Problems with old sewer pipe are surfacing

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2012 - 4:33 PM

The low-cost "Orangeburg" material installed from the 1940s to the '70s is wearing out.

Plumbers across the metro and beyond have unearthed it many times in older homes, and it's never good news.

It's often called "Orangeburg pipe," after the New York city where much of it was produced in the 1940s and later.

The pipe is like "tarpaper rolled up and laminated with asphalt," said Jerry Sauber, whose family has run a plumbing business in Farmington since 1922.

He said Orangeburg was usually used for home sewer pipes. "You could stick a shovel through it," he said. "We have dug up a lot of it over the years in town here and surrounding communities."

Plumbers said they have found Orangeburg pipe crushed or compressed from Shakopee to Minneapolis, Fridley and Brainerd. It turns up in remodeling projects or when a root pierces the wood-fiber pipe that is impregnated with coal tar.

Orangeburg, also called bituminous fiber pipe, had performance problems that got it dropped out of the state plumbing code for a while in the 1970s, said John Parizek, chairman of the state Plumbing Board, which approves plumbing products and issues licensing regulations. He said homeowners who discover they have crushed Orangeburg pipe can spend thousands, even $10,000 or more, to replace it, depending upon how far their sewer pipes run.

Larry Walsh is one of those confronted with a big plumbing bill after his home toilet backed up in Farmington. When Roto-Rooter couldn't fix the problem, Walsh called Sauber. The plumber found collapsed Orangeburg pipes extending from Walsh's house, built in 1962. The bill was several thousand dollars to replace about 40 feet of pipe nearly 10 years ago.

"He came out and dug up the whole front yard, took the pipe out, put in PVC plastic pipe and reconnected it," Walsh said. "It is not one of the things you expect when you buy a house -- that you will have to dig up your yard and replace the sewer pipe out to the street."

While Orangeburg was initially used for electrical conduit, a handful of manufacturers began promoting Orangeburg as an inexpensive sewer and drainage pipe alternative in the early 1940s. There was a shortage of iron and other pipe metals that had been diverted to making weapons and equipment for World War II, Parizek said.

Bituminous fiber pipe was installed from the mid 1940s into the 1970s, when PVC pipe began replacing it, said Jon Schladweiler, a retired wastewater engineer in Tucson, Ariz. Schladweiler, an amateur historian who has researched and written about Orangeburg, said it was used widely around the country, and after decades of service it is wearing out. An Internet search reveals numerous accounts of problems with Orangeburg across the nation.

"It was used in the housing boom after World War II, when there were a lot of material shortages," said Chuck Olson, a plumbing inspector for the state Health Department. Olson worked as a plumber for his father's business in the Brainerd area. "There were failures early on. We replaced it in the '70s," he said. "Roots were always an issue."

"We've found Orangeburg in any city that had development in the 1950s," said Paul Sullwold, owner of a Shakopee plumbing firm. "It was popular. I never put any in, but I certainly took out everything we saw. You never found an old Orangeburg sewer in good shape."

Although plumbers have replaced it in Minneapolis, the pipe seems to have been used mostly in the suburbs, said Parizek, who teaches plumbing apprentices at the Minneapolis Plumbing Center next to Dunwoody Institute. He has a few samples of Orangeburg that he shows students. He said the pipe tends to weaken from absorbing water in wet areas and needs a stable sand or granular bed to perform best.

"When it's in the ground it usually gets squashed. It is pretty unrepairable," he said.

Parizek has old state plumbing code books dating to the 1930s. Bituminous fiber was placed on the approved pipe list in 1937, but was removed between 1969 and 1972 because of evidence of pipe failure, state records show.

A state building code inspector held a hearing on bituminous fiber pipe in August 1971 in St. Paul. Attending were industry officials who said the pipe, if well manufactured, was accepted in most states and should be reapproved in Minnesota. In a transcript of the hearing, a pipe company executive estimated the industry had produced 1.5 billion feet of fiber sewer and drain pipe to that point and was shipping an average of 70 million feet a year.

The pipe was reinstated and is still on the state's approved building code list today, said Parizek.

But plumbers and state officials said they don't know any company that makes it.

Schladweiler, the Tucson engineer, said the old pipe is providing a lot of business for plumbers.

He added: "For what it was -- a coal tar-impregnated toilet paper tube -- it has done quite well."

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283

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