The Plainview Water District is investigating why copper pipes are springing pinhole leaks that have flooded basements, bathrooms and kitchens in homes throughout the system, which serves 34,000 people.
Nearly 15 percent of customers in the district have reported the leaks, which can cause thousands of dollars in damage and lead to lengthy and complicated repairs.
The cause is a mystery, though the district has suspicions, including changing water chemistry, improperly grounded electricity, aging hot water heaters and treatments installed at well sites to remove contaminants.
In the effort to understand what is happening, the water district has surveyed residents, inspected homes and mapped the pinhole leaks, which occur in pressurized supply pipes.
They also brought in Marc A. Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental and water resources engineering professor who uncovered lead problems in drinking water in Washington, D.C., and Flint, Michigan.
Now, without waiting to establish a clear cause of the leaks, the district has begun changing the chemistry of the water the system distributes in hopes of reversing whatever is corroding pipes.
“Its very rare for water to eat through a copper pipe,” Edwards said during an interview. “We’ve looked at all of the known things that could go wrong and it doesn’t fall into any of these categories.”
Edwards said it could take years to find a cause, so he suggested starting with some possible fixes to stop the problem.
“Even though we don’t know the cause we could possibly find a solution,” he said.
During the probe, the district realized alkalinity levels had dropped and that might have been triggered by granular activated-carbon system that had been added to some wells to remove volatile organic chemicals. So the district began adding lime to the system to increase alkalinity, which helps neutralize corrosive acids, back to levels more common in the 1980s. It could take three to six months to see if that fixes the leaking, Edwards said.
“This is a complex issue with no immediate answer,” said Marc Laykind, one of three district water commissioners. “Raising alkalinity is a positive direction.”
Residents are hopeful a solution is reached soon.
“They should have done it a long time ago,” said Marsha Elowsky.
When she and husband Joe Elowsky returned from a trip to Europe in late 2016, they noticed a wet spot on their kitchen ceiling. And then the ceiling opened and flooded the kitchen. The culprit: a pinhole leak in pipes behind a toilet in an upstairs bathroom.
The Elowskys had to replace the bathroom upstairs and essentially redo their kitchen with new floors, cabinets and other items. Four more leaks hit the basement. It took about six months and cost about $35,000, mostly covered by their homeowner’s insurance.
District officials said it wasn’t uncommon to hear occasionally about one or two pinhole leaks, but in late October 2016, numerous residents came to the water commissioners board meeting with complaints.
“We feel for every one of these homeowners,” said Commissioner Amanda Field, who ran for the board in 2016, spurred in part by the large number of leaks. “To have your home put into such disarray, it’s a big deal.”
It was Field who reached out to Edwards, who was then hired by the board to serve as a consultant, with a contract not to exceed $7,500.
The district, which also covers parts of Old Bethpage, also sent surveys out to its 10,500 customers and, of more than 1,700 who responded, roughly 1,500 confirmed a pinhole leak. By September the district had done 131 home inspections.
Those inspections revealed that 70 percent of the leaks were in hot-water pipes, not cold. Seventy percent of pinholes were within 15 feet of hot-water heaters, and stray electrical current was documented in 60 percent of the leaks.
“There’s no central condition that we can come up with. That’s really the big challenge,” said James Neri, vice president of water resources at H2M Water, a Melville engineering firm that works with the water district.
The problem also appears isolated to copper piping in homes, not the thicker copper piping used to distribute water throughout the district.
“None of the copper pipes in service lines had issues but, copper pipes in homes, yes,” said Superintendent Stephen Moriarty, who joined the district in April.
It’s hard to know if the problem of pinhole leaks in water systems is widespread elsewhere on Long Island because there is no annual survey of leaks.
Corroding pipes aren’t considered a regulatory violation requiring reporting and homeowners are more likely to call plumbers than their water supplier when they have a leak, according to the American Water Works Association Journal.
Wayne Jadezuk, owner of Abalene Plumbing & Heating in Syosset, said he has answered more pinhole calls in Plainview in the past year than anywhere else, though a few years ago Hicksville had some issues.
“A lot of people are having hardships with it in finished basements,” said Jadezuk. “You think you’re finished and then we have to go back and open up walls and ceilings. There’s a couple of homes we’ve been to four or five times.”
Instead of replacing the failed piping with more copper, Jadezuk is using a polyethylene tubing that is corrosion resistant. “It’s a better way to go,” he said.
Since last October, Wayne Weinstein has had 11 pinhole leaks in the basement of his Plainview home, mostly in hot-water copper pipes. He has welded some holes shut, replaced piping and installed watertight fittings to close the gaps.
Weinstein said he has probably spent 40 hours on repairs.
“It gets to be exhausting and it’s time consuming and the damage is extensive,” Weinstein said.
He has replaced carpeting twice and removed furniture. Alarms that go off when water is detected now sit near his hot-water heater.
HOW TO SPOT A POTENTIAL LEAK
- Corroding copper pipes will begin to turn green — like the Statue of Liberty — in places.
- Leaks can be as small as a pin hole and can occur anywhere along the pipe.
- Because the leaks generally occur in pressurized supply lines, even a small hole can produce a big leak.