What Is It?
The Lustron plumbing system is not much different from that of a typical home of the period in terms of its function. The primary difference is the placement of the system, which was designed to be contained in a relatively small and defined area. The majority of the plumbing lines are located in the central “service” wall which separates the utility room from the bathroom. Four of the panels on the utility room side of the wall open to provide limited access to the various services behind.
This service wall is wider than the other interior walls to accommodate a large chase (a vertical space within a building for ducts, pipes, or wires) for the water supply and waste lines, as well as the electrical panel and service pipes for the hot water heater.The concrete foundation slab was intentionally omitted inside the wall to allow any water from leaks to drain directly out of the house. This may explain why there was no floor drain designed for the utility room.
How Does It Work?
Water from the municipal water service enters the home via an underground pipe that rises inside the service wall and connects to a water meter, just below the electric panel. The Lustron was designed with only one shut-off valve at the point where the supply line rises in the service wall. Unless this has been updated in your home, it is likely that you do not have a shut-off valve at each fixture.
Water from the main supply line is distributed directly to the cold water faucets of the bathtub, bathroom sink, toilet, kitchen sink, Thor dishwasher/clothes washer, and exterior hose bibs by 1/2-inch copper pipes. Another branch of the supply line directs cold water to the A.O. Smith Corporation “Duraclad” Model DE-50 G-D Automatic Electric Storage Water Heater (or equal), which provides it varies depending on the type of water heater (on-demand, electric, gas) and their overall capacity. 9.2 gallons of heated water per hour to the bathtub, bathroom sink, kitchen sink, and Thor dishwasher/clothes washer through a separate set of 1/2-inch copper supply lines. By removing the various access panels in the service wall, you can see approximately 50-70% of this plumbing. The exceptions are the supply lines for the kitchen sink and Thor dishwasher, which are buried under the concrete floor slab, along with any lines that serve exterior hose bibs.
Graywater (wastewater) from the sinks and tub are collected in 1-1/2 or 2-inch copper pipes, all of which feed into the 4-inch cast iron sewer line for the toilet that is vented with a 4-inch copper stack penetrating the roof.
As with the supply lines, the waste line for the kitchen sink also runs under the slab to connect with the main 4-inch sewer pipe inside the service wall. All waste water exits the house in a 4-inch, extra-heavy, cast iron sewer pipe buried under the slab in the utility room.
For more detailed information on the plumbing lines, their location, and the installation process, you may want to review the appropriate sections of the Erection Manual and Specifications:
- Service Wall, Plumbing, Fixtures, and Hot Water Heater
- Installation-Service Wall Drain & Vent - EM-02-J-11.11
- Layout-Rough-in Dimensions Service Wall Drain & Vent - EM-02-J-13.1
- Installation-Service Wall Water Lines - EM-02-J-22.1
- Installation-Service Wall Plumbing, Sections & Details - EM-02-J-31.1
- Installation-Alliance Bath Tub and Details - EM-02-J-41.1
- Installation of Thor Sink Anchor Assembly - EM-02-J-52.1
- Plumbing-Drain and Vent-Pressure Testing-Suggested - EM-02-J-60.1
- Installation Gas Hot Water Heater and Flue - EM-02-J-102.1
- Panels-Service Wall & Utility Room (floor plan and elevations) - EM-02-M-63.1
- Westchester Deluxe Architectural Plans Model 02 Home
- Plumbing Isometric - AP2-K-100 (Provide link to Plans in Library PDF Files)
- Master Specifications - 1949 Revisions (Provide link to Specifications in Library PDF Files)
- Plumbing - See Section J, page 12 for information on materials assembly.
- Fixtures - See Section J, pages 12-13 for information on materials.
The Plumbing System
Common Problems and Repairs
Working on the Lustron plumbing lines is the same as any standard copper or cast iron lines. Your plumber should be familiar with all of the piping and connections, and the standard methods to repair or upgrade then. Printing out the relevant section of the Erection Manual for the plumber would greatly assist their work. The biggest difference between working on the plumbing system in a Lustron and that of a typical home is access. In most historic houses, an owner can cut holes in the walls and ceilings to work on the plumbing lines. Unlike plaster- or sheetrock-covered walls, which can be readily repaired, cutting holes in the Lustron wall to get to the pipes will destroy the porcelain-enamel panels. Lustron provided a few access panels in the service walls that allow owners to access a majority of the plumbing, with the exception of the lines that serve the kitchen. If greater access is required, you may need to remove select panels or excavate a portion of the slab.
My pipes freeze during cold weather
Because the service wall does not have a concrete slab beneath it, the plumbing chase and pipes are exposed to the temperatures of the outside wall and the attic. As a result, the pipes may freeze in extremely cold weather. If you are experiencing this problem, try leaving the various access panels on the service wall open to allow heat from the house to circulate in the wall cavity.
In extreme cold, you also should open the cold faucets of the bathtub, bathroom sink, and kitchen sink to create a steady drip of water. This will keep water flowing through the lines and they will not freeze. One final solution would be to wrap your pipes insulating foam or foil or with electric heat tape during the coldest part of the year. All these items can be purchased at your local hardware store. Heat tape, which requires access to an electrical outlet, can be plugged into the outlet in the utility room. Consider a tape that has an automatic thermostat to regulate the temperature. This solution will stop heat loss into the cavity from the rest of the house. A thermostatically regulated tape will only activate during low temperatures. The rest of the time it is off.
I need to turn off the water supply.
During the late 1940s, when Lustrons were constructed, it was not a common practice to install shut off valves at each individual fixture (kitchen sink, bathroom sink, or toilet). As was mentioned above, a single shut-off usually was located inside the service wall where the main supply line entered the house. If you have leak at an individual fixture, want to repair a faucet, or otherwise need to work on a supply line, you must close the main shut off for the entire system, if individual shut off valves have not been installed.
If you use a private well rather than a municipal water system, this shut-off may be near your well pump inside the well pit. Or there may be a shut off near the pressure tank, which will be situated inside the well pit or on the floor of the utility room.
Once you have located the shut-off valve, turn it to the closed position. Then open up the faucets at then fixture to drain any remaining water from the lines.
While you have the water turned off, you should consider installing shut-off valves at the kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and toilet.
This will save you time and prevent problems in the future. You may want to contact a plumbing contractor to assist with this task, if you do not have any experience with plumbing repairs.
How do I repair or install new plumbing lines?
Working on the plumbing lines in a Lustron is similar to any home of the period. You will need to be creative in your approach if a leak occurs between the access panels. Depending on the location of the problem, it may be necessary to make the cuts at the access panels and then solder a large section new copper pipe at the openings, rather than just addressing the small section with the leak.
If you wish to install entirely new plumbing supply lines, you must remove all of interior panels on the utility room side of the service wall to give yourself access to the entire wall cavity. You must remove the panels systematically, in the reverse order of their installation (EM-02-M-63.1). Begin by removing the utility room closet and working your way across the dinette wall of the utility room, removing panels in order from bottom to top, and right to left. Once you have finished the dinette wall, remove the panels of the furnace wall, and finally the service wall, ending with the panels adjacent to the exterior wall. If your furnace has been mounted on the floor in the utility room, you will need to temporarily relocate it to remove the panels behind the furnace. Don’t forget to turn off the breaker for the utility room light and disconnect that fixture before trying to remove the panel. Consult a qualified contractor and follow all appropriate local codes with regard to removing or relocating any gas lines that may be in the way.
Once the plumbing work is complete, re-install the panels beginning with the upper left corner of the service wall, working your way around the room to the broom closet. Removing the panels of the utility room is a fairly large task. If you decide to open the walls, you may want to consider the following projects at that time:
- Updating the electrical panel and wiring in the service wall
- Installing a vent for a clothes dryer
- Re-route gas lines that were installed on the exterior of the panels
If you need to run a new supply line or drainage line for the kitchen sink, these are buried under the concrete slab of the utility room and kitchen. You can remove the flooring and saw cut the slab to run new supply or drain lines. It would be highly unusual for the drain lines to be damaged. Freezing temperatures, however, could cause the supply lines to freeze and break. Rather than trying to locate the original lines, simply install new runs between the sink and the supply pipes located in the utility wall. The removable access doors should provide sufficient access to allow installation of the necessary new connections.
My bathtub/sink is worn and needs to be replaced
The Lustron bathtubs were a special size, making replacement a difficult proposition. Often the bathtub itself does not need to be replaced but rather the coating has worn or been stained. The best solution would be to contract with a local bathtub re-glazing contractor. This will install a new surface coating on the existing bathtub. The sink can also be re-glazed.
My bathtub/sink faucets drip
The good news about the faucets is that if you still have the originals, you can still buy the necessary parts such as washers and seats from your local hardware store. A leaking faucet is often the result of the washers and seats being worn from use. To replace, turn off the water supply, unscrew the screw on the top of the faucet handle. Take care when unscrewing the faucet not to damage it or scratch it with the screwdriver. The handle will come off to reveal the seat and seals. You can take those parts to the hardware store and seek replacement seals, then you can reassemble it. For a handy video of how to disassemble a faucet, click here.
The walls surrounding my tub are rusted or damaged
A relatively simple and reversible solution to this issue would be to install a fiberglass surround. The surround itself can be glued to the existing panels and caulked along the joint where it meets the bathtub. Since the panels themselves need to be repaired and re-coated, the adhesive won’t be damaging anything that won’t need to be repaired anyway. However, it should be noted that it is possible that the panel would continue to rust beneath the surround. Prior to installing the surround, scrub the damaged panel with steel wool and apply a rust inhibitor. Fiberglass surround installation kits can be purchased from any home improvement store.. . They can be cut and custom fit.
Research is currently underway to develop solutions for permanent repair of the panels themselves, however it is very likely, that this will require removal of the panels. To get to the panels around the bathtub, the installation manual will need to be utilized to verify the sequence of installation for the bathroom.
I want to install a new dishwasher
Most contemporary dishwashers are much larger than the space occupied by the Thor Automagic. It is likely that this feature of your Lustron has already been removed; only a few Thor’s are known to exist. If your Thor is still there, KEEP IT! If your kitchen still has its original counters and cabinets, work carefully with your contractor to identify the least invasive method, that will destroy as little of the original kitchen as possible. It is also possible that installation of a new dishwasher will require not only plumbing work, but also electrical work. For more information on the electrical system, click
My Thor has been replaced
If your Thor has been removed and replaced with a cabinet that is not appropriate to the era and style, keep an eye out for a cabinet and counters with a similar look. The original cabinet was a metal painted white with a formica top. There are a lot of these era style kitchens being taken out of mid-century houses today. Salvaging materials from the period, is one way to find appropriate replacement materials. Alternately, check with a local kitchen design center. While they may not have metal cabinets in stock - they may know where to look or be aware of a kitchen they are working on that has a metal sink base cabinet that is going to be removed. Contractors who specialize in kitchen remodels would also be a good source to keep an eye out for a unit that is coming out of a house.
I need a new water heater
Lustron floor plans were compact and water heaters at the time were a different beast than we have today. The simplest solution is to install a new water heater in the same location as the existing unit. Contact a qualified plumbing contractor.
If you are embarking on a larger project, such as installing new water lines, gas lines and updating your electrical panel, and have the utility room walls open, you may want to explore installing one of the new “tankless” water heaters that are on the market. The tankless heaters can be installed within the utility wall cavity. This type of installation would free up critical floor space in the utility room while also helping to conserve energy by eliminating the water tank. Here are some links to “tankless” water heaters.
Your local plumbing contractor may also be able to provide a recommendation. Again, remember that you will need to remove the panels on the utility room wall to be able to gain access to the inside of the utility room wall.
Other upgrades to consider if you have the utility room walls open
Install a new drain and supply for the washer and dryer. You could utilize one of the access holes to provide a supply and discharge space for the washing machine. In a similar fashion, a dryer vent could be installed using one of the lower access panel spaces. To vent a dryer, a hole will have to be drilled on the outside of the house. The dryer vent hose can be run through the space of the utility wall and vented to the outside just below where the electric comes in overhead. You will need to cut a hole in the outside panels to accommodate a dryer vent. It is not recommended that you vent the dryer into the attic space. The insulation for the attic is on top of the ceiling which leaves the rest of the attic space cold. The condensate from the dryer will accumulate on the cold surface of the underside of the roof tiles. Over time this will cause mold and rust to the tiles. To conserve space consider a new stack washer/dryer combination. There are models on the market now that are close in capacity to a standard washer and dryer.
Installing exterior hose bibs?
If you have a hankering for a new outdoor faucet, the solution is not a simple one. The only solution to install new hose bibs on the exterior is to bury a new water line around the perimeter of the house, below the frost line in the cold water climates, and install a frost free hose bib on the end.