Pinholes in pipes mystify homeowners
Pitting of copper pipes costs millions in repairs; possible causes
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
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
"You haven't lived until you've had a
jackhammer in your home breaking up a slab," DeBaecke
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
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
"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.
mystery to me how this thing can be costing several billions of dollars
per year and everybody just accepts it," Edwards
That's just part of this
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
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,
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
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
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
"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)
DeBaecke and Pantone each had pipe
segments and water tested to find what caused the pitting. The results
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
"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
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
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."
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
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
Cuzzell concurs that's a possibility.
"The cleaner you make the water, there's no question it gets more
The federal Environmental
Protection Agency maintains "there's no veracity" behind those claims -
blaming pitting on local conditions, alkaline or acidic water and other
"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."
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
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
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.
Edwards said there is some indication that an inhibitor will stop pinhole
leaks depending the type of inhibitor, the alkalinity of the water and
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.
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.
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."
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
"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."