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CA City Bans Use of Galvanized Pipes

Thursday, August 25, 2016

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Fresno is the latest California city to ban the use of galvanized water pipes in new construction and major renovation amid fears of corrosion and drinking-water contamination.

According to the Fresno Bee, Fresno City Council vote 6-0 on Aug. 18 to prohibit galvanized pipe for plumbing within city limits. There have been increasing complaints this year about discoloration in water in the city’s northeast section, and concerns that some homes have elevated lead content in their drinking water.

Change in Water Supply

According to reports, in 2004, Fresno put a new water-treatment facility into service in northeast Fresno, incorporating both groundwater and surface water. Civil engineer Vernon Snoeyink, called in to help understand the nature of the problem, told the Bee that while the groundwater that had previously been used in northeast Fresno was relatively noncorrosive, the surface water being incorporated now may cause more corrosion in galvanized pipes in homes.

Fresno skyline
By JMora24, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fresno City Council vote 6-0 on Aug. 18 to prohibit galvanized pipe for plumbing within city limits.

The majority of Fresno's water comes from the Fresno Sole Source Aquifer. According to Fresno's government website, an additional surface water treatment plant, in southeast Fresno, is planned.

When galvanized steel pipes are corroded, they can release iron and zinc, as well as lead that may have accumulated inside the pipes while lead service lines were in place in the past. According to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, even if lead service lines have been replaced, lead from previous service lines can remain in galvanized in-home plumbing.

Public Health Allegation

A woman living in northeast Fresno recently came forward as having been diagnosed with a lead-related disorder in 2014, and blamed her elevated lead levels on Fresno water. The TV station that reported that story notes that there is no clear evidence that the illness was caused by drinking water, or that the water in the home where she lived at the time had dangerous lead levels.

Galvanized pipe with external corrosion
By j.miner, CC-BY-SA via Flickr

When galvanized iron pipes are corroded, they can release iron and zinc, as well as lead that may have accumulated inside the pipes while lead service lines were in place in the past.

Despite residents’ worries, corrosion expert Marc Edwards, also hired by the city to study the problem, told reporters that ““at this point, there is really no indication at all that there’s a lead problem in Fresno,” according to the Bee. Edwards has also studied corrosion in water pipes in Flint, MI, where lead in drinking water became a massive public health crisis last year.

Fresno’s ordinance banning galvanized pipes notes that other California cities, including Santa Clara, San Diego and Irvine, have already enacted bans.

New Water Official

In July, when the ordinance banning the pipes was first introduced, other legislation was introduced as well: a bill changing the way Fresno reports water-related problems to the state of California, and a bill that would create rebates and low-interest loans for homeowners replacing potentially problematic plumbing. Those pieces have not yet moved forward.

In July, the director of Fresno’s water division was placed on leave amid allegations he did not properly report issues with water quality to state officials. On Monday (Aug. 22), Fresno announced it had hired Brian Spindor, a civil engineer with experience in Washington state and Hawaii, as Assistant Director of Public Utilities, in charge of water and wastewater facilities.

“Brian has proven management and leadership skills with plenty of experience leading diverse staffs under challenging conditions,” said City Manager Bruce Rudd. “He’s a great addition to our team and will bring a strong sense of accountability and communication to our water operations.”


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Coating Materials; Corrosion; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Galvanized steel; Latin America; Lead; North America; Pipes; potable water

Comment from Scott Youngs, (8/25/2016, 10:32 AM)

What does banning future galvanized piping do for lead abatement? It must be for the zinc and iron only?

Comment from Mark Lewis, (8/25/2016, 10:42 AM)

Using galvanized pipe for water service is a very poor choice of materials. The interior will corrode and eventually reduce the I.D. It will also release corrosion products into the water causing discoloration (the so-called "red water").

Comment from James Prevatt, (8/26/2016, 8:01 AM)

The us of galvanize piping is historical going on long before the increased use of chlorine for purification. The galvanized coating is sacrificing itself against the chlorine addition and eventually fails resulting in damage and replacement being required. Alternative methods of distribution are demanded to resolve this issue. No telling how much is in our water system. We are guilty of following the heard and not making changes as the purification process changes.

Comment from Terry Smith, (8/27/2016, 8:01 AM)

Please note that the pipe configuration photo shown in the article CA City Bans Use of Galvanized Pipes was copper connected to galvanized piping. If the water moves from the copper to the galvanized pipe exceptional corrosion of the galvanized pipe would be experienced.

Comment from B Brown, (8/28/2016, 10:44 AM)

One very important problem this article does not mention relates to the galvanize compound. It was common to add a little lead to the zinc to improve the wetting of the galvanizing process. Lead is also a common contaminant in the ore used to produce the zinc. I learned this when we banned lead paint back in the 90's because some of the inorganic zincs on the market contained up to 1% lead just like the galvanizing compound. Just fine for a sign post or bridge beam but might lead to problems in a drinking water pipe. I wonder what the lead content is in the galvanized pipe we now purchase from China. Poor control of a water treatment process that causes the galvanize to dissolve releases the lead in the galvanize compound and it does not matter if the system ever had lead distribution lines. The recent push to increase chlorine content only adds to the problem because that drops the pH. Adjusting the pH with an amine can add to the problem. Chlorine is a carcinogen and would be at the top of our EPA list if it did not have a long track record of successful use at very low concentrations in drinking water. Adding an amine offers the possibility of producing chloramines which are even more carcinogenic. Here's a good read which states that the Canada EPA has banned them as toxic to fish. The copper connected directly to the galvanized pipe acts as a cathode to the fitting and will cause local corrosion of the fitting. More of a leak problem than anything. If the water is corrosive to the copper I'd expect it would also be corrosive to the galvanized pipe so flow direction might be a problem too.

Comment from B Brown, (8/28/2016, 1:07 PM)

2 related stories. USA Today reports both Flint and the D.C. water incidents involved water treatment using chloramine compounds. EPA Region 9 reports San Francisco recently changed to Chloramine for their water treatment.

Comment from Mario Colica, (8/30/2016, 3:27 AM)

Zn it self is not toxic. It's evident that chlorine accelerates the dissolution of Zn and could release Pb in the old plumbing . Better to find out a substitution of chloride that it's carcinogenic .

Comment from Simon Hope, (8/30/2016, 9:05 AM)

Quite a lot of so called galvanised pipes are only galvanised externally! hence rust staining particularly where two dis-similar metals are in contact!

Comment from B Brown, (9/2/2016, 11:47 AM)

I suspect some have missed the point I attempted to make. Three cities located across this nation have recently made the news due to water system corrosion and lead poisoning in their water supply. ALL 3 are using a chloramine as their disinfectant. San Francisco, the latest changed to chloramine the same month their lead problem made the new Chlorine gas has been used as a disinfectant since the early 1900's and no health issues have been tied to it's use. Mixing chlorine with ammonia produces a carcinogen -- nitrogen trichloride -- that has been identified as a carcinogen.

Comment from B Brown, (9/2/2016, 12:08 PM)

Maybe we should stick with chlorine for disinfection of municipal drinking water. There seems to be good reason to suspect using a chloramine is directly related to the recent lead poisoning problems. Using a chloramine may of itself be toxic but identifying carcinogens generally requires years of exposure and more years of research. In the process we may be making people sick with a long term cancer rather than the most obvious short term problem of poisoning people with lead. Hot dip galvanizing coats all surfaces. Sealing a pipe to coat only the exterior surface can cause the pipe to explode when dipped in the molten zinc. It may be possible but unlikely. Electrodeposition or electroplated zinc may produce a single side deposit but that produces a very thin film that would last a very short time in immersion. Flame spray can also be used to deposit a zinc film but that is a different process - similar result but not galvanizing and application is significantly more expensive. Galvanized plumbing productss are coated inside aod out.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (9/7/2016, 11:00 AM)

I can understand why many municipalities are trying to get away from chlorine's a hazardous material that requires specialized PPE and training when handling, is awkward to work with tonners of gas and, depending on the size of the community, the number of vessels required is, frankly, a pain. Add in concerns about things like terrorism and it's easy to see why some will take the financial hit and go to sodium hypochlorite instead (or look at chloramine, though I'm not a fan of that option). However; that's only one part of the discussion and what's involved in the treatment of water. Maintaining the proper hardness (minerals like calcium and sodium) and pH are also critically important. Although a pH of 8 is still caustic/basic, a drop in pH from say 8.5 or wholesale change in the water hardness can be enough to induce mineral deposits to break down and reactions to occur with the piping material (a la Flint). There is far more to water treatment than the buck or two you can save by changing something at the water treatment plant...something that is lost on far too many municipal administrators.

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