasts about twice as long and it's easy to cut and join—a big benefit for those of us who do the repair work around the home.

Copper is softer than steel, so it cuts quickly with an inexpensive tube cutter or a hacksaw. Joining copper involves soldering or "sweating" the joint. The solder for these pipes melts at low temperatures, which makes the job quite easy with a propane torch. Tube cutters and torches are available for rent.

Just as copper replaced steel supply pipes, plastics began to replace steel and cast iron in the waste water system. Plastic is light and easy to cut, and the simpler "solvent welded" joints are far superior to cast iron and steel joints. Plastic fittings have hubs that snugly fit over the pipe ends. To join them, you apply a powerful solvent to the surfaces and push them together, bonding them. However, solvents contain powerful chemicals. In order to avoid breathing the concentrated fumes, you should always work in a well-ventilated areas. Protect your eyes as well.

Be sure to stop in for more complete plumbing advice.

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