No cause or remedy for copper water pipe leaks


Remember that water study?

The new one the County Commission authorized last September amid swarms of complaints from residents who had spent thousands of dollars to have their homes dried out, repaired and replumbed after their copper water pipes sprung leaks?

The one needed to provide what officials called a “second opinion,” after a previous study conducted by a different consultant found the county’s treatment process produced “favorable water quality” that enhanced “control of corrosion” within the system?

Well, the results are in, and you’re probably going to be disappointed.

There’s no smoking gun.

Worse, there’s no silver bullet.

The draft report prepared by Tetra Tech, the global engineering firm the county hired to conduct the new study, offers no definitive reason for the recent spike in copper pipe leaks.

Nor does the detailed, 35-page report, which will be edited before a final version is presented to commissioners later this month, provide the county with an immediate remedy, or even any sure-fire ways to eradicate the problem.

So what did the county get for the $84,000 it spent on this study?

More recommendations.

“There’s no magic switch, no quick fix, no guarantee of anything,” County Utilities Director Sean Lieske said. “We asked for recommendations – for ways we can enhance and optimize our water-treatment process to address corrosivity – and that’s what we received.

“They might have a positive impact, and they might not,” he added. “We probably won’t know for two or three years, because one of the recommendations is that we implement these changes incrementally, one by one, in phases, over a couple of years.

“They might be just minor tweaks to the process, but we can’t make all these changes immediately because we need to continue testing the water after each adjustment, so we can understand the effects as we go along.”

In fact, the report warns that implementing all the recommended adjustments at the same time could backfire and result in more corrosive water.

So Lieske, who arrived from Colorado in March 2022 to run the county’s Utilities Division, plans to proceed deliberately and with proper caution. Having inherited the pipe-leak problem, he pushed for the new study and welcomed its findings. “Tetra Tech did a comprehensive study and gave us some very good recommendations, which we will take to heart,” he said. “We’ll do what we need to do to address the issues.”

Tetra Tech’s recommendations include making adjustments to some of the modifications the county has made to its water-treatment process since 2014 in response to studies and follow-up audits and evaluations performed by Kimley-Horn & Associates engineers.

Among those adjustments are: raising pH levels, limiting the concentration of carbon dioxide, and reducing the amount of lime added to the system.

The report states that an increase in the number of leak complaints from the county’s water customers “corresponds to the time when the system changed from the use of zinc orthophosphate to carbon dioxide and lime addition for corrosion control.”

That was in July 2014, when lime and carbon dioxide became the primary means of corrosion control, and there was a reduction in the rates of zinc orthophosphate fed into the system – a process that resulted in a complete conversion to lime and carbon dioxide in May 2016.

Despite the favorable findings of a 2016 Kimley-Horn water-quality audit, however, the Tetra Tech report noted: “There is some evidence that the copper corrosion rates may have increased” after the county discontinued its feeding of zinc orthophosphate into the system.

The report states the use of lime and carbon dioxide also might’ve impacted the corrosion rates.

Or to put it simply: It’s possible the changes made to the county’s water-treatment process over the past few years made our water more corrosive.

It’s also possible, though, that water quality had nothing to do with the county’s pipe-leak problem, or was merely one of several contributing factors.

“I cannot tell you why there’s a problem with pipes leaking in the county,” Lieske said.

“People don’t like to hear this, but, really, there’s no one thing to point to. It could be any number of reasons.”

He mentioned as possible contributing factors the quality and thickness of the copper, how the pipes were installed, how and where the pipes were stored, improper electrical grounding of the pipes, and the possibility they were struck by lightning. He also cited the Tetra Tech report, which found the county’s water in compliance with federal and industry standards.

To be sure, this latest study by Tetra Tech supported Lieske’s contention that there’s no way to pinpoint the cause of such leaks, or rule out other reasons for them, without investigating each individual occurrence.

The report states: “There doesn’t seem to be a consensus method for preventing copper erosion” beyond the previously mentioned adjustments to the water’s pH level, carbon dioxide concentration and lime additions.

That conclusion bolsters a 2021 Kimley-Horn audit that concluded the “residential plumbing failures were not related to water quality and that there are many other factors that can initiate corrosion.”

So if homebuilders here continue to install copper piping – which the report states is “one of the most widely used plumbing materials for drinking water lines” because it is “highly corrosion-resistant in most underground condition where other materials typically fail due to environmental stressors” – we’re likely to see the leaks continue.

Local plumbing companies continue to receive multiple calls each week from homeowners with copper pipe leaks, and the problems are occurring in multimillion-dollar homes as well as small bungalows, older dwellings and those built more recently, and in upscale communities on the island as well as modest developments on the mainland.

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

Some builders are now opting to use PEX pipe – a flexible, polyethylene cross-linked tube in new construction – as are plumbers contracted to re-pipe existing homes.

Indeed, some plumbers say the only way to avoid leaks, especially in older homes, is to replace the copper pipes with PEX. But re-piping can cost from $7,500 to $15,000, with the price soaring as high as $100,000 in large homes. And insurance usually doesn’t cover it.

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