By Sandra Fleishman - Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2000; Page G01
The first time water poured through the ceiling of Margaret Rudy's 50-year-old house in Chevy Chase, she and her husband, Peter Weiss, were away for Christmas.
The flood last December--accumulated water from a pinhole leak in a copper water pipe above--was at least caught four days after they left by a friend checking on the house. But when the couple returned the following week: "It was the worst sight I'd ever seen," Rudy recalled. The foyer floor was buckled, the plaster ceiling ruined and other parts of the house damaged.
Since January there have been five more surprise pinhole eruptions. Now the couple is taking estimates on re-piping the house, at an expected cost of $6,000 to $8,500. Their insurance company, which has paid for the water damage four times, has indicated it intends to not renew their policy.
In Rockville, retirees Bill and Donna Hickman have lived through the same nightmare. After six pinholes in four years, the couple decided last month "to bite the bullet" and rip out the walls of their 30-year-old Colonial to re-plumb.
In Prince George's County, computer analyst Michelle Mullins has twice paid to patch pipe and replace drywall in a 40-year-old split-level. But after enduring a third leak in two years, searching in vain for a solution and staring at gaping holes in a lower-level bedroom and kitchen, she expects to pay about $3,000 for new pipes. And that doesn't include the cost of fixing walls and ceilings.
"This entire experience has been exasperating," said the first-time homeowner, who thought she had protected her pocketbook and her sanity by hiring experts to inspect the home and plumbing before she bought the Temple Hills house in 1993.
Unfortunately, the three families are not alone. From Silver Spring to Chevy Chase, Laurel to Bethesda, there have been about 300 complaints of pinhole leaks, mostly in cold-water pipes, to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) over the past two years. The commission supplies water to about 400,000 homes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
While there have always been copper pipe failures for a variety of reasons, area plumbers say they have never seen such a flood of calls. John Leahy of Leahy Plumbing Inc. in Bethesda says he gets as many as five calls a day--often regarding houses on the same street, and houses both old and new.
"It used to be something that happened once in a blue moon," said Billy Silk of Master Plumbing and Mechanical Inc. in Silver Spring, the president of the Washington Suburban Master Plumbers Association. "But recently it's really been coming on strong" and "once you get one, you get another one and another one. It seems like you have the plague."
Odd. But even odder is the fact that officials at the other water suppliers in the area say they aren't getting complaints. The Fairfax County Water Authority, the Rockville Water Authority (which serves all but a few pockets of Rockville) and the Army Corps of Engineers (which serves the District, Arlington County and Falls Church) have similar water treatments and serve similar housing stock.
What's going on? The theories include:
* Copper, the gold standard of the plumbing industry for 70 years, can be counted on for only 25 years to 50 years.
* The WSSC has done something to its water treatment process.
* Bad copper was installed, or the installation was improper. For example, the copper may be wearing because it's rubbing against a wall, or the soldering flux may not have been properly flushed out.
* Copper pipes that are used to ground electrical wiring are picking up stray and corrosive electrostatic charges from the recent installation of cable, computer and other high-tech wiring in houses.
* A theory considered bizarre but attributed to a WSSC expert, that electrons from cell phones, TV remote controls, computers and even microwave towers are simply bombarding the pipes.
But they're all just theories.
And with reports of copper pipe failures in recent years in other cities--corroding underground pipe in Phoenix and Jacksonville, Fla.; pinhole leaks indoors in Andover, Mass., and elsewhere--the mystery deepens.
The WSSC, the 82-year-old water and sewer agency, stands by its water and treatment process, but has decided the wave of complaints and concerns about its role merit action. Although less than 0.1 percent of WSSC customers "have reported pinhole leaks over the past 24 months to us, it's an important issue to our customers and therefore an important issue to us," WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown said.
The WSSC, the Washington master plumbers group and the Copper Development Association, the manufacturers' trade group, are collecting data on the problem.
This week the water agency distributed a questionnaire to its consumer representatives for callers with pinholes. An earlier questionnaire was sent to area plumbers last August.
Both forms ask for the name of the owner, the address of the house, the plumber's name, the age of the plumbing, when and where the leaks occurred and the size and type of pipe involved.
For consumers, the WSSC also has a fact sheet on pinhole leaks and a report from an independent analyst on the reasons pipes fail. The commission's Web site (www.wssc.dst.md.us) is expected to post the materials soon, and pinhole leaks can be reported to the WSSC at 301-206-4001, although the agency says homeowners should call a registered plumber first.
Brad Fisher, head of the WSSC's laboratory services, is confident about his product. Water treatment has "changed very little in the past 10 years," he said, and water quality has only improved as computer controls have become more accurate and the filtration process has taken more impurities out.
The process, he added, has become "less corrosive" and is monitored not only by the WSSC, but also by the Environmental Protection Agency.
All of the area water suppliers have "basically the same treatment process," and all basically draw from the same water sources, Fisher said, the Potomac and Patuxent rivers.
Pitting, which leads to pinhole leaks, is generally "not the result of corrosive water," but of dissimilar metals interacting and "starting a battery of reactions that just consumes the pipe," Fisher said. "If the water were corrosive, we'd have a general dissolving of the copper."
Pipe failures, he said, can come from "any number of reasons," including age--"pipes start failing after 25 to 50 years"; improper installation; and plumbing left fallow for a long time. People with well water that is not treated often are victims because such water can be acidic.
But Fisher acknowledged that copper pipe has proved reliable for years, citing those in the WSSC's own Potomac River water filtration plant that "have been running continuously" since 1961.
Plumbers such as John Leahy in Bethesda, though, are convinced the water treatment process is to blame.
"I'd be shocked if it turned out to be something other than the water treatment," Leahy said. "They've increased the levels of [chlorination] or made other changes," he surmised, despite the WSSC's insistence to the contrary. "That's the only thing I can put my finger on."
The Copper Development Association also points to the water supply or delivery system rather than its pipe. "To say that it's a mystery is completely wrong," said Andy Kireta, a copper association vice president who has been working with the WSSC. "We know what causes copper to fail, and failures are rare. We think it's a water-chemistry problem."
Copper has been the material of choice for 70 years, is being installed in about 85 percent of new houses and has been used in about 90 percent of all homes. Piping manufacturers confirmed their trust two years ago when they began offering 50-year warranties, copper association spokesman Ken Geremia said.
"If there were a major rash of problems, it would have shown up long before this," he said. "The characteristics of copper have not changed in a million years, but the things that can attack it, I couldn't even presume to identify."
Kireta said failures in underground pipes in Florida and elsewhere are linked to soil chemistry, poor installation or to water treatment changes made to control materials in the water, not to the copper. He also rejects theories about copper failing because of "galvanic corrosion" caused by interaction with other metals or stray currents. If theories about stray electrons "were the case, we would have these failures all over the U.S., and urban areas would fail at an unbelievable rate," Kireta said.
Dick Morris, a senior adviser on construction standards at the National Association of Home Builders, said he has no reason to believe copper's reputation is tarnished. "I can't remember when we've had a [phone] call on copper piping," he said.
Plastic pipe manufacturers, meanwhile, are watching to see how the debate may influence their sales. A type of plastic pipe called polybutylene that was considered a universal failure in the late 1980s and 1990s has helped taint the market for chlorinated polyvinyl chloride pipe developed by B.F. Goodrich Co. and another alternative called PEX.
In ads for FlowGuard Gold Pipe and Fittings, B.F. Goodrich states "copper pipe is showing its age. Contrary to the belief of some, it's not able to withstand corrosion or pitting which can result from aggressive water and other sources." B.F. Goodrich spokesman Mike Vaughn attributed the allegiance to copper to "people who want it because their granddad had copper."
Marc Edwards, a leading copper pitting corrosion expert at Virginia Tech, also suspects the water treatment process, while making clear that there are many reasons pipe can fail and little to no understanding of how pitting corrosion occurs.
"One extreme is that copper installed 1,500 years ago is still functioning, but in other places the pipes fail within two months," Edwards said.
Having said that, he added: "If I was a homeowner [with pinholes], one of the first things I would do is check on the kind of water treatment changes made in the last 10 years. I'd be surprised if they haven't changed treatment" to meet EPA regulations.
Edwards last December was cited in an article in the Journal of Light Construction, titled "When Copper Goes Bad," on the mystery of leaks throughout the country. But in an interview last week, he said he predicted in 1994 that some changes made to meet Safe Drinking Water Act requirements might "eventually cause pitting problems" or "change the water's corrosivity in ways that we don't understand."
Edwards speculates, for example, that in trying to improve the treatment process--by removing more natural organic material thought to be a carcinogen--the WSSC could also be removing part of what protects the pipe from corroding.
Removing that material "is a good thing, but at the same time you can be making it worse for corrosion," Edwards said. "There is a fine line all utilities have to walk."
The WSSC's Fisher reiterates that filtration chemicals and the process have changed very little in the past 25 years. The agency has changed the coagulants used to filter the water several times, going from alum to ferric chloride to aluminum chloride. "But the chemistry of the final product is the same," Fisher said.
While the debate swirls, Michelle Mullins in Temple Hills is sick of leaks and is preparing to pay the piper.
After contacting as many experts as she could and getting the WSSC's assurance that the water is "healthy," she is going along with plumbers who contend the corrosion is from metal hangers holding the pipes or some other metal touching the copper, even though the leaks are not near the hangers.
"It has calmed me a bit knowing that it's happened to other people, but the money is not an easy thing to swallow," Mullins said.
In Chevy Chase, Margaret Rudy doesn't wish the pinhole problem on anyone, including herself again. "You can't see them and you can't hear them, and when you do see them, it's too late, they've been spouting water for two weeks or more" behind the walls or ceilings, she said.
While they wait to re-plumb, Rudy and Weiss are depending on a cold-water shutoff valve to deal with leaks beyond the kitchen, which already had been re-plumbed. At one time she "reached a point at which I just said, 'I'm moving, I can't take it anymore.' But the reality is you can't do that."
For those who think re-plumbing is the answer, though, Laurel plumber Kevin Black has some potentially terrifying information.
Black, who owns Arthur M. Black Inc. and claims to have alerted the suburban plumbers association to the pinhole problem, said he installed new pipes nine years ago in his own house in Laurel. Now he is re-plumbing because of pinholes.
Black says he was luckier than most because he won't have to pay someone else, "but there are a lot of elderly people in Laurel who can't afford this kind of surprise."
PINPOINTING POTENTIAL PLUMBING PINHOLES
What can a homeowner do to anticipate a pinhole leak or figure out whether to replumb?
Not much, according to the experts.
Kevin Black, owner of Arthur M. Black Inc. in Laurel, said if a homeowner discovers a "very greenish-blue corrosion" that's not near the pipe joints--the solder flux there typically leaves a green stain, and that's normal--it could be the beginning of a pinhole.
Black and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) recommend that homeowners consult with a licensed plumber about concerns. In the event of a leak, the first priority is to stop the water and repair the pipe.
A report WSSC offers homeowners on the principal causes of pipe failure, by Richard O. Lewis of Lewis Engineering and Consulting Co. in Gainesville, Fla., includes "some tell-tale signs" of potential problems:
* Rattling of the pipes when a faucet or tap is closed.
* Green stains on porcelain fixtures.
* Sediment buildup in toilet tanks.
* A persistent strong, noticeable smell of chlorine in the water.
But local plumbers disagree, saying those conditions are generally linked to problems other than pinholes.
John Leahy of Leahy Plumbing Inc. in Bethesda says this is his rule of thumb: "If you have three leaks within six or eight months, I suggest you replace all of your pipes."
Black, the Laurel plumber, agrees that multiple breaks are the kiss of death.
Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards said that the best indicator of problems "is the people living around you: If they have leaks, you'll have a higher likelihood of getting leaks."
The cost of replumbing typically runs from $3,000 to $6,000 for replacing all the pipes and $1,000 to $2,000 for a partial replumbing, Leahy said.
The WSSC suggests that new-home buyers review their warranty papers to see if copper pipe is covered by the warranty and advises those buying resale homes to inquire about a house's plumbing history and to inspect visible pipe. If anything looks suspect, WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown suggested that the buyer try to negotiate an agreement on repairs or replacement.
Insurance companies do not cover replacement or repairs of pipes, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
WHEN PLASTIC PIPES WERE THE PROBLEM
The last time homeowners en masse were pained over plumbing was after polybutylene plastic pipes and fittings, widely installed in houses in the 1980s, started failing.
Chlorine commonly found in drinking water reportedly caused the pipes to corrode and leak or burst.
PB pipe was installed in about 40,000 homes in the Washington area and 6 million homes nationwide.
By 1991 the leaks and extensive damage led to a class-action suit against Shell Oil Co. and Hoechst Celanese Corp., which provided the raw materials to make the pipes, and to other smaller lawsuits. In 1995 a Tennessee judge approved a $950 million settlement in the biggest lawsuit to reimburse homeowners for property damage associated with pipes installed between 1978 and 1995. Later that year the Consumer Plumbing Recovery Center (1-800-876-4698; Web site www.pbpipe.com) was set up to assist homeowners in obtaining money to replace pipes that leaked and to pay for repairs.
The Consumer Plumbing Recovery Center this week said 47,736 claims have been filed by people from Washington, Maryland and Virginia. About 29,200 of those houses have been replumbed at a cost of $77.4 million. Nationally there have been 522,649 claims, of which 332,403 houses have been repiped at a cost of almost $542 million. The settlement is supposed to run until 2009.
According to the center, homeowners do not have to prove the pipes failed or the home builder installed them incorrectly. They must demonstrate only that leaks occurred and that PB pipes were used. If the system is not leaking, a claim cannot be filed.
PB pipe is outlawed in new construction by many jurisdictions.
The pipes are easy to detect. Interior pipes are usually battleship gray or black with black or red markings; the exterior yard service line is typically blue. The markings often include the words "potable tubing."- 2000 The Washington Post Company