Installation of lead water pipes began on a major scale in the U.S. during the 1800s, but concerns about lead in drinking water will soon come to an end with the latest amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Since the early 1900s, scientists have warned about the exposure to lead and its negative health effects. From deficits in attention span and learning ability and physical and mental development issues in young people to increased blood pressure and kidney problems in adults, the effects of lead can be devastating. Lead poisoning can be deadly in extreme cases and long-term lead poisoning is also known to cause strokes and cancer. The most common cause of lead poisoning is inhaling dust and chips from old paint; however, non-paint sources, such as drinking water from lead lined pipes, can also cause severe cases of lead poisoning.
Lead is rarely found in source water, but enters drinking water supplies through corrosion of plumbing materials. While homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, newer homes may also use plumbing systems that still include lead products, including lead water meters. The most common way lead enters the home through water is through brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures that leach significant amounts of lead into the tap water, especially hot water. Dissolved lead in water cannot be seen, tasted or smelled.
Roadmap to Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act
As early as the 1920s, the U.S. began restricting lead use in water pipes as a result of public health concerns. In 1974, Congress passed the SDWA in an effort to regulate the nation’s public drinking water supply. Since the signing of the initial act, there have been several amendments. In 1986, the SDWA was amended to prohibit the installation of lead water pipes nationwide. In 1991, the EPA published the Lead and Copper Rule to control lead and copper in drinking water. In 1996, the Clinton Administration passed amendments to emphasize sound science and risk-based standard setting, small water supply system flexibility and technical assistance, community empowered source water assessment and protection, public right-to-know and created an assistance program to provide up to $9.6 billion in loan funds to benefit the states that upgrade drinking water treatment systems.
Most recently, President Barack Obama signed the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act on January 4, 2011. The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act reduces the maximum lead content limit from 8 percent to 0.25 percent for wetted surfaces of pipe, pipe fittings and plumbing fittings and fixtures and to 0.2 percent for solder and flux. These new regulations will go into effect on January 4, 2014 and will have a significant effect on water utilities with lead water meters.
With only a year before federal regulatory requirements take effect, many water utilities and municipalities are already converting to no-lead products to ensure proper inventory for 2014. For utilities that have not started planning for this new regulation, now is the time to begin researching and selecting the right lead-free water meters for the next meter implementation.
There are several materials that utilities should consider when selecting a lead-free meter alternative. Various options include epoxy coated ductile and cast iron, stainless steel, low lead bronze and composite.
When choosing a lead-free alternative material, utilities must consider traditional meter requirements such as strong flow capability and durability. However, the difference between lead-free and zero lead meters should also be considered. Some “lead-free” meters contain as much as 0.25 percent lead.
While a 0.25 percentage of lead in meters allows utilities to meet current regulations, implementing these “lead-free” meters could put utilities at risk for the cost of another meter change out should future regulations require complete lead elimination from water meters. Most water meters are expected to last more than 20 years, meaning that the next amendment to SDWA could come before the meter fleet must be replaced. This could be potentially devastating for utility companies still using older systems should completely lead-free meters become mandated.
Composite meters are one example of a zero lead alternative that is not susceptible to future no-lead regulations. This meter material is also gaining popularity due to its strength and cost stability. Composite meters do not depend on metal pricing fluctuations and, more importantly, have zero lead as opposed to low lead or even bronze meters.
Made of materials that have already proven their strength and durability in the automotive and valve industries, composite meters boast longevity and resistance to corrosion from aggressive water and from the chlorinated chemicals used to make water drinkable. Composite meters are also equipped to withstand the pressure required to maintain a water system.
Composite meters are constructed using a blend of plastic and fiberglass. When compared to bronze water meter products, composites are lighter and require less time and energy to manufacture, ship and install. Composite meters attached with composite threads have been found to eliminate the “friction feeling” typically experienced with metal threads and metal couplings, facilitating easier installation.
Through comprehensive testing, composite meters have demonstrated a burst pressure that is significantly greater than bronze and an equal longevity. Composite technology today allows for better, more environmentally friendly composite products that will last up to 25 years in residential applications. Manufacturers have a wide range of “lead-free” or zero lead products on the market and it is critical that utilities consider all of their options when selecting a new fleet of meters.
Most importantly, everyone deserves access to safe, clean water. It is essential that manufacturers continually develop and deliver products that meet the highest standards for safety, quality, reliability and accuracy to ensure availability to, and conservation of, this most precious resource.
Bridget Berardinelli joined Sensus in May of 2009 and is a product manager for the North American Water Products division. In her role at Sensus, Bridget analyzes market data in the water industry to identify opportunities to meet market needs.