Advice on Replacing a Water Service Pipe Made of Lead

Photo by PoPville flickr user J LaBerge

“Dear PoPville,

My wife and I just bought a rowhouse that still has an older service pipe made of lead. We want to replace it before we move in. We know that there are options — contracting with DDOE’s approved list of contractors or finding our own contractor — and that we could coordinate with DC Water to do simultaneous public-side pipe replacement for either option. And, of course, there’s the option to do some advance digging ourselves to save money: our pipe is in the front and would require some excavation about 7 feet down and 15 feet long.

Might PoPville have any recommendations for which option to pursue or process suggestions in general? Fishing for lessons learned here.”

16 Comment

  • We used DC Water & Sewer’s contractor to replace our lead pipe last year, and the process went very smoothly. (This is possibly my only positive experience with a utility provider in DC.) We were very lucky because our property line comes very close to our house, so the expense to us was very minimal compared to what DC Water had to cover. If you have additional plumbing work to complete, I recommend using your own plumber at a later time; we tried to inquire about ‘extra’ plumbing work that we would pay for and it got too complicated. Also, I was worried that they left our sidewalk looking a bit sloppy, but a different crew came out a few days later to fix it before we had a chance to inquire.

  • We did this back in 2010. We coordinated the whole thing through DC Water’s Lead Service Line replacement program. As you said, we paid for the private side (turned out to be only a few feet based on our property line location), and DC Water paid for the private side. It was a huge pain. It took around 6-9 months, if I recall correctly, to get the work to happen. DC Water blamed it on DDOT delays in getting the public space permit (to tear up the road). I am not on a busy road. The only thing that finally worked to get things moving was contacting DC Water’s office of public affairs.

  • Check where your property line is! We replaced ours and went through the DC contractor. We found this was easiest since they already have a relationship with DC WASA and could coordinate working with them easily. At the time the contracted entity for DCWASA was Corinthian contracting.

    If you live in a Petworth rowhouse, your actual property line from the street may surprise you. For us, it was only about 7 feet from our front door. So, a third of our porch and our front yard was actually just an easement to us and could be claimed by the city in the future to expand the sidewalk, etc. What did this mean? If your neighborhood has not had lead lines replaced yet, DCWASA pays for the replacement up to your property line. So, what we thought was going to cost us about $3K was really more like $1200.

    We considered doing some of the digging ourselves as well and expected that our entire walkway would be dug up. This wasn’t the case at all. They were done in a day and all we saw was some new asphalt on the sidewalk and a small portion of our walk covered in asphalt. A few weeks later, the sidewalk was replaced with cement as was the walkway.

  • Based on your wording/question, I’d hazard a guess that you don’t have much experience digging holes. Well, those in the ground… 🙂

    Seven feet deep is deep enough to be dangerous from cave-ins if you’re not careful and use shoring and such. Depends on soil type but every year I read of people dying from cave-ins from similar-depth holes.

    Think about where all that dirt will go. 7′ deep, minimum 2′ wide and 15′ long equals at least 8 cubic yards of soil. Probably more like 9-10 because when you dig it up, it’s not as dense as it was in the ground. Plan for where all that soil will temporarily go. If you have a small/narrow yard, that could be problematic.

    Also consider the soil. If it’s clay and/or has little to no rock, you can dig through it very quickly. If it’s really rocky, pick-axe work can be very slow.

    A good contractor could do this job in 1-2 days. You pay with your time or money (or both)… I’m sure you’ll at least need a licensed plumber/contractor to do the actual hook-up to the main. They don’t want just anybody messing with their mains.

    Lead lines by themselves are not that dangerous; depends on the water chemistry. I’d have the tap water tested for lead first to determine the danger (if any). Some water chemistry will coat the lines essentially sealing the lead off from the water. Other chemistry will eat away the coating (and the lead) and get really dangerous really quickly. Unfortunately, DC’s water chemistry is all over the map in recent years so you don’t really know if it’ll be safe or not.

    • There was very very little actual digging when they did mine. They dug one hole in the street and one hole in the yard. Nothing in the sidewalk and no trench. They used a boring tool to tunnel through the soil to lay the new pipe. Very very cool. You could hardly even tell they had been there when they left. Our was done through Corinthian Construction.

  • Have you had the water tested? It’s likely that the sediment that builds up in the pipe over time is preventing any meaningful amount of lead from making its way into your water. So before you spend thousands of dollars replacing it (which, I’m told, may actually allow more lead to sweep in, unfiltered, from the main line if that’s also made of lead) consider whether you’re actually making yourself any safer.

    • BTW, for a discussion of how replacing the line could make you LESS safe, see Rebecca Renner’s article “Reaction to the Solution: Lead Exposure Following Partial Service Line Replacement.” Can be found using Google.

      • I think we’re ok. That article studied partial replacements only. To wit: local utilities that ripped out only the public portions of service lines were causing harm by disturbing the lead rust on the remaining private portion, which they left otherwise intact.

        The DC Water program coordinates replacement of the ENTIRE (private and public) service line. Remaining sediment would be present in our existing pipes, only, which we will probably replace along with their connected appliances in the next year or so.

    • I’d echo this. Our place used to be a rental, so the landlady didn’t spring for private slide line replacement when DC water did the public half. Unfortunate. So we tested the lead levels and they were very low, well below the standards. Decided to spring for a drinking water filtration system. Gets rid of other issues and tastes better too! (~cost = $200 + $30 / year for filters). Cheap to do the test before diving in …

      • What type of filter system do you use? Our filters are way more expensive than $30/year.

        • Pentek P-250A (aka Culligan D250, American Plumber W-250). System is a Pentek-1500. 1000 gallons is about a year for us. NSF/ANSI 53.

    • +1. DC Water will actually test your water for free, you just have to call and coordinate with them. Of course, if you don’t believe DC Water will be truthful about whether you have lead in your water, then you can pay to have it tested independently.

  • We used DC Water to do it. Like others, it was probably the quickest, easiest, and happiest interaction we’ve ever had with a utility!

  • saf

    Our experience was terrible, but in the end it was worth it. Do the whole thing.

  • I would recommend you look at adding a filter to where the water enters the house. I replaced the lines in the house but the line to the street is very expensive and does not change the fact that all the pipes from the street to the water source are still lead. The water filter addition will only cost you a few hundred. Replacing the lead pipes in the house will have a much bigger price tag.

  • Where would I find the DDOE’s approved list of contractors? I went to the website but couldn’t pull up a list.

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