Real Estate Owners & Buyers Beware: Sea Level Rise Can Cause The Costly Failure of Cast Iron Pipes

The last couple of years, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has experienced numerous costly and environmentally disastrous cast iron sewer pipe collapses. There are many reasons cast iron pipes fail, but it’s mostly due to corrosion (rust) that degrades the pipes to the point that the effluent escapes through cracks, holes and breaks.

Recently, experts have identified sea level rise as a contributor to the pipe failures. Cast iron is notoriously vulnerable to rusting. Exposure to salty seawater as the water table rises or from repeated flooding can speed up the process.

Unfortunately, the problem of cast iron pipe failures isn’t limited to municipal water systems. Prior to the mid-1970s, cast iron pipes were the pipes of choice to hook up homes to on-site septic systems and municipal water/sewer providers. As sea levels rise and cast iron pipes are increasingly bathed in salty water, these private pipes are put at risk, too.

Buyers and owners of real estate in coastal areas need to pay attention to this threat. A friend of mine bought a home decades ago that was built along the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1940s. This summer, she noticed that her plumbing was backing up frequently. A plumber analyzed the system and found that the problem stemmed from heavily corroded cast iron pipes under her home and yard.

As she found out, repairing or replacing cast iron pipes on even the most basic system can cost into the tens of thousands of dollars. For most of us, that’s a lot of cash.

What should buyers and owners in coastal communities do about cast iron pipes? Owners of homes built before the mid-1970s that are experiencing frequent plumbing problems need to find out if their properties are serviced by cast iron pipes and what shape they’re in. A licensed plumber should be able to inspect the system and issue a report.

Knowing the status of cast iron pipes will help owners to decide whether to leave the pipes alone or to repair or replace them. Time is of the essence, especially since many insurers won’t cover flooding from sewer backups due to corroded pipes. Owners should discuss insurance claims with their insurance providers and also research the possibility of joining existing class action lawsuits against cast iron pipe manufacturers.

Buyers of older home in coastal communities should consider having a licensed home inspector or plumbing contractor inspect the pipes, first to determine if they’re cast iron and second to determine what shape they’re in. The inspector or plumber should be able to assign a rough life expectancy for the pipes. Buyers, however, must keep in mind that the pipes will be increasingly exposed to salt water as sea levels rise. If the pipes are in moderate to poor shape, the decision to proceed with a transaction will depend on the buyers’ ability to absorb the cost of repair or replacement should the pipes begin to fail.

A company called Total Care Restoration has an excellent fact sheet that’s in line with other resources I’ve read about the threat sea level rise poses to cast iron pipes. This link is not provided as an endorsement of their services, it’s only for informational purposes. https://totalcarerestoration.com/cast-iron-pipes/

Author: Larry Richardson

Larry Richardson relies on his journalism, real estate, photography and videography experience and education to create SeaLevelRiseRealEstate.com and annual editions of "7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions for Buyers, Sellers, Owners & Real Estate Agents." Richardson, an inactive but licensed real estate agent in Florida with a dozen years of experience, also owns StepByStepChef.com, which features YouTube videos with over 10 million views