When Lead Water Pipe Line Leaks What Can You Do?

Opinion & Expertise
April 17, 2012

by David Balkan

lead water main
lead water line
Lead Water Line

When a lead water line leaks some steps can usually be taken to put the situation under control. This is particularly true when the leak in the lead water line is visible and accessible. Two instances would inside a basement, or an accessible pit.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that when a lead water line leaks, even  sprouting a small leak, it must be totally replaced. That said, here are some basic steps to control the leak from a lead line. Balkan typically provides the following services for free, and at no obligation to hire. If the situation is more complicated a minimal service charge may be applied.

If it is a heavy leak and the water main is over the sewer pit

lead water main
Lead line connected to the NYC water main

Usually your sewer trap can be opened to allow the water to run out through your house sewer. It is important you open the trap plug that is closest to the inside of the house. This will prevent sewer gases from escaping into your house.

There is a second and equally important reason not to open the plug on the ‘street side’ of the house trap. This is so any debris or dirt that may run down the sewer will be caught inside the trap and not cause any blockage in the house drain. If debris is caught in the belly of a house sewer trap it can be easily cleaned out by hand. More helpful instructions for your use follow below.

A slight lead water line leak that is visible inside the basement

lead water line leaks
Leaking lead water line

If the defect is slight or a pinhole usually two things can be done. Because lead is malleable (not a hard metal) frequently the lead can be gently tapped to temporarily cover the pinhole leak.  This is strictly a temporary measure that may last anywhere from a few hours to a few months. It is usually best to have a professional plumber attempt. Incorrectly performed, this temporary repair can turn into an instant emergency.

A second step that can be done is to use a small automotive radiator repair clamp and a small piece of gasket material. Tightening the repair clamp with some rubber gasket material underneath it, but  over a leaking water service line, can be another very effective temporary repair. It also requires less skill and experience. It also presents less of a chance of making the leak worse.

Some basic information about lead water mains

Lead is a bright and silvery metal, but after being exposed to air or the elements it will dull in color. It has a few characteristics that are different than other water main materials:

1. It is soft – Unlike ductile iron or brass which are hard metals. That means it can be easily punctured unlike brass or iron pipes.

2. It will have a circular ball of lead where it was soldered to the brass fitting for connecting to the house and the connection on the public main. This is referred to as a wiped joint.

3. It is malleable so it can be bent and moved into the desired position for installation. However as it ages moving a lead line creates many hairline cracks that will either leak immediately or in the very near future. This is another reason to never repair lead.

4. It conducts electricity poorly, so it is not highly susceptible to damage from electrolysis. Electrolysis is stray electric current. On the contrary, copper tubing is a very good conductor of electricity and can be severely damaged by stray electric current called electrolysis.

5. Lead is highly resistant to corrosion. Hence lead water service line usually last in excess of 50 years, many frequently much longer. There are still many such service lines still active in NYC. Many lead water lines are over 100 years old.

Lead has been as a material for water supply lines for thousands of years because it is abundant in supply, easily mined, and very easy to work with. It is highly malleable and very easy to melt. Lead has had various other uses in plumbing such as for caulking water tight joints.

Interestingly the Latin word for lead is plumbum for soft metals. The English words plumbing, plumber, and plumb are derived form the original Latin term.

Is a lead water line still legal in NYC?

As of this writing the NYC DEP has not mandated the replacement of existing lead water service lines that are not leaking. However once any repair or work of any sort is required on a lead water main in NYC a full replacement is required by code. As a matter of fact, the DEP will not issue repair permits for lead water lines.

The NYC DEP code from Chapter 20 regarding water supply lines:

Permits to repair service pipes composed of lead or galvanized metal will no longer be issued. These service pipes must be replaced. Permits to repair more than one-half of any service pipe shall no longer be issued. These service pipes must be replaced in their entirety. (§20-3 (S))

It is short, definitive, and to the point. When a galvanized or lead water service line leaks you must replace it.  Anyone that fails to do so is putting themselves in a position of exposure to damage from a future water line leak. But perhaps more importantly they are risking health concerns due to  tampering with lead and/0r leaving the lead line in place. Common sense should dictate not to attempt to save some money that may result in a monetary exposure many times that amount in the future.

The DEP in New York City has become so concerned with lead in the drinking supply that they will not even issue a permit to reactivate a lead service that was closed from the tap connection on the public main. Another interesting point to note is that lead does not occur naturally in the NYC drinking water supply. It is not found in our reservoirs or streams, etc. It is a product of the various plumbing that conveys our drinking water to us.

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David Balkan

David Balkan is the CEO of Balkan Sewer And Water Main, the largest and most trusted service in New York City. David is extremely active in various NYC plumber organizations being the Chairman of the Subsurface Committee in the Master Plumbers Council, and Vice President of the Subsurface Plumbers Association. In addition David’s expertise is respected by officials of New York City agencies such as the NYC DEP, NYC DOB, and the NYC DOT. He frequently provides valuable input on a variety of industry related matters.

Dave Balkan

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