Water & Lead Pipes

The issue of lead water laterals has been in the news recently. What does this mean for residents of the 4th Aldermanic District

First the “water lateral” or “service line” is the pipe from the water main in the street to individual properties. There are two sections to this water lateral: the section from the water main to the shut off value (typically located in the tree border or sidewalk represented by a small steel cap that is flush with the surface) and the section from the shut off value to the home. The section up stream of the shut off value is owned by the city and the responsibility of the city to repair and maintain. The section from the shut off value to the home is owned by the property owner and is the responsibility of the property owner to repair and maintain.

There are no lead water mains in the city however there are a lot of lead water laterals—about 70,000 or roughly 40% of the total. This is a national problem. For example it is estimated that 494,000 homes in Chicago have lead water laterals and that 95% of water laterals in Shorewood are made of lead.

Most homes built before 1950 also used lead pipe inside the house as well. Lead pipe was a very useful material. It did not rust, it was vey durable and it was flexible and malleable. When the toxic properties of lead were discovered its use as water pipe was discontinued. The current best practice is to use copper pipe.

As a general matter, lead water laterals do not pose a health risk for two reasons: first the city treats water with a chemical that serves as a barrier between the lead surface inside the pipe and the water supply and second, after years of service minerals naturally occurring in the water attach to the inside surface of the lead pipe acting as an additional barrier between the lead and the water supply.

However, if the lead water lateral is disturbed for some reason such as when the water main in the street is replaced or repaired the barrier between the lead pipe and the water supply can be disturbed resulting in lead leeching into the water supply for a short time until the barrier re-establishes itself. This is the precise situation discussed in the recent news coverage. In those cases the city monitors and water quality and advises home owners to flush their water lines (running the water for extended periods) and possibly using filters for a short time until lead levels return to normal, safe levels.  

This issue is also coming to a head because the EPA is considering new rules about lead water laterals which may result in a requirement that all lead water laterals be replaced in the future. Accordingly the city is being proactive in terms of reviewing its practices and procedures and providing information to the public.

Currently the city does not have the legal authority to require a property owner to replace their lead water lateral (the section from the water shut off to the home) or to replace lead water pipes inside a house. Under current law these lead pipes are owned by the property owner and it is the property owner’s choice to replace these lead pipes or leave them in place.

However, there is no question that it is desirable to replace all lead water laterals and lead water pipes inside the house since that eliminates all risk of lead leeching.

As you might suspect replacing the lead water lateral is expensive though less expensive than other major home repairs such as a roof replacement or porch reconstruction which are all normal costs of homeownership. Depending on the length of the water lateral the cost can range from $5,000 to $7,500.

Ironically, this all happened to me recently. I noticed water bubbling up from my water shutoff. My lead water lateral had sprung a leak (the portion that is my responsibility). I hired a plumber and the lateral was dug up and replaced with copper. The city owned section of the lead water lateral was also replaced with copper to the water main. The job took two days and was rather messy. My cost was about $6,000. Several years ago I had also replaced all lead pipe inside my house so now I have no lead pipe anywhere in my water supply. It should be noted that this is not a “do it yourself” job. Licensed plumbers and permits are required. City inspectors have to sign off on the work before the excavation can be closed up.

The city will be reviewing this issue in the future to determine options for the eventual removal of all lead pipe. We understand the cost issues involved and will explore all possible solutions. However in the short run, there is no crisis.