Your house will either have copper, galvanized steel, plastic or lead pipes connecting it to the main water line. All these pipes have their shortcomings but unlike copper, steel or plastic pipes whose concerns are about reliability and cost, lead pipes poses health risks.
If you have lead water pipes in your house, the water will dissolve the lead (especially if the pipes are corroded, the water is hot or the water is stagnant in the pipes for long) and if you drink the water the lead will accumulate in your body over time.
According to the Center for Disease Control and prevention (CDC), lead is especially harmful to children and pregnant people and will as a result cause:
- Damage to the brain and nervous system
- Slowed growth and development
- Learning and behavioral problems
- Hearing and speech problems
The above conditions will result in low IQ, reduced ability to pay attention and low performance in school.
But how do you know if you have lead pipes in your house? How do lead water pipes look like? Is there a safe amount of lead in water?
To check if you have lead water pipes in your house, look for an exposed section of your service line. If the pipe is dark gray in color, non-magnetic and is shiny when scratched, you definitely have lead pipes. This is especially the case if your house was built before 1986.
In the Unites States, houses built before 1986 (not all houses though) may have lead water pipes even if they have been remodeled lately unless you are sure the service line (pipes from the street to the house) was replaced as well. The same applies to the United Kingdom for houses built before 1970.
Apart from your service line being made of lead, you could also have lead in your plumbing’s solder and faucets (brass or chrome-plated) made before 1986.
Note: Lead is a soft metal with a low melting point. As a result, it was very easy to mold it into different shapes (unlike copper, brass or steel) which made it the pipe of choice for plumbing in the early 1900s.
So, what happened in 1986 that saw a restriction in the use of lead pipes or fittings in plumbing?
The Safe Water Drinking Act (SDWA)
The Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) was passed by Congress in 1974 and amended in 1986 and 1996 to protect the public’s health by regulating the nation’s drinking water and its sources. This act does not however regulate private wells.
The Safe Water Drinking Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse effect are likely to occur, with an adequate margin of safety.
According to the EPA, the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water is zero. This is because lead is a dangerous metal even a low exposure levels and accumulates in the body for a long period of time.
How to Tell if You Have Lead Pipes in Your House
While checking for lead pipes (or basically when trying to identify what type of pipe you have in your house), the service line is what you inspect. This is the pipe that enters your house from the main water line. A big chunk of the pipe is buried in your front yard.
The following are the steps to follow when checking if your water service made line is made from lead:
1. Locate your Water Meter
Your water meter could be located in one of these 3 areas:
- In your basement/garage
- In an external wall where the water enters the house
- Near the curb or sidewalk close to the street inside a concrete box
The best place to check the service line is in the basement/garage. Even if the water meter is outside the house, check where the service line enters the house. This will be in the basement or garage very close to the water heater.
If you can locate the main house water shut off valve (usually in the basement/garage as well), the pipe you want to check is the one between the valve and the wall. Most of the times, this valve is installed very close to the water meter.
2. Check the Color of the Service pipe
Now that you have identified your water meter and an exposed section of your service line, the next course of action is to try and identify the material of the pipe by just looking at it. Again, it will either be lead, galvanized steel, copper or plastic.
It is very easy to identify a plastic pipe so we will not dwell on it. A copper water pipe will be brownish in color and even if it is corroded, identifying it will be quite easy as well.
Galvanized steel and lead pipes can easily be confused and you need to be careful to tell them apart. To start with, if you have a galvanized steel pipe it will most likely be corroded.
As I had stated earlier, the color of lead pipes is dark gray. The color of an old galvanized steel pipe is a dull gray patina as the surface zinc (used to coat the pipe) reacts with water, oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Another thing you can do to determine if indeed you have galvanized steel pipes and not lead is to tap the service line with a piece of metal like a long screwdriver.
If you hear a sharp sound then you can rest assured that you have galvanized steel pipes. On the other hand, if you hear a dull sound, you indeed have lead pipes. Lead is quite soft and hence the reason for the dull sound.
3. Scratch the Surface of the Pipe
If the above tests are not conclusive for you, there is still another test you can use to confirm if you indeed have lead pipes in your house. For this test, you will need a coin or a flathead screwdriver.
Scratch the surface of the service line (strictly between the section between the wall and water meter/shut off) and see how the pipe appears. Again, you do not need to scratch a plastic pipe.
A copper water service line will be brown in color after being scratched. A silver metallic pipe (whose surface will most likely be corroded) is a sign that you have galvanized steel pipes.
If you scratch the surface line and the section scratched turns shiny then without a doubt you have lead pipes in your house.
If you are still confused on whether the pipe is galvanized steel or lead, look for a small piece of magnet and bring it closer to the pipe. If the magnet is attracted to the pipe then you have galvanized steel water pipes.
On the other hand if the magnet does not stick on the pipe and it is not copper or plastic, you definitely have lead water pipes.
The above method is the fastest and easiest way to find out if you have lead pipes in your house but it may not be conclusive. You may want to dig deeper (literally) to find out if your pipes, faucets or fixtures have traces of lead in them.
Here is how to do that:
1. Determine the Age of your House
If your house was built after 1986 (when lead water pipes were banned), you do not need to worry about your service line being made of lead.
On the other hand, if your house was built before 1986 you have reason to worry about having a lead service line. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that about 10 million houses in the Unites States still have lead service lines.
The good news is that not all houses built before 1986 have lead services lines. But as they say, “To be forewarned is to be forearmed”.
If you are buying a house from someone, ask what the material of the service line is. They may or may not know. This is this process can be frustrating.
Most of the time, people will repipe the house but will not touch the service line. Even if you see copper or PEX pipes in the house, that does not mean that is what you have in the service line.
2. Dig Up
Why do I recommend digging up your yard to check what type of service pipe you have? Sometimes the section of pipe entering the house is not of the same material as the rest of the pipe buried in the yard between the street and your house.
On your street side, you will need to excavate different sections between the point where the main water line enters your property to the point where the service line enters your house.
You will need to be careful otherwise you can burst the pipe especially if it is quite old or made of plastic.
Although you can do this on your own, you can also hire a professional to do the same for you. It is one of the surest ways of checking if you indeed have lead pipes in your house.
3. Call Your City Water Department
Calling your city water department should actually be the first thing you should do to identify if you have lead pipes but sometimes they will have no idea, or the previous homeowner may have replaced the pipes themselves without their knowledge.
It will also depend on how well your city keeps and updates their records. Some city are just better than others.
I would however recommend that you call them anyway to confirm what you have already established in the above tests.
Sometimes the water system folks may tell you something different from what you may have established from the magnetic and scratch tests. This is usually the case if there is a gooseneck or pigtail somewhere in the water line made of lead.
A gooseneck, also known as a pigtail is a section of the pipe used to connect the service line to the main water pipe and could be made of lead. Make sure to ask the water system if there is gooseneck in your connection and the material it is made from.
The problem with goosenecks is that they are usually on the public side of the plumbing and not private side. You therefore just can’t excavate the pavement to check it on your own.
If the answers you are seeking are not forthcoming, you may want to hire a licensed utility professional to work with you. Such a person will even recommend the best course of action for you if they determine that you indeed have a lead service line.
4. Test the Water
Another thing you can do it to test if the actual water you use to drink and cook contains lead. I would recommend using a lab that is licensed to do this instead of trying to do it yourself.
The problem with this method is that water samples will contain different levels of contaminants depending on when they are taken. For best results, take a sample in the morning when you have had water sitting in the service line for a long time.
Try and collect a sample that was in the service line and not inside the house pipes. Probably turn on the faucet and wait a few seconds before collecting the sample.
What to Do if You Have Lead Pipes in Your House
There are several things you can do if you discover that you indeed have lead service lines in your house. Let us look at them:
1. Replace the Pipes
Replacing lead service lines is the best way to deal with problem both at a personal and national level. The only challenge is financing.
On average it will cost about $5000 to replace lead service lines in every home which translates to $30 billion nationally.
Also see: ABS vs PVC water pipes.
What happens when you do not have that much money and you want to limit your exposure levels to lead? Here are more ways to deal with the problem:
2. Install Point-of-Use Water Filters
Installing a water filter in the specific faucet (usually kitchen faucet) where you draw drinking and cooking water is an effective way to remove lead from the water. This filter must however be certified as such by a third party.
3. Flush the Water
If you have not used water from your systems in a long time (for instance in the morning), it is advisable to flush out the water by turning the faucet on for at least 30 seconds. This refers to drinking/cooking water and not bathing water.
The longer the water is in contact with the lead the more it gets dissolved in the water so you want to flush out this water that has been in contact with the lead service line.
The duration of the time you should flush out the water depends on how long the service line is. The longer it is the longer you want the faucet to run.
This may prove to be very wasteful but it is for your own good. And you can use the water to irrigate your plants anyway.
4. Only Drink Water from the Cold Line
Hot water dissolves substances (including lead) at a higher rate than cold water. It therefore goes without saying that water from the not side of the faucet will have more concentration of lead than that in the cold line and you shouldn’t drink it.
Remember that the solder used to join pipes in your houses (not necessarily lead pipes) may contain lead (in houses built before 1986) and hot water will therefore dissolve it faster than cold water.
CDC recommends that if you suspect that you have been exposed to lead to see a healthcare provider. The healthcare provider will determine if a blood test is necessary and what course of action to take.
People exposed to lead show no signs and only a blood test can confirm it.