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Lead water lines: a home inspector's perspective

Drinking water safety for communities with lead water lines has been a common topic of discussion ever since the whole Flint water crisis happened. This is a topic that is brought up during home inspections as well, and was just discussed and blogged about on NPR recently, so I thought I'd throw in a home inspector's two cents on the whole topic of lead water lines.

Where lead can be found

Lead can get into drinking water through plumbing fixtures and soldered joints that contain lead, but the biggest potential source of lead contamination to drinking water is through lead water supply lines. These are the water lines running throughout the city, often from the city water pipes directly into homes, typically entering basements up through the floor. The two cities in Minnesota where I commonly find lead water supply lines coming directly into homes are Minneapolis and Saint Paul. As mentioned in a previous blog post, lead water supply lines can be found in Minneapolis homes built before 1932, and in Saint Paul homes built before 1926. I don't have historical information for other cities.

Home Inspection Standards of Practice

Both ASHI and InterNACHI standards of practice* require home inspectors to inspect the interior water supply systems. Whether or not this means that home inspectors are responsible for inspecting the small stub of water piping that comes into the home isn't clear, but I don't think it really matters. The reason it doesn't matter is because both the ASHI and InterNACHI standards of practice specifically exclude the identification of environmental hazards, such as the presence of lead water lines.

I repeat: home inspection standards don't require home inspectors to report on lead.

Nevertheless, most home inspectors can quickly identify the presence of lead water piping, often from across the room. The first indicator that you may have lead piping is the presence of something called a "wiped joint", which is a big swollen ball of lead that can always be found at the transition between lead piping and other types of piping.

Lead water line

Be aware, however, that these wiped joints can also be found on copper tubing, so it's not a guarantee that you have lead piping. To know for sure, try lightly scratching the piping with a screwdriver or even your fingernail. Lead piping has a dull finish, but any scratched areas will be shiny. Click on the photo below to see a larger version, which will make the shiny scratches easier to see.

Lead water line with scratches

* Side note: I only mentioned two home inspection standards of practice because the third large organization for home inspectors, NAHI, recently closed their doors. All NAHI members are now members of ASHI.

Reporting on lead water supply

If my home inspection standard of practice does not require me to report on the presence of lead water piping, does this mean I ignore it when I see it? Heck no. Not when it can be so easily identified. When anyone at my company finds lead water piping, we identify its presence in our inspection reports and we tell our clients to do their own research on the topic of lead water lines. I don't want to be the one to say whether or not lead water piping is safe, because frankly, I don't know for sure. I used to think vermiculite insulation was safe if tested and found to contain less than 1% asbestos, but I don't think so anymore.

If you're buying or own a home with a lead water supply line, you have three basic choices:

  1. Replace the lead water lines. Replacing the lead water supply lines is expensive, and it's the homeowner who pays for it, but this probably offers the highest degree of protection against lead. More on that topic here: In battle to keep lead from water, St. Paul digs deep.
  2. Don't drink the water. If you choose to not drink the water, you'll need to buy your water. The least expensive method would be to refill your own containers, using a service such as Primo.
  3. Drink the water. There are numerous steps that can be taken to minimize your exposure to lead, many of which are listed in this document from the city of Saint Paul, Keeping Lead Out.

Even if the visible portion of the water supply piping coming into the home is copper, it's not a guarantee that the home has copper water piping all the way out to the street. In many cases, the water piping has been replaced out to the curb stop (typically located near the curb), but NOT all the way out to the city trunk, which might be located across the street. To know which side of the street the city main is on, look for which side of the street the fire hydrants are located on. To know for sure what type of piping is run all the way out to the main, contact the municipal water department. They keep records of that stuff.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

New backflow preventer testing requirements

One huge change that came with the new Minnesota State Plumbing Code that went into effect on January 23rd of this year was the requirement for annual backflow preventer testing. Here's the exact code language for this new requirement, which can be found under section 603.4.2:

603.4.2 Testing. The premise owner or responsible person shall have the backflow prevention assembly tested by a certified backflow assembly tester at the time of installation, repair, or relocation and not less than on an annual schedule thereafter, or more often where required by the Authority Having Jurisdiction. The periodic testing shall be performed in accordance with the procedures referenced in Table 1401.1 by a tester qualified in accordance with those standards.

To make it simple, homeowners with testable backflow devices are supposed to have them tested by a certified tester annually. The most common testable backflow device found at Minnesota homes is a pressure vacuum breaker, which is a device that is found on nearly every residential lawn irrigation system (aka sprinkler system), shown below.

Pressure vacuum breaker

Sometimes this device can be found mounted high up on the side of houses because it must be located at least 12" above the highest sprinkler head.

At the time that I initially blogged about some of the upcoming plumbing code changes, I wasn't sure exactly what this particular change was going to be all about, so I only touched on it briefly. I didn't completely believe that such a costly and labor-intensive change would be coming, but the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry has put together a fact sheet  (http://www.dli.mn.gov/ccld/PDF/fs_backflow.pdf) making it clear that this is really what's required. These devices need to be tested annually by a certified tester.

How are municipalities enforcing this new requirement? I don't know, and it seems that most municipalities don't either. This requirement is still too new for everyone to know exactly how it's going to be enforced. It sounds like municipalities are going to start keeping track of all new installations, and will start sending out reminder letters to homeowners who don't comply. If you already have an existing installation, you probably won't be required to do anything about it.

The person who does the testing must be a certified backflow tester. Not all licensed plumbers have this certification, and a plumbing license is not required to obtain this certification. I've checked with a few plumbers, and the prices quoted for backflow testing ranged from $150 - $250, but I would expect the price to be significantly less from backflow testers who are not licensed plumbers.

Side note: while pressure vacuum breakers are the most common devices used for sprinkler systems, they not the only devices allowed. A reduced pressure zone (RPZ) backflow prevention assembly is also allowed, and can actually be installed in the basement instead of at the outside of the house 12" above the higher sprinkler head. This never happens on residential installations, however, because RPZs need to be tested annually... but now that new PVB installations need to be tested annually too, it seems that an RPZ might be a more atractive option. Another reason to use an RPZ is that they no longer need to be re-built every four years, which the old code had required.
RPZ Assembly

The other common place that a homeowner might have a testable backflow prevention device is on the water supply piping to a steam or hot water boiler.  The Minnesota State Plumbing Code used to require a dual check valve with an intermediate atmospheric vent as the lowest level of allowable protection for the water supply line to a boiler. These devices were commonly called "9D" valves, but the new plumbing code doesn't mention this type of device at all; per section 603.5.10, boilers must be protected by either a testable double check valve backflow prevention assembly, or an RPZ valve (pictured above). Despite this, the city of Minneapolis is allowing the old non-testable dual check valves on 1 and 2 family residential buildings, and I heard a rumor that this section of the MN state plumbing code might get amended to no longer require testable backflow preventers. See the Minneapolis memo on backflow preventers for boilers.

backflow valves for boilers

In summary

If you're having a new lawn irrigation system installed, you'll need to have the backflow valve tested every year going forward. If you already have an existing system, this won't affect you unless you have the valve replaced. This new requirement probably won't affect homeowners who have boilers.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections