Is There Lead in Those Pipes?

One cold January day, I came home to water running down my driveway. It hadn’t rained in days, so I knew something was wrong. Forgetting to put the Styrofoam insulator over the front yard hose bib before the freezing weather hit was definitely a mistake.  

I opened the garage door, and my teenage son greeted me with, “I came down to the garage to get a screwdriver and noticed water spraying out of the wall, so I turned off the water supply to the house.” I’m glad we trained him in emergency procedures and am impressed he was able to remember and use his knowledge in a real situation. Still, it was time to call a plumber.  

Unfortunately, when the temperature doesn’t rise above freezing for many days in a row, plumbers see a huge spike in demand. Fortunately, I found a plumber who answered my call and took the time to give me a temporary solution over the phone even though he wasn’t able to come out in person 

In principle, the answer is simple. Find where the pipe is busted, make a clean cut, and cap off the end. I headed to the hardware store for a copper pipe cutter and something called a sharkbite cap. The cap presses onto the end of the pipe and creates a watertight seal. This sounds easy, but in real life things don’t always go as planned.  

Finding the leak was easy enough. All I needed to do was observe where the water continued to drip from the wall and remove the correct section of pegboard. It was obvious where ice had blasted a hole in the copper pipe. An inch-long gash just to the right of a soldered elbow joint was hanging open, like a flap of skin after a particularly nasty injury. Even with the main water supply completely turned off, extremely cold water was dripping at an annoying rate. The surrounding drywall was soaked through, crumbling with a touch.  

 Copper pipe cutter. 

Copper pipe cutter. 

A copper pipe cutter is theoretically easy to use. Just clamp it onto the pipe, give it a few rotations around the pipe, tighten the clamp, and repeat until the blade cuts through the pipe. But this method assumes that there is enough clearance to rotate the clamp 360 degrees around the pipe. The broken section of my pipe was nearly flush with the wooden beam behind it, giving me less than 180 degrees of rotation Working separately from the top and bottom, it took a ridiculously long time to cut through most the pipe. To say this was tedious is understating things.  

The back edge of the pipe was still intact and refused to budge. I don’t normally advocating using violence against stubborn objects, but this was a special case. I didn’t see any other solution, so I grabbed a hammer and smacked the thing until it came loose. The rough edges made attaching the shark bite cap especially difficult, but I persisted. My mallet came in handy. 

 The temporary fix to my plumbing problem. 

The temporary fix to my plumbing problem. 

I do take a certain pride in being able to handle plumbing and electrical repairs, breaking the stereotype of the woman who asks her husband to do these tasks. And I was glad to turn the water back on to the house. The outdoor spigot had no water supply, but I didn’t care. Who needs an outdoor faucet when it’s below freezing outside? 

But spring did eventually come (although in Seattle it certainly took its time). In May, I called back the plumber who had been so helpful over the phone and asked him to take a look. My plumbing abilities only go so far, and I don’t own a propane torch. Although I believe I could learn how to solder pipes, I decided this was not a skill I need to master. Some things are better left to the professionals, especially when they involve tight clearances. The plumber had to solder pipes together in the proper configuration, thread them into a hole he cut in the drywall, and solder the whole assembly into place.  

 After some professional cutting and soldering. Good to go.

After some professional cutting and soldering. Good to go.

The soldering got me to thinking about whether there is any lead in the pipes in my home. Since I live in a community where the oldest homes were built in 1991, the answer is probably no.  

According to the latest water quality report from my city, “There is no detectable lead in any of the sources of Redmond drinking water.” But the city does warn that older homes could have plumbing that is contaminated with lead. The source is the solder used to connect copper pipes. Lead-containing solders were not banned nationwide until 1986, with the passage of amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act. We can thank the EPA for putting in regulations limiting toxic substances in the water we drink and the air we breathe.  

The city of Redmond has monitored lead levels in water annually since 1992, testing homes most likely to contain plumbing that uses tin-lead solder, which used to be the standard solder material. Today’s plumbing solders are alloys containing tin, silver, and copper. The 2016 Redmond report on lead states that ten out of 429 samples over the years have exceeded 15 ppb, the level that triggers action to address the contaminant. No samples in the past two years reported any measurable levels of lead.  

Unfortunately, however, a reading of zero does not guarantee the plumbing is lead-free. Water needs to sit undisturbed in pipes for lead to leach out. It is possible that faucets that are rarely used may spew out contaminated water when the valve is opened. The best advice is to run cold water taps for at least 30 seconds before drinking or cooking with the water, just to be safe 

I remember being told decades ago to fill cooking pots with cold water from the tap, not hot, even if it is to be boiled. I believe the reason was to minimize the chance of lead contamination, since hot water accelerates any possible leaching of toxins. Since my parents’ house was built in the 1960s, this was probably good advice.  

I am fairly confident that my water at home is safe. Now if only I can get my irrigation system repaired before hot summer weather arrives in full force.