World and National News

Pinholes in pipes mystify homeowners

Pitting of copper pipes costs millions in repairs; possible causes debated

Monday, August 19, 2002

BY BO PETERSEN
Of The Post and Courier Staff


     Mike Pantone tore out his walls and ceilings. Ivan DeBaecke had to jackhammer the slab under his living room twice. All to plug a leak producing a mist so fine it could barely be seen by the naked eye.
     Pinhole leaks - the mysterious phenomenon destroying homeowners' water pipes from Andover, Mass., to Phoenix, Ariz., - are pitting through copper pipe in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Lowcountry homes.
     Plumbing problems might not seem momentous in this time of terrorists and diving stock markets. But the cost in the Summerville area alone is more than $1 million, at an estimated cost of $3,000 per house to replace the piping.
     Walls, ceilings or floors must be rebuilt, water damage repaired and mold killed - on top of the disruption to a home's water supply and the residents' everyday lives.
     "You haven't lived until you've had a jackhammer in your home breaking up a slab," DeBaecke said.
     The leaks occur in every state and any number of countries throughout the world, said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Polytechnic Institute researcher who has studied them for nearly a decade. He estimates hundreds of thousands of homeowners deal with them each year.
     More than 300 Summerville Commissioners of Public Works customers have reported the leaks in the past two years. After Marc Hehn, Berkeley County Water and Sanitation Authority director, said the authority had gotten fewer than two dozen reports of the leaks, The Post and Courier received calls from some half-dozen people who said they knew of more.
     Edwards' study suggests only one in every five homeowners reports the leaks to water companies.
     Delk Plumbing Inc. in Summerville averages three or four calls per day about pinhole leaks, owner Terry Delk said. Delta Mechanical Inc., of Columbia, gives estimates for repairing pinhole leaks at some 30 homes per month statewide.
     "We've seen some in Columbia, but nothing as widespread as what we've seen down in Charleston," said Kevin Quinn, Delta operations manager.
     Nobody can or will say how or why pinhole leaks occur. Pipe makers and water companies each suggest it's the other's fault.
     "It's a mystery to me how this thing can be costing several billions of dollars per year and everybody just accepts it," Edwards said.
     That's just part of this mystery.
    
THE WEIRD FACTOR
     Pinhole leaks are tiny pits rusting from inside copper pipes. They can form singly, in patterns or at random along a pipe. They can form in some sections but not others of the same pipe in the same house. They form in some houses but not others nearby built from the same materials by the same people at the same time.
     In other words, they have the weirdness of spontaneous combustion or crop circles. That's led people to some odd speculations about their cause -stray electric currents, radar signals, even aliens.
     While the leaks can occur nearly anywhere, outbreaks tend to concentrate in particular communities. The best way to tell if you might have a problem, Edwards suggested, is if your neighbors do.
     The Lowcountry outbreak seems to be concentrated primarily in the Oakbrook community, along with a few other neighborhoods in Summerville and in the Sangaree-Tramway communities in Berkeley County. But leaks have occurred across the Charleston area.
     Both Summerville CPW and the Berkeley authority buy water from a Santee Cooper plant on Lake Moultrie. DeBaecke, a North Charleston resident, is a Charleston Commissioners of Public Works customer. That water comes from Back River, a tributary of the Cooper River below the lake.
     The leak "is a slow drip or a spray as fine as a piece of thread. They're everywhere in the house. Once you get one, more leaks are just inevitable," said Pantone, who's replacing the piping in his Oakbrook home.
     Pantone had lived in his home nine years when a wet spot showed up on his living room ceiling last year. He figured the kids had sloshed water from the tub in the bathroom above. But the spot got bigger. The ceiling began to sag. When he poked a nail through, two gallons of water spilled out.
     He fixed the leak, then found another, then another. Shining a flashlight in the crawlspace under the house, he found spray shooting some two feet out, so fine he couldn't see it until the light reflected.
     "I got out of bed and heard water running," DeBaecke said. He checked his faucets, which weren't running, then checked the water meter, which was. "I knew right away it was (under) the slab."
     DeBaecke and Pantone each had pipe segments and water tested to find what caused the pitting. The results weren't conclusive.
    

FINGER POINTING

     The common denominator in pinhole leaks is water in copper pipe. Both the Copper Development Association and Summerville Commissioners of Public Works took part in Pantone's tests. The association suggests "aggressive water" - drinking water that can cause corrosion - as a leading cause of pitting.
     "A qualified water treatment professional can specify a treatment for any aggressive water to make it non-aggressive to plumbing materials," said Ken Geremia, association communications manager.
     Charlie Cuzzell, CPW manager, dismisses that.
     "Why is only one spot in an eight-foot length of pipe affected? The same water is in the whole pipe. We are legally required to meet the (federal) Safe Drinking Water Act and we do. There's not a safe pipe act in place," he said.
     Because no one knows yet what causes the leaks, experimenting with water treatment could make the problem worse, Cuzzell said. "There are systems with water similar to ours that are not having a pinhole leak problem."
     Researcher Edwards has runs hundreds of laboratory tests to try to replicate pinhole leaks, he said. "Completely unsuccessful. This phenomenon is not reproducible in the laboratory."
     As many as 20 constituents in water can influence or have a propensity to cause pitting, he said. It seems to occur from a combination of factors that apparently aren't consistent case to case. Edwards believes the water in certain regions is prone to creating pits, and that chemical treatment is the only fix that can be made at a low cost to homeowners.
     Edwards also believes a round of tightening federal drinking water requirements that culminated in the mid-1990s removed "inhibitors" - organic materials that protect the pipe from corroding. That contributed to the frequency of the problem.
     Cuzzell concurs that's a possibility. "The cleaner you make the water, there's no question it gets more aggressive."
     The federal Environmental Protection Agency maintains "there's no veracity" behind those claims - blaming pitting on local conditions, alkaline or acidic water and other factors.
     "I'm sure it's irritating to homeowners. It usually has more to do with the age of the pipes than anything else," said spokesman David Parker.
     Pantone surveyed 75 Summerville homeowners with the problem and found pipes 10 to 27 years old had developed leaks. Edwards said he's seen pitting occur in new pipe.
     In the early 1990s, after ordering the tighter water requirements that took effect in the mid-1990s, EPA ordered water providers in "aggressive water" locations to add inhibitors. Parker said the two regulations were not related. Local water providers have added inhibitors since then.
     "There are five or six 'theories,' I'll say. Pretty much everyone points fingers at everyone else," said plumbing manager Quinn. One thing is for sure. "Once the pinholes start in your house, it's going to continue. It's along the same lines as when your car starts to rust."
    
THE PITS
     With no known cause, there's no sure prevention for pinhole leaks.
     More than 4,300 of 400,000 Washington Suburban Sanitary District customers have reported pinhole leaks since the mid-1990s. The district added inhibitors to its water.
     After an outbreak of the leaks in Jacksonville, Fla., the city banned the use of copper pipe for residential water lines. A state code passed this year overrode that 1995 ban.
     Summerville CPW has recommended that customers with problems install a "sacrificial anode," a bar of metal such as magnesium to draw corrosives from the water.
     Some advocates have called for regulations to vary the use of inhibitors and the thickness of copper depending on the type of water in a location.
     Researcher Edwards said there is some indication that an inhibitor will stop pinhole leaks depending the type of inhibitor, the alkalinity of the water and other factors.
     For now, a bluish green stain on copper pipe away from the joint, or a fine spray, means a homeowner is on his own. Most insurance won't cover fixing the leaks, although some of the damage may be covered.
     Allstate Insurance Company looked into legal action after processing 32 pinhole claims, mostly from the same neighborhood in Summerville, but decided the money that could be won back wasn't worth the expense of pursuing it, said Janine Parris, spokeswoman.
     DeBaecke filed a claim with Charleston CPW that was denied by the state Insurance Reserve Fund. He is among the people who contacted attorneys for a possible class-action lawsuit. Attorney Robert Turkewitz, of Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook and Brickman, is investigating for that firm after being contacted by "well over" 300 people.
     "We continue to get calls," Turkewitz said. "We believe that it's something in the water and we just want to see what's causing it. Until we determine a cause, we cannot file a lawsuit."
     Pantone, who works as an industrial troubleshooter, is piling his old copper pipe in the garage as he installs plastic pipe. He's marking each piece according to where it came from and where it leaked. He regularly searches the Internet for information. He, too, wants to find out what caused his pipes to pit.
     "You've got to find the problem and stop it. It's an epidemic. It's either in the water or something they put in the water," he said. "I can drink it, but it's killing my home."
    


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