Copper pipes break: Is county water to blame?


Hundreds of our neighbors have spent many thousands of dollars to remediate and replumb their homes the past five years because of leaks in their copper water pipes – and the numbers continue to spike.

Local plumbing companies, in fact, say they’re receiving multiple calls each week from homeowners with water leaks. The problems are occurring in million-dollar homes and small bungalows, older dwellings and those built more recently, and in upscale communities on the island as well as modest developments on the mainland.

And while leaks are far from unknown in homes on the Vero Beach water system – including homes in Indian River Shores and on the south barrier island – the bulk of the blame is being directed at the county water system.

One longtime local plumber dramatically described the situation as “sitting on a time bomb,” saying he expects the problem to only get worse as the copper piping installed in homes built during the county’s construction boom of the early 2000s becomes 20 years old.

While this might be a problem with no easy solution, there’s no shortage of finger-pointing – and many of those fingers are pointing at the county government.

“There have been questions about corrosion in water pipes the last couple of years,” County Administrator Jason Brown said last week. “People have been experiencing leaks in their copper pipes, and they’re asking: ‘Is the county water causing it?’

“If it was something we were doing in the way we treat the water, we wanted to know,” he added. “That’s why we hired a well-regarded engineering consultant to come in and conduct a water-quality audit.”

Kimley-Horn and Associates conducted a comprehensive review of the county’s water-treatment system – which was in changed in 2017 in an effort to reduce corrosion – and presented its findings to the County Commission last October.

“To date,” Kimley-Horn wrote in its 31-page report, “the post-treatment system has yielded favorable water quality results which has enhanced the county’s control of corrosion within the system.”

The county’s water was actually less corrosive than it was before the process was modified, the report stated, and its water quality fell within well-within federal regulations.

The report went on to explain that many factors contribute to copper-pipe corrosion. Among them are manufacturing issues, workmanship, temperature and even electric currents.

“If you compare our water to the water in other neighboring utilities in the area – Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, St. Lucie County, Martin County – our numbers are all in the same ballpark,” Brown said. “So they really didn’t find a problem, other than recommending that we enhance our flushing of the system, which we’ve done.”

Yet, according to re-piping permit statistics gathered by Vero Beach Utilities Director Rob Bolton earlier this year, the county is seeing an increasing number of leaks.

Bolton conducted his investigation to make sure that Vero’s water system, which also serves the Shores and the unincorporated area of the county in the southern part of the barrier island, wasn’t experiencing the same copper-pipe leaks.

Bolton found that, since 2015, 77 re-pipe permits were issued for customers in the Vero Beach service area, while 1,722 were issued to county customers.

Certainly, it’s alarming 739 permits were issued for county customers last year, and that another 312 were issued through the first three months of this year. That’s 1,051 in a 15-month period.

Vero Beach, too, has seen a noticeable increase in re-piping permits during that same stretch: After only nine were issued from 2015 through 2018, 46 were issued in 2021 and through the first quarter of 2022.

Even on a per-capita basis, though, the county’s numbers are considerably more troubling.

That’s why county commissioners last week agreed to spend $84,000 to hire another nationally known engineering firm, Tetra Tech, to conduct a second review of the county’s water system.

“We continue to get questions, so we’re going to have someone else take a look at it,” Brown said. “It’s like when you go to the doctor and you’re told there’s nothing really wrong, but you still don’t feel right. You go get a second opinion.”

The second study was recommended by the county’s new utilities director, Sean Lieske, who came here from Colorado in March after spending four-plus years as an environmental services manager with Aurora Water.

Bringing in a fresh set of eyes is a wise move, given the growing skepticism in the community as the problem persists.

But what if it’s not the water?

Or not only the water?

As Brown explained – and local plumbers agreed – multiple factors contribute to the corrosion of copper pipes. Water is merely one of them.

“Water is the universal solvent,” Brown said. “It mixes with other materials and it causes corrosion. If you put a copper pipe in a freshwater lake and leave it there for a couple of years, you’re going to see corrosion.”

Brown argued that the quality of the copper, thickness of the pipe wall and environmental factors also could impact corrosion.

Many of the leaks are being found in homes built in the 1990s and early 2000s, he said, and the copper piping used during that period might’ve been of a lesser grade than what builders used earlier.

“That’s a reasonable argument,” one prominent local plumber said.

Builders now use PEX pipe – a flexible, polyethylene cross-linked tubing – in most new construction, as do plumbers contracted to re-pipe existing homes. Unlike copper pipe, which is installed under the slab, PEX is usually installed in the attic to make it more accessible.

Another local plumber said the only way to guarantee copper pipes won’t leak, especially in 20-year-old homes, is to replace them with PEX. The costs, however, usually range from $7,500 to $15,000 – and in large homes, they could go as high as $100,000.

And while homeowner’s insurance might cover the expenses incurred from water-leak damage, such as drying out a home, mold remediation if necessary, replacing drywall and flooring, and repainting walls and ceilings, it usually doesn’t cover the cost of re-piping.

But getting back to what’s to blame …

Mark Yanno, vice president of the Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County, strongly believes county water is at least partially the cause of the copper-pipe corrosion, citing the absence of similar surges in leaks throughout Florida.

“If it’s an issue of workmanship or the quality of the copper, why haven’t we seen these leaks in other counties across the state,” Yanno said. “It has something to do with the water.”

Yanno said he tested the county’s water at different locations – from Sebastian to the St. Lucie County line – and pH levels were within federal regulations but on the higher side of what’s acceptable.

“Just because the numbers are within the parameters doesn’t mean there’s not a problem,” Yanno said, adding that he can’t help but connect the increase in leaks to the county’s decision to change its water-treatment process.

Local plumbers concede they’re getting more calls from homeowners on the county’s water system, but they say they’re also giving estimates for re-piping jobs in the city and in neighboring counties and municipalities.

Brown, meanwhile, defended the county’s reverse-osmosis, water-treatment system, saying it produces a higher quality of drinking water without being more corrosive to pipes.

But he hears the complaints, sees the re-piping permit numbers rising and he wants to solve the problem.

Might the solution be as simple as the county reverting to its previous water-treatment process?

We need that second opinion.

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