Water pipe corrosion a real issue for many cities, organizations

The ability to enjoy clean, safe water for drinking, washing and other uses is vital for humans and animals. Unfortunately, corrosion is an issue that can lead to serious risks, only some of which can be addressed by individuals. Instead, organizations or municipalities often find themselves in situations where they have to tackle these hurdles head-on and may leave people in the lurch in the meantime.

For instance, in Wareham and Onset, Massachusetts, local water commissions have had to instruct residents and businesses to boil all water before use because bacteria has seeped into their pipes and water processing systems, discoloring what comes out of the faucet and making it unsafe, according to the Wareham Courier. A big part of the issue behind these "boil water" orders, which seem to be growing increasingly common nationwide, is that much of the American water infrastructure is at least a half-century old, with little in the way of massive overhauls.

"I think the important message here is that much of our infrastructure in the U.S. was installed in 1900 to 1950 and the time has come to renew that infrastructure,"  Wareham Fire District Water Superintendent Andrew Reid told the newspaper. "And with that there comes a cost."

While numerous cities are now investing millions or more into projects to renew their water infrastructure, that cost is of course being passed along to consumers, creating a situation no one is happy about but which must be seen through for health and safety reasons, the report said.

Consumers shouldn't have to worry about polluted water.Consumers shouldn't have to worry about polluted water.

Common causes
In Massachusetts and other states that get a lot of winter weather, one of the potential problems that lead to more corrosion is the use of road salt to clear highways and byways, which seeps into the groundwater, according to Chemical & Engineering News. One recent study found that as many as 1 in 4 public wells in New York state may be affected by this trend, and experts believe it was likely a big contributor to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

This issue is often felt not only where the salt is applied to local roadways but also in areas near the massive storage facilities required to house the road salt, the report said. Homeowners in one Upstate New York town who live more than a mile and a half from such a facility started reporting en masse that their home appliances were failing, even brand new ones, because of how much chloride had seeped into the groundwater.

Chemical approaches
In other parts of the country, however, even cities with highly rated and effective water systems are trying to fight corrosion any way they can, according to the Medford Mail Tribune. In Medford, Oregon, for example, the local water commission recently resolved to add lye to its systems as a means of raising the pH level of local water so that it's less corrosive in homes and businesses the systems serve.

While Medford's water is already safe to drink, the addition of small amounts of lye – also known as sodium hydroxide – by volume could help older buildings with certain types of plumbing enjoy a less metallic taste than what comes out of the faucets, the report said. This decision was made as a result of a two-year study following findings of high lead concentrations in certain older homes, with plumbing installed at the start of the 20th century. The lye will be added to the local water system slowly, with pH levels rising from readings of 7.0 to 8.0 over the course of roughly a year.

In the Sunshine State
Dangerous home plumbing situations are quite common in certain parts of the country, especially due to local soil makeup. According to Chartwell Law, as many as 2.5 million homes in the state have cast iron plumbing that is particularly at risk for corrosion because the soil there has high levels of salt and water in it, slowly wearing away at the pipes.

These homes were typically built prior to 1975, and most in the state that fall into the category have the cast-iron pipes, the report said. As a consequence of the risk, homeowners are increasingly making home insurance claims that raise rates for everyone in the state, and this trend could surge again once hurricane season arrives later in the year.

Not just drinking water
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, one building at the Los Alamos National Laboratory was also recently hit by a pipe corrosion issue that could have caused more damage than unsafe drinking water, according to the Albuquerque Journal. Recently at the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, there was a small leak in the radioactive liquid waste system caused by valves made from carbon steel that were ill-suited to interact with the liquid waste (including nitric and hydrochloric acids) the system ferried out of the building, in part because it also came into contact with stainless steel pipes.

Fortunately, the system had a failsafe in place to contain the leaked fluids, meaning there was no safety concern, but nonetheless it was an issue engineers at the national lab had to address quickly.

With all these problems in mind, organizations and municipalities need to be more mindful of the risk factors associated with any chemicals that might come into contact with plumbing systems to avoid serious issues that could imperil human and animal safety. Working to address corrosion and stop it before it becomes a serious problem is just one vital part of this necessity.