Hundreds of our neighbors have spent several thousand dollars remediating and remodeling their homes over the past five years due to leaks in their copper water pipes – and the numbers continue to rise.
In fact, local plumbing companies say they receive several calls each week from homeowners with water leaks. The problems occur in million-dollar homes and small bungalows, older dwellings and those built more recently, and in upscale communities on the island as well as modest developments on the mainland.
And while leaks are far from unheard of at homes in the Vero Beach water system — including homes in Indian River Shores and Southern Barrier Island — most of the blame is directed at the county water system.
A longtime local plumber has dramatically described the situation as ‘sitting on a ticking time bomb’, saying he expects the problem to only get worse as copper pipes are installed in homes built during the county’s construction boom in the early 2000s will be 20 years old.
While this may be a problem with no easy fix, it does point fingers — and many of those fingers point to the county government.
“There have been questions about water main corrosion for the past two years,” County Administrator Jason Brown said last week. “People have had leaks in their copper pipes and they’re asking, ‘Is county water the cause?’
“If it was something we were doing in the way we treat water, we wanted to know,” he added. “That’s why we hired a reputable engineering consultant to perform a water quality audit. »
Kimley-Horn and Associates conducted a comprehensive review of the county’s water treatment system – which was modified in 2017 in an effort to reduce corrosion – and presented its findings to the County Commission last October.
“To date,” Kimley-Horn wrote in her 31-page report, “the aftertreatment system has shown favorable water quality results, which has improved corrosion control in the system. by the county”.
The county’s water was actually less corrosive than it was before the process change, the report said, and its water quality was well within federal regulations.
The report goes on to explain that many factors contribute to copper pipe corrosion. Among them are problems with workmanship, manufacturing, temperature and even electrical currents.
“If you compare our water to water from other nearby utilities in the area — Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, St. Lucie County, Martin County — our numbers are all in the same ballpark,” Brown said. “So they really didn’t find a problem, other than recommending that we improve our flushing of the system, which we did.”
Still, according to re-pipe permit statistics compiled by Vero Beach Utilities Director Rob Bolton earlier this year, the county is seeing an increasing number of leaks.
Bolton conducted his investigation to ensure that the Vero water system, which also serves the Shores and the unincorporated area of the county in the southern part of the barrier island, was not experiencing the same leaks of copper pipes.
Bolton found that since 2015, 77 rechanneling permits have been issued to customers in the Vero Beach service area, while 1,722 have been issued to county customers.
Certainly, it is alarming that 739 permits were issued to customers in the county last year, and another 312 were issued in the first three months of this year. It’s 1,051 over a period of 15 months.
Vero Beach has also seen a notable increase in re-pipe permits over the same period: after only nine were issued from 2015 to 2018, 46 were issued in 2021 and through the first quarter of 2022.
Even on a per capita basis, however, the county’s numbers are considerably more troubling.
That’s why county commissioners agreed last week to spend $84,000 to hire another nationally recognized engineering firm, Tetra Tech, to conduct a second review of the county’s water system.
“We keep getting questions, so we’ll have someone else take a look,” Brown said. “It’s like when you go to the doctor and they tell you everything is fine, but you still don’t feel well. You’re going to get a second opinion.
The second study was recommended by the county’s new director of utilities, Sean Lieske, who came here from Colorado in March after spending more than four years as an environmental services manager at Aurora Water.
Bringing fresh eyes is a wise move, given growing skepticism in the community as the issue persists.
What if it wasn’t water?
Or not just water?
As Brown explained—and local plumbers agreed—multiple factors contribute to copper pipe corrosion. Water is just one of them.
“Water is the universal solvent,” Brown said. “It mixes with other materials and causes corrosion. If you put copper pipe in a freshwater lake and leave it there for a few years, you’re going to see corrosion.
Brown argued that copper quality, pipe wall thickness, and environmental factors could also impact corrosion.
Many leaks are found in homes built in the 1990s and early 2000s, he said, and the copper piping used during that time may have been of lower quality than the builders previously used.
“It’s a reasonable argument,” said a prominent local plumber.
Builders now use PEX tubing — a flexible, cross-linked polyethylene tube — in most new construction, as do contract plumbers to repipe existing homes. Unlike copper pipe, which is installed under the slab, PEX is usually installed in the attic to make it more accessible.
Another local plumber said the only way to ensure copper pipes don’t leak, especially in 20-year-old homes, is to replace them with PEX. Costs, however, typically range from $7,500 to $15,000 – and in larger homes, they can reach $100,000.
And while home insurance can cover expenses incurred from water leak damage, such as drying out a home, removing mold if necessary, replacing drywall and flooring and painting walls and ceilings, it generally does not cover the cost of re-piping. .
But back to what is to blame…
Mark Yanno, vice president of the Indian River County Clean Water Coalition, strongly believes county water is at least partly the cause of copper pipe corrosion, citing the lack of similar increases in leaks all over Florida.
“If it’s a manufacturing issue or a copper quality issue, why haven’t we seen these leaks in other counties across the state,” Yanno said. “It has something to do with water.”
Yanno said he tested the county’s water at different locations — from Sebastian to the St. Lucie county line — and found pH levels within federal regulations, but above what is acceptable.
“Just because the numbers are within the parameters doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem,” Yanno said, adding that he couldn’t help but link the increase in leaks to the decision of the county to change its water treatment process.
Local plumbers admit they’re getting more calls from homeowners on the county’s water system, but say they’re also giving estimates for re-pipe work in the city and neighboring counties and towns. .
Brown, meanwhile, defended the county’s reverse osmosis water treatment system, saying it produces higher-quality drinking water without being more corrosive to pipes.
But he hears the complaints, sees the number of re-pipe permits increasing, and he wants to fix the problem.
Could the solution be as simple as the county reverting to its previous water treatment process?
We need that second opinion.