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Here we provide a photo guide to determining the age of a building or its plumbing system, piping, and fixtures by examination of visual clues. The age of a building can be determined quite accurately by documentation, but when documents are not readily
available, visual clues such as those available during a professional home inspection can still determine when a house was built by examining its components, building materials, even nails, fasteners, and types of saw cuts on lumber.
Guide to the Age of Plumbing Materials & Plumbing Fixtures as Indicators of Building Age
Photograph of an active gaslight found in a 1900 home in New York.
Often old gas lines have been disconnected entirely and sometimes they have been re-used to route electrical wiring to
new light fixtures or to gaslight fixtures which have been converted to electric.
that an old gas fixture or valve on a wall or found in a fireplace are inactive.
We turned-on and lit this fixture which gave a bright surprise to everyone.
Age of Supply & Drain Piping: Chart of Dates When Different Types of Plumbing Piping Were Used in Homes
Prior to 1800 in Northameria pipes were made of wood, from hollow trees or carved from solid wood hewn from trees. Cast iron piping was not produced in the U.S. before ca. 1825.
Plumbing fixtures and piping materials offer considerable age in dating a building, including easy
clues such as the presence of a date of manufacture stamped into many toilet tanks to the periods
of use of types of water supply piping (lead, galvanized steel, black iron pipe, copper, plastic piping)
and building drain piping (lead, cast iron, copper, plastic, clay).
Often on older buildings multiple
types of piping will be present as repairs and changes have been made in the building plumbing system.
At left, our chart of plumbing types and years of use is provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop.
The chart shows that lead water service piping was in common use in North America from 1900 to 1940. During that same period Galvanized steel pipes were also in use, extending up to about 1950, while brass water supply piping also was in use as early as 1900 or even the later 1800's, but fell from common use in new construction by 1935.
Copper water supply pipes came into widespread use in 1935 and extend to the present, while plastic water supply piping (polyethylen, PVC, etc. were not in common use before 1970. PEX plastic supply piping for water distribution and in some cases for heating water distribution has been in wide use since the 1990's.
Orangeburg drain & septic field piping, most widely used in drain piping and septic fields, was made of ground wood fibers bound with an adhesive mastic (coal tar), typically looking like black"tarred" piping. Orangeburg piping was first used in Boston in 1865. Orangeburg pipe is not orange - its name comes from its main producer, the Fibre Conduit Co., in Orangeburg, New York. After 1948 the company changed its name to Orangeburg Manufacturing. Black coal-tar impregnated fiber piping was widely used in North American from 1950 to 1970.
Orangeburg drain piping and sewer piping was not made just by Fiber Conduit. Other manufacturers included American Piping Co., J.M. Fiber Conduit, Bermico (Brown Manufacturing), and American Manufacturing
While nearly any home inspected in North America will have an indoor bathroom at present, in 1921 only one percent of homes had an indoor bathroom.
Claw-foot cast iron bath tubs - 1835 - 1903. Our photos (above) show an antique cast iron claw foot tub that we salvaged, cleaned, and re-installed during restoration of an 1860's house in Wappingers Falls, NY. Free-standing cast iron or replica claw foot bath tubs and similar freestanding tubs without the feet are still available, as we show in this photo of a modern free-standing bathtub. In 1883 Standard Manufacturing and Kohler began producing cast iron bath tubs in the U.S., initially described for use as a hog scalder or horse trough (but suitable for bathing). Wikipedia cites five styles of claw-foot bathtubs:
Classic Roll Rim, Roll Top, or Flat Rim tubs
Slipper tubs - one end is raised and sloped
Double Slipper Tubs - both ends of the bathtub are raised and sloped
Double Ended Tubs - where both ends of the tub are rounded.
Pedestal Tub - Pedestal tubs, unlike the styles above, do not have claw feet but rest on a pedestal that is in floor contact all around the tub - dates to Crete, 1000 BC.
Porcelain covered cast iron bathroom tubs - ca 1905 to present.
Colored porcelain bathroom fixtures - 1928 (Crane Mfg.) to present
Porcelain coated pressed-steel bath tubs - ca 1960 to present
Fiberglass bath tubs - ca 1975 to present
Solid acrylic bath tubs - ca 1980 to present, vacuum molded from sheets of acrylic reinforced with fiberglass;
Bath tub re-lining processes - e.g. Re-Bath, using a 1/4" thick polymer-cover that is dropped into and re-covers an existing tub.
Re-Bath™ stocks 1000 tub shapes and can fit nearly every tub shape made in the U.S. since 1920 with a new liner. Because the Re-bath liner is a molded copy of the original bath tub (now hidden below the liner) you might have difficulty determining when this product has been installed. There are several clues, but the simplest is to notice the Re-Bath name on the tub overflow control.
Another bath tub rejuvenating option is bath tub refinishing using a combination of tub scratch filler, surface etching, a primer, and an acrylic urethane top coat, or an epoxy tub paint.
Can the Age of a Water Heater Tell Building Age?
How can we determine the age of a residential water heater? By looking at and decoding data on the water heater's label. It would be unusual to find an original water heater in a building built before 1970 in the U.S. so don't assume that the water heater age is the building age for an older home.
Nearly all modern water heaters, electric, oil fired, or gas fired, include data tags and stickers that indicate the year and month of manufacture of the water heater.
That doesn't tell you exactly when a water heater was installed in a particular building but it does indicate the age of the water heater itself.
However most manufacturers encode the year and month of manufacture of their water heater in the product's serial number so that the water heater age is not immediately obvious, but it can be decoded. .
Our photo (left) shows a gas-fired Rheem™ water heater. The label containing the unit's serial number is probably at the water heater top left. The label above the gas control at the water heater bottom typically contains water heater lighting instructions.
For details about determining the age of water heaters, see AGE of WATER HEATERS where we include a chart which Scott LeMarr has generously shared. For the most complete and very detailed HVAC and water heating equipment data tag and age decoding information anywhere, Alan Carson and Bob Dunlop, Carson Dunlop, Associates, Toronto, offer Carson Dunlop Weldon & Associates Technical Reference Guide to manufacturer's model and serial number information for heating and cooling equipment ($69.00 U.S.). At Water Heater Life Expectancy Comparisons we list factors that determine the life expectancy of a water heater.
How to Use the Date Stamp in Toilets as A Way to Date the Age of A Building
Does the toilet date stamp tell the age of a building? Well not exactly, but lots of toilets include a date stamped or embossed into the interior of the toilet tank, often in the toilet tank lid, as we show in our photo (above right). That embossed date stamp indicates the year of manufacture of the toilet. If the toilet is original to the home that may give us a clue about the age of the building. Of course if the toilet has been installed during a plumbing update it will be newer than the home. In our example the example toilet was manufactured 30 July 1994 but the toilet was installed in a home built in 1920.
Sir John Harington is credited with invention of the first flush toilet (for Queen Elizabeth I in 1596), but the flush toilets were not produced in volume before the water closet designed by Alexander Cummings - 1775.
Indoor toilets using a high wall-mounted local water reservoir (and a pull chain flush valve) have been in use in the U.S. since around 1890. An early wall-tank flush toilet is shown in the sketch at left.
Flush valve toilets that operated by (high) municipal water pressure (and excluded a local water reservoir tank) have been in common use in the U.S. since around 1920.
Modern tank type toilets that incorporate their water reservoir right atop the bowl have been in common use in the U.S. since around 1940. Reader Kathy Bohon points out that the date stamp on a toilet tank or lid is a useful age indicator provided that the building plumbing system has not been renovated. Of course since the toilet will have been manufactured before it was installed, or if the toilet was re-used from another structure, in either case it's date will be a bit earlier than that of the building.
Low-flush toilets that reduce the quantity of water used began in popular use in the U.S. by 1980, but you may need to look closely inside the toilet tank to identify some models.
Look for a label (photos shown just above) in the tank lid stating "This toilet complies with ASME / ANSI A112.19.2M. This fixture qualifies according to ANSI test procedures as a low consumption water closet with an average consumption per flush of 1.8 gal or less." As this tag may have been removed, also look on the toilet tank or base for a low flush designation included in the porcelain coating such as we show in our photo (left).
Simple plastic retrofit internal reservoirs allowed toilet manufacturers to leave the toilet exterior size and shape intact even when going to a low-flush water savings design. At TOILET OVERFLOW EMERGENCY you can see one of these toilet models.
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Mark Cramer Inspection Services Mark Cramer, Tampa Florida, Mr. Cramer is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors and is a Florida home inspector and home inspection educator. Mr. Cramer serves on the ASHI Home Inspection Standards. Contact Mark Cramer at: 727-595-4211 mark@BestTampaInspector.com
John Cranor is an ASHI member and a home inspector (The House Whisperer) is located in Glen Allen, VA 23060. He is also a contributor to InspectApedia.com in several technical areas such as plumbing and appliances (dryer vents). Contact Mr. Cranor at 804-747-7747 or by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Home Inspection Education Home Study Courses - ASHI@Home Training 10-course program. Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on these courses: Enter INSPECTAHITP in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
The Home Reference Book, a reference & inspection report product for building owners & inspectors. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
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The Horizon Software System manages business operations,scheduling, & inspection report writing using Carson Dunlop's knowledge base & color images. The Horizon system runs on always-available cloud-based software for office computers, laptops, tablets, iPad, Android, & other smartphones.
Thanks to reader Kathy Bohon for suggesting additional details about determining the age of a home by looking for a date stamp in the toilet tank or lid. Ms. Bohon points out that if a building's plumbing system has not been renovated, the toilet date stamp can be a reliable indicator of approximate building age. (7/30/2009).
Carson Dunlop, Associates, Toronto, have provided us with (and we recommend)
Carson Dunlop Weldon & Associates' Technical Reference Guide to manufacturer's model and serial number information for heating and cooling equipment ($69.00 U.S.). Technical Reference Guide, Carson Dunlop Weldon & Associates, Ltd., 120 Carlton St. Suite 407, Toronto, Ontario, M5A 4K2 Canada, ISBN 1-895585-90-2 165pp.
American Plywood Association, APA, "Portland Manufacturing Company, No. 1, a series of monographs on the history of plywood manufacturing",Plywood Pioneers Association, 31 March, 1967, www.apawood.org
Asbestos products and their history and use in various building materials such as asphalt and vinyl flooring includes discussion which draws on Asbestos, Its Industrial Applications, D.V. Rosato, engineering consultant, Newton, MA, Reinhold Publishing, 1959 Library of Congress Catalog Card No.: 59-12535 (out of print).
Building Research Council, BRC, nee Small Homes Council, SHC, School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, brc.arch.uiuc.edu. "The Small Homes Council (our original name) was organized in 1944 during the war at the request of the President of the University of Illinois to consider the role of the university in meeting the demand for housing in the United States. Soldiers would be coming home after the war and would be needing good low-cost housing. ... In 1993, the Council became part of the School of Architecture, and since then has been known as the School of Architecture-Building Research Council. ... The Council's researchers answered many critical questions that would affect the quality of the nation's housing stock.
How could homes be designed and built more efficiently?
What kinds of construction and production techniques worked well and which did not?
How did people use different kinds of spaces in their homes?
What roles did community planning, zoning, and interior design play in how neighborhoods worked?
Isham: "An Example of Colonial Paneling", Norman Morrison Isham, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 5 (May, 1911), pp. 112-116, available by JSTOR.
Manufactured & Modular Homes: Modular Building Systems Association, MBSA, modularhousing.com, is a trade association promoting and providing links to contact modular builders in North America. Also see the Manufactured Home Owners Association, MHOAA, at www.mhoaa.us. The Manufactured Home Owners Association of America is a National Organization dedicated to the protection of the rights of all people living in Manufactured Housing in the United States.
Re-Bath, tub lining products is a bath tub relining manufacturer and distributor located in Tempe, Arizona - see rebath.com
Pergo AB, division of Perstorp AB, is a Swedish manufacturer or modern laminate flooring products. Information about the U.S. company can be found at http://www.pergo.com where we obtained historical data used in our discussion of the age of flooring materials in buildings.
Plank House Construction: webslog from plankhouse.wordpress.com/2009/01/25/plank-house-construction/ and where plank houses were built by native Americans, see
Large 1:6 Scale Plank House Construction / P8094228,
Photographer: Mike Meuser
06/12/2007 documented at yurokplankhouse.com where scale model Museum quality Yurok Plank Houses are being sold to raise money for the Blue Creek - Ah Pah Traditional Yurok Village project.
Scott C. LeMarr has provided his file of keys to decode Furnace and Water Heater Age from the data provided on the manufacturer's equipment labels. Mr. LeMarr is
a professional home inspector, Certified Professional Inspector/President,
MASTER Indoor Environmental Specialist (MIES).
Vice President of Wisconsin NACHI. He and his company, Honest Home Inspections, LLC. can be reached at
262-424-5587 or by email to email@example.com
Sewer History - great resource for the history of sewer piping - see http://www.sewerhistory.org
Square D Circuit Breaker Recalls, announced by the US CPSC, recalls include a Square D GFCI circuit breaker distributed by Square D, and a Counterfeit Square-D circuit breaker sold through Scott Electric
FLOORING MATERIALS, Age, Types: history of types and age of different flooring materials: Asphalt or vinyl-asbestos floor tiles, sheet flooring, linoleum, ceramic tile, carpeting, wood floor types and materials
Abatron EpoxyWood Repair/Restoration 5501 - 95th Avenue, Kenosha, WI 53144 USA Tel: (262) 653-2000
Fax: (262) 653-2019, For orders: (800) 445-1754 Abatron provides a wide range of wood & building restoration epoxy products including a low-viscosity system that penetrates and solidifies rotted wood and a thicker wood repair putty type epoxy.
Tremont Nail Company offers steel cut nails for authentic restoration projects and work on historic buildings
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
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WATER PUMP REPAIR GUIDE an specific case offers an example of diagnosis of loss of water pressure, loss of water, and analyzes the actual repair cost