When a lead water line leaks some steps can usually be taken to put the situation under control. This particularly true when the leak in the lead water line is visible and accessible – for instance inside a basement.
But it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that when lead water lines start to sprout leaks they must be 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
Usually the sewer trap can be opened to allow the water to run out through the sewer. It is important to open the trap lug that is closest to the inside of the house otherwise sewer gases can escape into the house.
Another reason not to open the plug on the ‘street side’ of the house trap 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 it is a slight leak and is visible inside the basement
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.
A second step that can 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 over a leaking water service line can be another very effective temporary repair. It also required less skill, experience, and 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 – It 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 – Another reason to never repair lead.
4. It conducts electricity poorly, so it is not highly susceptible to damage from electrolysis – Which 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. It 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 of which 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, so it 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.
This is the NYC DEP code from Chapter 20 regarding water supply lines:
NYC- DEP: SERVICE PIPE ISSUES
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.