Lead pipes Damage Child Brains and Development. Replacement is Often More Expensive Than Homeowners Can Afford For Pittsburghers trying to guard their tap water from lead, the price can be steep.
Excavating and replacing a privately owned lead service line — the water connection into a house — can cost some $4,500, according to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. The price may vary by thousands from property to property.
But an emerging technology could coat the insides of those pipes instead, a process shown elsewhere to prevent lead contamination for much less expense and disruption, authority spokesman Will Pickering said Wednesday. Under a pilot agreement with PWSA, a West Coast company is employing the approach at six Hill District homes to show its effectiveness here.
Water tests should reveal the results next week. Santa Ana, Calif.-based Pipe Restoration Technologies is providing the pilot at no charge to raise awareness of its epoxy coating method known as ePIPE, which the company has used to treat thousands of service lines in the United Kingdom since 2011, CEO Larry Gillanders said.
“The less you dig, the more the savings,” Mr. Gillanders said, donning a hard hat on the 3300 block of Webster Avenue. He estimated the company spent $20,000 to $25,000 on the project coating lead service lines for five homes on Webster and another on nearby Milwaukee Street. Workers finished the process Wednesday.
Expenses for the work typically would be closer to $1,500 to $2,000 per home, Mr. Gillanders said.
At Virginia Tech, professor Marc A. Edwards said the concept is well proven. He said coating costs can be 40 percent to 75 percent less than those for line replacement.
“It’s our experience that if these coatings are installed properly, they last what’s considered the lifetime of a plumbing system, which is 50 or 60 years. I think it’s under-utilized,” said Mr. Edwards, an expert in environmental and water resources engineering.
The coating concept has been used for years to shore up indoor plumbing systems. It’s been used rarely in exterior service lines in the U.S., although it’s adopted more widely for such lines Britain and Europe, industry observers said.
In Pittsburgh, PWSA estimates as many as 17,750 of 71,000 residential service lines contain lead. The connections, which tie household plumbing into a water main beneath the street, have two sections: the public portion that taps into the main, and the privately owned portion that finishes the link into the building.
Elevated lead levels triggered a federal remediation rule in 2016, requiring that PWSA replace at least 7 percent of its lead service lines each year. Exposure to the metal is linked to developmental problems and other ailments.
Still, the replacement mandate applies only to the public portion of the lines. Removing that segment while leaving intact the private portion — which is the property owner’s responsibility -— is known as a partial replacement. PWSA has halted partial replacements amid concerns that they may raise lead levels, at least in the short term, by disrupting lead particles inside the remaining pipe segment.
That’s where the coating method could be helpful, Mr. Pickering said, by giving homeowners a cheaper option to address the private lines and subdue contamination risks.
“It opens up a lot more properties where we can do the [public-side replacement] work,” he said.
While PWSA has carried out some 460 public-side line replacements since last summer, Mr. Pickering estimated fewer than 10 percent of those property owners are known to have performed private-side replacements. Most service connections with lead on the public side also have the metal on the private side, according to the authority.
A federally funded study released this year found that epoxy coatings hold promise for lead service lines, spurring PWSA to look at the idea more seriously. If PWSA moves forward, Pittsburgh would be the first U.S. city to use the coatings on a large scale in service lines, Mr. Pickering said.
In the meantime, city and state officials are exploring other ways to encourage work on private lines, including through government aid. On Webster Avenue, Gerald R. Brown Jr., 68, said he’s relieved that his mother, Sarah Dickey, is part of the pipe-coating pilot.
It might even prolong her life, he said.
“Even though she’s 94 years old, you don’t know what lead will do to an older person over a longer period of time,” Mr. Brown said.