Theories on leaky pipes flowing

S. Carroll's water could be corrosive, two analysts finds

`Expensive and frustrating'

April 10, 2001|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

In Summerville, S.C., a town 20 miles northwest of Charleston, about 200 homes in five subdivisions have had leaky copper pipes. Just as in Maryland, no one knows why.

"We've been studying this problem since September, and we still don't know what's causing it," said Pat Walton, executive secretary for the Commission of Public Works in the town of 25,000 known for its flower festival.

"We've had suggestions ranging from galvanic corrosion caused by stray electrical currents to aliens. We're getting ready to call `The X-Files.'"

She might as well call for about 3,000 Maryland homeowners in Eldersburg, Sykesville, Chevy Chase, Laurel, Silver Spring and Bethesda. Copper pipes in those communities have mysteriously developed pinhole-size leaks in the past few years, the same as homes in parts of Texas, Ohio, Florida, and as far away as New Zealand.

In Maryland, people whose homes have leaky pipes say they want the problem solved - the sooner, the better.

But what stops leaks in one water system doesn't always work in another. That has led to several theories - some seemingly plausible and some seemingly implausible - about the cause of the leaks. Even the Copper Development Association, a pipe-maker's trade group, cannot pinpoint a single cause.

Theories include:

Too much acidity in the water. Acid content of rainwater increases as it runs over blacktop and asphalt before draining into, in Carroll's case, Liberty Reservoir, the chief drinking water source for much of the Baltimore area. In Jacksonville, Fla., leaky pipes were traced to water that was too acidic.

Water that is too healthy. Changes made to the filtration process in the mid-1990s to meet federal Safe Drinking Water Act requirements may remove chemicals that protect the pipes from corroding.

Too much water softener. The use of softeners in treating water suspends minerals that are naturally present and help pipes develop a protective interior film, known as scaling, that prevents leaks. In Butler, Ohio, chemicals that promote calcium scaling inside pipes helped stem leaks.

Deposits of minerals such as aluminum, iron and silica, which attack the inner surface of copper pipes, eating through the protective scaling and the pipe.

Microscopic organisms that form colonies inside the copper pipes and eat through the metal. That was the problem in Mission, Texas, according to officials there, who added a chemical to the water that appears to have alleviated the leaks.

Poor installation or workmanship on copper pipes. Solder might not have been properly flushed out of the pipe, or joints might have been improperly prepared during soldering, causing wave-like turbulence.

Stray electrical currents in the water, which corrode pipes. Such currents can seep into the water from copper pipes used to ground electrical wiring for personal computers and other high-tech devices in homes. Electrons from cellular phones and microwave towers also may be attacking the pipes. These problems may be compounded in homes that are improperly grounded.

Roland Mann, president of the Carroll County Plumbers Association, said he has heard all the theories, "and I agree with all of them," he said. "I know people want answers, but there really is not one answer."

Fountain Valley Analytical Laboratory Inc., of Westminster, hired by The Sun to analyze South Carroll's water, found it to have "moderately aggressive corrosive characteristics," according to Charles Mooshian, the lab's director.

Mooshian's study - he analyzed water samples from three Eldersburg subdivisions where leaks had occurred, two where they had not and one well in Finksburg - indicates the water has corrosive tendencies that might dissolve the calcium needed to form protective scaling on the inside of the pipes.

"People think of water as pure, but there are hundreds of chemicals in water - it's very complex and has the ability to change subtly," he said. "It's hard to say what the cause of the problem is because of the chemical makeup of water, and the larger a water system is, the more difficult it is to keep everything in balance.

"As the water goes through miles of pipe, it can alter considerably - it can pick up minerals, change temperature and lose or gain gases - so it is difficult to have the water that is delivered to the home have the identical quality it had when it left the [treatment] plant," Mooshian said.

Expensive treatment

Whatever the cause, government officials said, what is harming the copper pipes poses no danger to homeowners. All it has hurt so far is their bank accounts - replacing interior or exterior copper pipes costs more than $2,000 on average, and it is unusual for such problems to be covered in a homeowner's insurance policy.

Many South Carroll residents have discovered leaky exterior pipes after receiving water bills more than 50 percent higher than previous bills. Interior leaks are usually visible as wet spots on walls or ceilings.

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