Guest Column | April 18, 2023

Infrastructure Upgrade: Expediting Lead Pipe Removal Protects Communities

Emily Newton, Revolutionized

By Emily Newton

A significant portion of American’s water infrastructure is still reliant on lead pipes despite the associated health concerns.

Assuring everyone has access to clean drinking water is essential. However, despite significant improvements in technology and public health across history, lead water pipes still pose a substantial threat to that goal. The extent of this issue has become more evident, and the push for lead pipe removal is accelerating.

The Push For Lead Pipe Removal

A 2022 poll revealed that seven in 10 Americans1 say lead pipes in drinking water systems are either a crisis or a major problem. The overwhelming majority also support updating U.S. EPA laws to require replacing all lead pipes within the next 10 years.

Recent legislation follows this trend in public opinion. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) — allocates $15 billion to lead pipe replacement2 and another $11.7 billion to general safe drinking water funds. This funding aims to support the goal of replacing all lead service lines in the U.S. within the coming decade.

Many states are also implementing their own lead pipe removal initiatives. These may provide additional funding on top of the federal investment from the IIJA or outline specific steps and regulations for water and utility companies.

How Lead Pipe Removal Benefits Communities

Federal and state governments phased out lead service lines in the 1980s, but much of America’s water infrastructure still uses older lead pipes. Replacing these with newer, unleaded alternatives has many benefits for the communities that rely on them.

Public Health Improvements

The most important reason to replace lead pipes is to protect public health. Lead could seep into people’s drinking water as these service lines corrode. Ingesting this metal can damage the nervous system3, impair growth, lead to learning and behavioral problems, and cause hearing and speech problems.

The effects of lead poisoning are also permanent, and it can take decades for levels in the body to decrease. Health officials say there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially in young children. Given these substantial medical threats, removing all traces from the country’s drinking water is essential.

Infrastructure Modernization

Lead pipe removal has benefits outside of these health concerns, too. Lead has been illegal in new water systems since the '80s, and any infrastructure that still contains the metal is over 30 years old. Even if it weren’t for the risk of lead poisoning, updating that aging infrastructure is a good idea.

Old water lines may also face higher risks of corrosion, clogging, breaking and other performance-related issues. Replacing them allows utility companies to minimize these hazards, creating a more reliable water system. Utilities could install Internet of Things (IoT) monitoring technologies, more resilient pipes, and other upgrades to improve future service.

Project Opportunities For Water Companies

Rising government investment in water infrastructure upgrades also provides a business opportunity for the companies that aid in these initiatives. Finding and replacing old pipes is a considerable undertaking, so this movement offers plenty of work for professionals in the field. Consequently, these efforts can sustain infrastructure businesses and fuel local economies.

On top of the $15 billion the IIJA allotted to lead pipe removal, many states and federal agencies are investing heavily in these efforts. Rochester, New York, has budgeted $21.5 million4 to remove lead water lines, Washington, D.C., is providing $30 million to assist with removal, and the USDA has awarded at least $132 million in loans and grants to remove lead. These investments represent a considerable business opportunity.

Practical Considerations For Lead Pipe Removal

As these benefits highlight, expediting lead pipe replacement is critical for water companies and their communities. However, it can be a complex process. Businesses wanting to take part in this movement should keep the following considerations in mind.

Finding Lead Pipes

The first challenge in lead pipe removal is finding the service lines needing replacement. Because this infrastructure is old, documentation around it is limited. Water systems also don’t have to submit service line inventories to the EPA until late 20245, so many utility organizations don’t know which parts of their systems contain lead.

Customer outreach is an essential part of this discovery. Homeowners may have records about their pipes that water authorities don’t, so encouraging consumers to report what their pipes are made of will help. Organizations can spread awareness of the issue by mailing residents in areas with limited service line documentation.

Water companies should also test exposed or easily accessible lengths of pipes to see if they’re made of lead. Carefully monitoring water samples for metal traces can also help identify their location.

Choosing The Right Tools For The Job

Once teams find where these old service lines are, they should consider the tools they’ll use to replace them. Using the wrong equipment for the job can make replacement a longer or more disruptive process than it needs to be, so this is a crucial step.

Trenching may be a more cost-effective way to remove old pipes, but directional boring is quicker and less invasive6, so it’s better for residential areas. Teams must also ensure they work as carefully as possible, as too much disruption can cause lead to flake off from old pipes and flow further down the system.

Selecting Optimal Pipe Material

Similarly, water companies should carefully assess what types of pipe to replace lead water lines with. PVC and other plastics may be the new industry standard, but some research suggests plastic may leach pollutants into waterways7, posing more health risks to residents.

Copper doesn’t leach chemicals and is more resistant to outside pollutants, but it’s expensive and can react to some contaminants to corrode faster. Stainless steel requires more care to prevent corrosion but is less reactive.

The ideal pipe material may depend on the area. Utility companies should consider their water content, ground composition, temperatures, and other related factors to determine the safest alternatives.

Working With Homeowners

Water companies should also work closely with homeowners. In many areas, residents also own the parts of the water system feeding into their property. Consequently, replacing these pipes means gaining permission from these consumers and working with them to manage the disruption and costs.

Many municipalities offer reimbursement programs for homeowners for lead pipe removal, helping remove the financial burden from their shoulders. If no such programs exist in an area, utilities may consider covering the costs of removal or offering other benefits to encourage homeowners to replace these dangerous pipes.

Conducting Post-Removal Monitoring

After completing the job, teams should closely monitor areas where they’ve removed lead pipes. It’s crucial to ensure nothing lingers in the system since there’s no safe level of lead. Many organizations use IoT sensors to monitor conditions8 remotely, and water companies can do the same, as these technologies provide real-time updates to enable faster responses.

Teams should remind consumers to flush their water systems a couple of times after replacing pipes to remove all contaminants. Only after a few consistent periods of no lead turning up on monitoring systems is it safe to assume it’s free from the system.

Lead Pipe Removal Is Challenging But Necessary

The growing lead pipe removal movement is an essential step forward for public safety. It can also present an opportunity for water companies to gain business and improve their infrastructure for future use. There are some challenges, but the benefits far outweigh the difficulties.

Effective removal starts with understanding the obstacles ahead. Utilities that keep these considerations in mind can safely and efficiently upgrade America’s service lines.