Replumbing a Tiled Bath
Q: "Is there a way
to replace old pipe without gutting a bathroom?"
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
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.)
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.