What Is This Thing Called Orangeburg Pipe?

With new people entering the onsite industry all the time, we frequently need to highlight obsolete product technologies they may run into.
What Is This Thing Called Orangeburg Pipe?
Jim Anderson, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate and recipient of the pumping industry’s Ralph Macchio Lifetime Achievement Award. Email Jim questions about septic system maintenance and operation at editor@pumper.com.

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Once in a while I am reminded that even with all the progress we have made in the industry in the past couple of decades, there are still a lot of old systems that should be replaced — even if their current owners will tell you they are working fine!
Recently I received a note from a person on the East Coast who is getting into the onsite inspection business and he ran into a black-colored, misshapen sewer pipe leading from the residence to the septic tank. In addition to not being round, the pipe had a number of roots in it. Apparently as he asked around, he was told it was Orangeburg pipe. He asked me if he should expect to see a lot of this type of pipe and what he should recommend be done with it.

The pipe itself is made of layers of wood fiber or pulp and pitch. In some areas of the country, this product was referred to as “fiber conduit.” The Orangeburg name came from the town of Orangeburg, New York, where the conduit was manufactured. The pipe was used for a fairly long time from the 1860s to 1970, when it was replaced by PVC pipe. So, those of us who have been around the industry long enough can remember seeing the pipe installed.


Since it was the main type of pipe readily available after World War II, it was used in a lot of the post-war residential construction. Not only for houses with onsite systems, but also urban residential construction. PVC piping came in during the 1960s and began replacing Orangeburg pipe because of its better durability and reliability. By about 1970, you did not see it in new construction any longer.

This means that any Orangeburg pipe this new inspector will see is probably 50 or more years old. When it was sold, it was touted as having a 50-year life span. Any of this pipe we see now is well past its expiration date and should be replaced. According to reports I have seen, deformation of the pipe begins after about 30 years with failure around 40 years. Other symptoms of failure include root penetration and frequent clogging. When the pipe totally fails it will collapse and basically come apart so it will no longer convey sewage.

All of this is consistent with the observation of the new inspector that the pipe was not round, it was clogged and had root penetration. In the inspection terminology I would use, this is unacceptable for the sewer line and it is not operating the way it should, so the piping should be replaced.

Seeing dollar signs when advised to replace the pipe, I would expect homeowners to ask: “Do I need to replace all of the piping or just the areas that are current problems?” My answer to this is if only a part of it is replaced, the parts not replaced are more likely to fail due to increased pressure on the pipe and problems with the connections.


Remember, this material is made out of a base of fiber; it is essentially an enhanced toilet paper tube. This means that it will very easily break after so many years of pressure and moisture. In the long run, it will save money rather than having to replace the pipe a section at a time with multiple visits and excavations in the backyard. Save your wallet and your property by getting your pipes replaced or enhanced as soon as possible.

I have personal experience with replacing this pipe at a lake cottage I owned in the 1990s. I was continually having problems with a clogged sewer line to the septic tank, which meant that on many a holiday weekend in the summer I spent my time under the cottage with a plumber’s snake unclogging the line. While friends and family were having cold drinks on the beach, I was taking care of my sewer. This led me to replace part of the line one summer. Everything worked great for the rest of the year, so I felt pretty good about fixing the problem.

Next summer, literally over July Fourth weekend, the piping gave out. Fortunately, neighbors allowed us to use their facilities until I could line up a contractor to replace all the pipe. The bottom line is that if you see Orangeburg pipe during an inspection, the best recommendation to the homeowner is to replace it as soon as possible.


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