By Steve Smith
Last year, we picked up a news story from Tempe, Ariz., about a 50-year-old 24-inch water main that burst beneath U.S. 60 closing the busy highway in both directions and flooding the area with some 8 million gallons of water.
Road crews had the highway open after two weeks of repairs. However, we also picked up another Tempe story on the heels of that story that might prove even more troubling to residents.
According to a report from local news organization KPNX 12 News, which was picked up as a national story through the Associated Press, as many as “nine out of 10” homes in Tempe could be heading for trouble on account of an almost-forgotten pipe called Orangeburg pipe.
“The city of Tempe is plagued with Orangeburg ... it’s almost like the whole city was built with it,” Mason Cruz, master drain cleaner and sewer line repair specialist at Roto-Rooter, told the AP.
The AP report says Orangeburg pipe was used to connect homes to the city’s public sewer lines between 1940 and 1970.
City officials say they are checking into locations of Orangeburg pipe, but don’t have precise records on just where the pipe may have been installed decades ago. A map currently posted on a city’s website comes with a big caveat that the information is for informational purposes only. Users have to check off an “agree with” box before proceeding.
We’re sure long-time readers of PHC News know about this piping curiosity. We saw a hunk of it many years ago on display at the annual WWETT Show and hadn’t thought much of it since then. But the Tempe news story piqued our interest. Luckily, there’s plenty of information on the piping online; in fact, Orangeburg pipe has its very own Wikipedia page.
So if you’re curious, let’s go down the Orangeburg rabbit hole together and find out more about a product that’s been described as “a toilet paper tube impregnated with coal tar.”
Q: What’s this Orangeburg pipe made of?
A: Orangeburg pipe is made of layers of wood pulp or sheathing pressed together with layers of tar in between each wrap. A 4-inch pipe could contain up to 25 layers of pitch-pressed wood pulp.
Although modern day problems have to do with its use as lateral lines, the use of this “fiber pipe” goes way back. For example, a 1.5-mile water pipeline in the Boston area made of the stuff stayed in service for more than 60 years between 1865 and 1927.
Later, the pipe caught on not as pipe per se at all, but as “fiber conduit” to run electrical wire.
In the late 19th century, Thomas Edison’s electric light had come into use in cities and in many larger towns. Municipalities strung power lines on poles along the streets to carry the necessary current. However, power lines underground, out of sight and out of danger proved a better option.
In the early-1900s, with subways built beneath larger eastern cities, fiber conduit was used for electrical, telephone and telegraph wires. It was also used to create underground duct banks for electrical, etc. distribution under streets and roads; and along railroads to carry wiring.
During the next 40 years, the fiber conduit business flourished with no less than the Empire State Building and other buildings in other cities of the time constructed with the conduit for electrical lines throughout floors and walls.
Q: Why is it called “Orangeburg?”
A: “Orangeburg” is the brand name of a bituminous fiber sewer pipe material that was manufactured by the Orangeburg Manufacturing Co., Orangeburg, N.Y.
According to Wikipedia, Stephen Bradley Sr., founded the Fiber Conduit Co., in Orangeburg, N.Y., in 1893. Bradley picked up on the idea of running electrical wiring and eventually broadened its use to sewer pipe. Bradley’s company faced down a number of competitors and was the industry leader in the piping material throughout the early 20th century.
By that time, Orangeburg was like a Kleenex, a brand so well known that all such pipe was referred to as Orangeburg regardless of which company actually made it.
By 1948, the company’s name was changed to the Orangeburg Manufacturing Co. By then, the company was turning out a heavier-walled and rounded version of the old fiber conduit and sold it in sizes from 2- to 18-inch pipe.
As demand for Orangeburg pipe increased in the 1950s and 1960s, the plant was expanded several times. Some 500 tons per week were shipped out from the Orangeburg throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Meanwhile, Canada and England used a similar sewer pipe known in those countries known as “no- corrode” or “black” pipe.
We’ve read estimates of millions of feet of the fiber electrical conduit are still in service within building structures and under our nation’s streets/roads. A similar amount of the Orangeburg pipe may still be in service as lateral lines throughout the U.S.
By the late-1960s, however, PVC pipe came along and gained favor. The Orangeburg, N.Y., plant closed in the fall of 1972.
Q: And this was a good idea for sewer pipe?
A: For a time, yes. Other piping materials were used, but clay pipe was easily broken and poorly joined; cast-iron pipe was heavy and expensive. And eventually, demand for its use increased during WWII due to a shortage of cast iron for the war effort.
Then after WWII, it was perfect for building tract homes since it was that much cheaper and easier to use than metal pipe. Joints were made of the same material, and, because of the residual stickiness of the coal tar, were sealed without adhesives. Orangeburg was inexpensive, lightweight, albeit brittle, and soft enough to be cut with a handsaw.
Orangeburg sewer pipe was manufactured in accordance with two national standards, Federal Specification SS-P-356 and Commercial Standard CS 116-54.
The Uniform Plumbing Code refers to this type of piping as “Bituminous Fiber Sewer Pipe.” The material was restricted to the outside of residential occupancies only. The material was never approved for use under any building.
It was recognized early on that Orangeburg pipe had a tendency to deform when subjected to pressure over long periods of time from the soil above. Manufacturers emphasized to properly “bed” the pipe — using soil free of rocks/debris in the trench. (Good bedding, however, did not prevent deformation of the pipe by tree roots.)
The Tempe website we mentioned states that “our records indicate that the Uniform Plumbing Code allowed the use of Bituminous Fiber Sewer Pipe to be used between 1955 and 1982. The City of Tempe adopted the Uniform Plumbing Code during this period of time and into the present.”
Q: How long is Orangeburg supposed to last?
A: Surprisingly enough for a material that’s little more than asphalt-soaked paper and pulp, it was considered – at least for a time – a durable pipe. Orangeburg sewer pipes can last up to 50 years. But Orangeburg piple starts to deform and warp after about 30 years.
Q: What happens once an Orangeburg pipe starts to break down?
A: All kinds of bad stuff. Clogged pipes, tree root invasions and, eventually, complete pipe collapse. Deteriorating Orangeburg pipes are very weak, and tree roots can easily rip them apart.
Not surprisingly, the bituminous material tends to deteriorate with age. As the material deteriorates the pipe begins to be flattened out and no longer maintains a round interior circumference. The flattened pipe can be further damaged by the use of drain-cleaning tools.
These problems are manifested in repeated backups of the sewer line from the house to the public sewer in the street or alleyway..
The Tempe city government website offers the best advice: “The best way to know for sure what type of material has been used for the sewer line is to call a licensed plumber and have them investigate it. While this may not always be easy, it is the best way.” l