Sometimes old bathrooms are amazing examples of classic vintage beauty: clawfoot bathtubs, brass fittings, and white subway tile on the walls. Or they can be retro chic, with pink and aqua fixtures and 60s mod styling. Other times, they can be just…old. Whether you are trying to preserve a piece of architectural history or do a complete tear-out and start from scratch, there is one rule when remodeling old bathrooms–expect the unexpected.
Unfortunately, even the most beautifully built bathrooms eventually need updating. I have worked on plenty of turn-of-the-century (late 19th to early 20th century) bathrooms that have fully functional, non-leaking plumbing. So why change it, right? Wrong. The pipes are made of lead, and as we know, lead can be very dangerous to a child’s developing brain.
Even if you want to preserve the historic beauty, a careful retrofitting with copper pipe is a good idea. The problem is, often when you start working on an old plumbing system, you may find that you are in for more than you bargained for. Old brass fittings may be corroded, leading to broken fixtures and an extended search for a historically appropriate replacement, which can get expensive. In another case, pulling a stool to replace a leaky wax ring may lead to the discovery of a cracked cast iron fitting, turning a one-hour project into a day-long odyssey.
Other less “historic” bathrooms, particularly those installed or remodeled in the last 50 years, can be just as challenging and sometimes downright frightening to deal with. For instance, many homes in the 20th century were built with waste pipes made of a product known as “orangeburg.” This pipe was used a lot in sewer lines during the housing boom after World War II and into the mid-1970s. It was made of tar pitch and wood fiber, and I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out to be a total disaster, deforming and totally collapsing over time. We don’t see much of it out there anymore, but occasionally you still find it lurking around, waiting to wreak havoc on some poor homeowner’s life!
There are a few very common problem areas to watch out for in bathroom remodeling, whether the house is 20 years old or 120. If you aren’t expecting these problems, they can jump out of nowhere and turn a simple remodel into a total beast of a job. Here are a few to expect:
One of the most common issues we encounter in old bathroom plumbing is improper venting. Now, I’m not talking about ventilation, I’ll get to that in a minute. What I’m referring to here are the dry pipes that allow sewer gas to escape out of the roof, rather than entering your bathroom. Any fixture that has an S trap or a P trap under the drain (and that is about every fixture) needs to have a pipe nearby to vent that trap.
This is because an unvented drain pipe will often form a vacuum as water goes down. This causes the water to get sucked out of the trap, and sewer gas can then enter the house through that dry trap. Did you ever live in a house where the drains gurgled when the water went down or when you flushed the toilet? This is due to bad venting. They weren’t too big on venting in the old days, so if you are updating an old bathroom or moving fixtures from one place to another, remember, you need a pipe going up for every one that goes down.
We all grow up with the Hollywood trope that people can be murdered simply by throwing a radio into the bathtub. Bathroom electrocution is such a popular urban myth even the guys over at Mythbusters did a segment on it (spoiler alert: yes, you can be killed).
Properly grounded wiring with GFCI (Ground Fault Current Interrupters) can greatly reduce the danger of shock in a bathroom, and if you are updating your bathroom, you are technically required to bring your wiring up to current electrical code.
This may be as simple as replacing non-GFCIs with GFCI outlets, or it may mean pulling an entirely new circuit all the way from the breaker box. Don’t cut corners here! These updates can greatly improve the safety of your bathroom.
Now we are talking about vent fans. Entirely unvented bathrooms are not unheard of in pre-World War II buildings. Maybe they weren’t so bad when people took a weekly bath on Saturday night, but with daily steamy showers, this is a recipe for mildew growing on the ceiling. I lived in an old building when I was in college where the bathroom was unvented. I had to mop the ceiling every month with bleach to kill the mildew. Yuck.
Even if you have a vent fan in the bathroom, if it is 20 years old or more, it may be undersized or just plain worn out. The other thing I see a lot in older homes is bathrooms that vent into the attic. Who came up with this brilliant idea? I don’t know, but if he is still around, he deserves a smack in the head! Venting hot, moist air into the attic causes mold growth, rotten wood in the rafters and trusses, and rusty soffit vents. Get some flexible vent hose and get that air moved outside!
Leaks often make themselves known pretty quickly, either as water on the bathroom floor or as water spots on the ceiling below. But it isn’t unusual for seepage to happen out of sight. Under the toilet is a classic example of a prime seepage spot, where water simply soaks into the subfloor, under the tile, unbeknownst to the unsuspecting homeowner.
It is possible for the floor to be completely rotten in an 18” radius all around the stool without even knowing it. I can’t tell you the number of times I have disconnected a toilet only to find that the only things stopping the toilet from falling through the floor were a layer of tile and the cast iron pipe that the toilet connects to!
Water leaks can also travel down the outside of sully lines, dripping inside walls or in other unseen locations. Be prepared to make those repairs properly and permanently while the bathroom is opened up or they will just get worse and worse over time.
Fixtures are, in the end, a matter of aesthetics and personal taste. I’m not going to tell you that you have to keep an old clawfoot bathtub if you really want to install a spa. It’s your house! But I do recommend that you think about the style and period of your old house, and choose new fixtures that reflect the heritage of the old house. After all, I have pulled out plenty of harvest gold and olive green porcelain fixtures in my day, and I don’t see those coming back into style anytime soon.
As for restoring a bathroom to its original look, there are plenty of companies out there producing reproductions of vintage fixtures out there. On the other hand, you can often find a classic pedestal sink or clawfoot bathtub in good shape at a local salvage shop or even on Craigslist, if you are willing to take your time and shop around.