Homeowners steam over holes in pipes

Crisis: An unexplained agent causing interior and exterior pipes to develop holes and leak has residents fuming and seeking answers.

March 01, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | By Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Copper water pipes inside and outside about 300 Eldersburg homes have sprung baffling pinhole leaks in the past two years, and no one knows why.

Similar leaks have bedeviled about 2,000 homeowners in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Owners of the homes affected, including the ranchers and split levels of Carroll Square, Carrolltowne and Oklahoma Estates in southern Carroll County along Liberty Road, have had to replace water pipes inside and outside their homes at a cost of thousands of dollars each.

Neither the expert hired by Carroll County, the one hired by homeowners nor most others attribute the problem to aging pipes. Most point to the county's water treatment process.

The only common factors among the homes are that all were built in the 1970s and all used copper pipes. Many of the homeowners fixed pipes leading from the main to their homes, only to have the pipes inside their homes spring the same leaks.

That's what happened to Carol and Russ Brown. They spent $2,000 to replace the water pipe leading from their home to the water main in their Eldersburg home about a year ago. In December, the Browns spent $2,600 more to replace their home's interior pipes.

"Things are really at a boiling point. This problem just won't go away," Carol Brown said. "People are disgusted with all the money we're spending."

Carroll draws water from Liberty Reservoir and pumps it to nearly 7,000 homes in South Carroll. When leaks were first reported early last year, the county hired a consultant, Corrpro Cos. of Philadelphia.

Walter Young, an engineer with Corrpro, analyzed the water. He said the leaks, often referred to as pitting, are "a common problem that can happen anywhere." The water lacks the calcium needed to form a protective scale on the inside of the pipes, he said.

"The water in Carroll County cannot scale by itself, not naturally anyway," said Young. "This is just a factor of the chemical nature of water."

The protective scale should form naturally on the interior of copper pipes to prevent corrosion. Without it, minute particles in the water rub against the pipe metal and create pinholes. And leaks.

Based on recommendations from Corrpro, the county began adding caustic soda, an anti-corrosive element, to the treatment process last summer. It has no effect on taste, smell, color or water quality, said Gary Horst, Carroll's director of enterprise and recreation services.

"We have been doing everything required and meeting every standard for adding low quantities of caustic soda," said Horst.

Plant operators test the water every four hours. Samples are drawn from two dozen locations in the system monthly.

"We know the water is safe to drink," said Horst. "We don't know why this pitting is occurring and why it is occurring randomly within the system. We are taking action that will be effective according to our quality-control consultant."

Powell Labs of Baltimore, a consulting firm hired by residents, sampled water from various locations and studied damaged pipes. Dr. Ewa LaBuda, a metallurgist with Powell, reported that corrosion "is due to neither the age nor quality of the copper plumbing. Rather, it is due to a variety of factors in the chemistry of the water."

Residents are demanding reimbursement for damage not covered under their homeowner insurance policies, excavating pipe under a driveway, for example.

"We want the county held responsible for the bills. People have spent thousands," said Pat DeBoy, president of the Oklahoma Estates Community Association. "How do we know this won't happen again and what exactly is going through our pipes? At least to start with, the county owes us answers not just about pinholes but also about the quality of our water."

Carroll Commissioner Donald I. Dell said he cannot answer specific questions about the water but that he is willing to meet with the residents to discuss the issue.

"I don't know what avenue we would take as far as liability is concerned," Dell said. "I would be surprised if this is the fault of the water."

Sue Taylor, a high school chemistry teacher in Baltimore County who conducted tests on her own, said, "It seems that almost everything they did at the treatment plant was wrong for that kind of water."

Taylor, who lives in Carroll Square, had water pouring from her ceiling into a guest room. She tested the water at home and at her laboratory at school and found wide fluctuations in pH, a measure of acidity or alkalinity. Such swings can cause corrosion, she said.

"I gave the county my data, and they said it had to be wrong," said Taylor.

In Montgomery and Prince George's, more than 2,000 homes have reported pinhole leaks in the past year.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies water to the homes affected, has appointed a task force to investigate and expects a report this summer with recommendations but probably not resolutions, said Chuck Brown, spokesman for the commission.

Carroll County has had problems with its pipes, too. Crews had to dig up a main line behind the Browns' home last fall and install new pipe there.

But the cause remains unknown.

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