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The pinhole leak problem

November 2, 2021

Pinhole leaks topped the agenda for the City Council of Webster City Monday night.

Local residents, frustrated by the problem of leaks in copper pipes, addressed the council and the public had a chance to hear from consultants helping the city to find a solution to the ongoing problem.

Bob Burns 1420 E. Second St., shared the pinhole leak problems that he had at his home.

“I wanted to let you folks know what it’s like in the trenches,”he said.

Burns related that on Oct. 14, he and his wife discovered a flood in their basement. He found water leaking from a half-inch copper pipe.

“We had a heck of mess to clean up,,” he said,

He was unable to find any pipe patch products in the community because, “the plumbers had bought them all up.”

Burns said he was concerned about future problems that might arise at the home if the problem isn’t resolved. He asked how anyone would know if a leak developed inside a wall.

“You won’t know until the wall falls apart,” he said.

He also noted that the chlorine smell from the tap was incredibly strong.

City Manager Daniel Ortiz-Hernandez offered an update and a recap of how the problem was brought to the attention of the city.

“Back in July, Council member (Logan) Welch had notified the city staff of a couple pinhole leaks he had in his home,” Ortiz said. “Between the middle to end of July we had been in contact with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources with regard to the cases and claims that are being made with the pinhole leaks.”

Ortiz said the DNR advised the city to conduct a Langelier Index to monitor and measure the corrosiveness of the city’s water. The initial results from the index showed that the water did not have a high corrosiveness.

“But the number of cases have continued to rise over time,” he said. “In fact in the weeks that followed, we saw a dramatic rise in the pinhole leaks around the community.”

“At that point, we had yet to determine what is driving the pinhole leaks in our community. It’s similar to other communities — Humboldt and Storm Lake — and others that have navigated this,” he said.

Ortiz said that in addition to Bolton and Menk, the city’s contracted water and wastewater engineers, Dr. Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech University, a leading U.S.expert on corrosiveness and water chemistry, has been brought on board to help find a solution to the problem.

“He and his team have investigated pinhole leaks throughout the country,” Ortiz said.

Edwards joined the council meeting via Zoom to answer questions from the council about the leaks.

“Well, I’ve been studying the (pinhole leak) problem for 31 years now, and on average, I’m working with one or two communities that are having these problems,” Edwards said. “It’s a very frustrating problem for everyone concerned because it’s expensive and stressful for homeowners, and for the water provider, it’s a huge concern. For scientists, it’s been a topic of interest for a long time.”

He said about 10 years ago, some of the causes of the problem were discovered. But regardless of what the cause is, Edwards noted that they have in some cases been able to resolve the problem.

He said those resolutions have sometimes involved dosing the water with a phosphate, used in about half of the water utilities nationally to control corrosion.

He said one aspect of the problem that is very frustrating, is that the cleaner the water is, the worse the pinhole problem seems to be.

Councilmember Brian Miller said that the city’s water has been within the quality guidelines enforced by the DNR.

“I think that’s what everyone is trying to say, that this is an unprecedented thing or a not easily trackable thing,” he said.

Councilmember Logan Welch said he’s had a hard time getting an answer to his questions.

“So I’ll ask again, has there been a small change or a huge change to what we do, maybe the processes we used in the past year or two?” Welch asked. “I’m not asking this to set up the city. I’m asking this so we can look (the problem) in the eye.”

Councilmember Matt McKinney asked how far back the city could track the data from the water plant.

Greg Sindt, a representative with Bolton and Menk,said the data that is being reviewed goes back to 2015.

“I want to reiterate what the city has done. The city took swift action and acted on recommendations from Dr. Edwards and our recommendations to use the orthophosphate corrosive inhibitor, a common method used,” he said. Though it is unknown whether the additive would solve the pinhole problem, Sindt said it was definitely, “a step in the right direction.” He said that other process controls were also being examined at the water treatment plant.

Local plumber Burke Plain was in the audience and told the council that he first encountered pinhole leaks in May 2020.

“I kind of wrote that off as a copper failure. It was an older house,” he said. “Through last fall, I started seeing more and more. And come February, it was like the floodgates really opened up.”

He said he encountered homeowners who had repeated problems. Plain met with the former water treatment plant supervisor and other staff members at the plant to lay out the problems he was seeing and brought samples of pipes that had pinhole leaks.

“I gave them a list of 32 homes I’d been to in 30 days, and my phrase to him was, ‘this is a bit excessive and somebody needs to look into this,’” Plain said. “But nothing happened.”

Plain said that this year, from August 1 to Sept. 1, he had been to 57 different homes in the community, adding that in some cases, he had been to homes multiple times.

“I feel bad for these people,” he said. “One thing I will tell the City Council — silence breeds assumption. If you guys would come out with a little bit, even if you don’t have all the answers. Webster City residents feel like they are out on a raft by themselves.”

Welch said the investigation began after he sent an email to city officials about leaks at his home.

“I think the frustration from Burke’s end was that he was ringing the bell long before I was,” Welch said. “This could have been started six, seven, eight months prior to when it did start. It could have got us ahead of the game, It could have gotten the new treatment process in our pipe sooner, if that is going to help us.

“We need to start feeding information back out as we obtain it,” Welch said.

Miller said he believed the city had done it’s best to keep the public informed as information became available.

“The public has been getting the messages on the same day that you and I have received the information,” Miller said.

Welch countered by saying that no information was released on when the city began using the orthophosphate corrosive inhibitor.

“There are new details day to day,” Welch said. “(The public) needs to be reading the pages as we read the book. And that’s what frustrates me.”


View the original story as it appeared in the Daily Freeman-Journal.

Last modified: November 2, 2021

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