Q: I live in a 1941 two-story brick town house with plaster walls and ceilings. The galvanized water pipes that feed the back-to-back upstairs bathrooms have finally started to spring pinhole leaks. I'd like to replace all the pipe with copper, in part to eliminate the chronic problems with rusty water. But the supply lines are in the outside wall or the wall shared with the attached house. All these walls are partially tiled; the floors and shower stall are also covered in tile set on a mortar base. All the tile is in great shape. Is there any way to replace the old pipe without gutting the bathrooms?

— Bill, Baltimore, MD

A: Richard Trethewey replies: I won't say it's impossible, but replacing all the pipe without stripping the room down to the studs will be tricky at best. Maybe you can get access to some of the supply lines by stripping the ceiling off the rooms below. That won't be a lot of fun, either, but I suppose replacing a drywall or plaster ceiling is easier and a lot less expensive than reworking tile. Another possibility is to run the new pipes through the attic, although you'll have to insulate them from cold weather. An access panel behind the tub or shower would simplify connecting new supply lines to fixtures. Otherwise, you'll have to connect the new pipes to the old ones as close to the fixtures as you can and hope that the last few feet of the old pipe won't fail. (You'll still have a rust problem, though.)

Here's another thought: Some bathrooms from that era had surface-mounted supply pipes. They were chromed and actually looked interesting, to some people. Maybe you could start the trend all over again. No matter what you do, though, you'll probably have to rework the shower floor. Its drain won't last forever and may have a trap that's no longer code approved. When you get right down to it, unless your town house is historic, the best and most efficient way to replace all that piping is to just take a deep breath and gear up for a major demolition job. That way you can do the pipes right and rework anything else in the bathroom that isn't the way you want it.
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