Bill starts the show by talking about the City of St Paul’s decision to get rid of lead supply lines. Reuben shares that around 28% of the city or over 26,000 properties are using lead supply lines. Also, the city will be funding the 10-year program and will be spending $250M. He then explains what lead supply lines are and highlights that it’s a health hazard.
Tessa shares that lead supply lines have been buried for 100 years now. She explains how to identify lead and what to do when it’s present in the water piping. Reuben describes what a galvanized pipe looks like.
Reuben highlights that the standard of practice in home inspections exclude reporting about lead, and doesn’t record the kind of water supply a house has. However, inspections describe the type of water distribution piping in the house and reports if the material is copper or plastic. He explains how lead gets into drinking water.
Read more about lead water supplies here https://structuretech.com/lead-water/
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome, everyone. You’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. As always, your three-legged stool coming to you from the Northland, talking all things houses, home inspections and anything else that’s rattling around in our heads.
BO: Welcome, y’all. I’m doing that ’cause I talked to people from North Carolina this last week, and they’ve gotten me saying “y’all” every time I say the word “you”. So anyway, welcome, Tessa, Reuben. Good to see you.
Tessa Murry: Hey, Bill.
Reuben Saltzman: Good to see you too.
TM: Do you know, do they say, “Hey, do all y’all?” or just “Y’all wanna do something?” Because when I lived in Louisiana, they would say “All y’all.” And I’m like, “Isn’t that a little repetitive?”
BO: No, no, that’s the plural version of “Y’all.”
RS: Yeah, you is “y’all”. All of you is “All y’all”.
TM: “All y’all,” okay, alright.
BO: Yeah, Blake Williams, our good friend from Denton, Texas, owner of Super Inspector, he explained and clarified that for everybody at an IEB conference one day.
RS: I wasn’t at that one. That’s fantastic.
BO: It was good stuff. Good stuff.
RS: So, if I wanted to invite you to lunch, Bill, I’d say, “Hey, Bill, y’all wanna go to lunch tomorrow?” when I’m just referring to you, right?
BO: Well, you can’t ask me to give proper explanations of “y’all”, ’cause I don’t use it on a regular basis. I just got conditioned over the last 24 hours to use.
RS: Alright. Well, we all don’t know what we’re talking about.
TM: Yeah, we don’t know how to use it properly. So any southern listeners out there, don’t be too critical of us.
BO: Yes, and please, please accept our apologies for the last one minute and 30 seconds of your life you will never get back.
BO: Hey, there’s some big development that’s gone on in the great City of St. Paul, that we thought we’d dive into on today’s episode. St. Paul has decided to get rid of lead water supply lines to the city, and they’re making an earnest attempt to do this as quickly as possible. And however long that means in a big city like that of St. Paul, where there is probably a fair amount of lead laying around. Sounds like it’s a 10-year plan, and they’re gonna go after it at their own expense, and take this material out of the water supply. What do you guys think of that?
RS: I think that is one heck of an ambitious plan. That is… I mean, I had no idea how much lead was in St. Paul. I was reading over the statistics. They said 28% of St. Paul houses have lead water supply pipes, or… And when I say supply pipe, hold on. Let’s move back a step… I said, “A step and a second,” at the same time.
TM: I heard that. It was good.
RS: It was a step-end. They said… Well, alright, let’s define what it is. A lead water line… We’ve got lead mains going throughout the city potentially, and that would be the water line that goes down the street. And then you’ve also got the supply for the individual homes, and they kind of break it in two. Now, in the City of St. Paul, it’s the city’s responsibility from the main running down the street to the curb stop. And the curb stop, as the name implies, is gonna be a shut off for the water coming into the house, located somewhere near the curb. If you look around, if you’re in the Twin Cities area, if you look around kinda close to where your curb is, maybe a few feet in, you can find that water main. It’s gonna be this little metal plate, and if you just try that pry that plate off, you can go… Well, no, you don’t pry it off, you need a five-sided hex wrench. It’s like a traditional… I said, “Hex”, it’s not ‘hex’, it’s ‘penta’. Penta-nut, it’s a penta-nut. I think I just invented that one.
TM: Let’s have a light bulb go off above your head.
BO: A lot of specificity just to explain getting a cap off.
RS: Yes, but you take this thing off, and then you go down many feet, way down below the frost line, and with a special tool, and they could shut off all the water to the house. That’s the way we got it set up in the Twin Cities. And in St. Paul, from that point on to the house, it’s all the responsibility of the homeowner. But that’s still considered the water supply pipe, and then the water piping within the home is water distribution piping. So, there. We’ve set the terms up. And St. Paul’s program is to replace the supply pipes, the piping going from their main to the curb stop. Not only that though, they’re gonna take care of the home owner responsibility too, all the way into the people’s houses, which… It just blows my mind. We’ve always told everybody, “This is your responsibility,” and it always has been, but St. Paul is getting after it, ’cause they don’t want people to have lead in their drinking water. Oh, and I didn’t quantify it. So I said 28% of homes, that comes out to 20… Over 26,000 properties that have a lead supply pipe. Crazy!
BO: Where did you get the… Where did you pull that data from?
RS: The City of St. Paul. I just wrote a blog post on this topic last week. At the time of this podcast, when we’re releasing it, this blog post will be six days old. And I’ve got a link to it there, and we will link to that blog post in this podcast. So if you go to the podcast notes, you can get a link, so you can see all of this stuff firsthand. But they’ve got a really nice PDF that the… What is it? The St. Paul Regional Water Services put out, and it outlines their whole program. And they got a bunch of these statistics listed in that document.
BO: Is it in an interactive map kinda thing, where you can search out to your property, click on it, and it’ll tell you what your supply is?
RS: Well, not in this document that I’m referencing, but that document does have a link to exactly what you just described, Bill, which… When I first saw this, maybe a week ago or whatever it was, my mind was blown. Because as home inspectors, we always try to figure that stuff out. And all of a sudden, for the city of St. Paul, we don’t need to guess at this anymore. They have an extremely comprehensive map of all of the properties in St. Paul. And you start zooming in, and you can zoom in to house level. And you click on an individual house, and it’ll tell you what they have for the water supply coming to the curb, and what comes after the curb. And if there’s lead, they tell you what it is. They tell you what those water piping materials are made of, which is… I can’t believe how much information they’re sharing.
TM: I know. I’ve… That… It… That document blew my mind too, that there’s 26,000 households in St. Paul, that still have the lead water supply pipe bringing the water, and I wonder what it is in Minneapolis, do you have any idea?
RS: I don’t. I don’t. I’ve always thought that St. Paul had more.
TM: Me too.
RS: I never did as many home inspections in St. Paul. I look at the graphs for where our company works, and we do about 50% of our home inspections in Minneapolis proper. We do about 15% in St. Paul.
BO: ‘Cause nobody ever sells their house in St. Paul ’cause it’s always such a… It’s so awesome, you never wanna leave.
RS: Oh zip it…
TM: Yeah, I agree with you. I think…
BO: 20 years in one house.
TM: I think most of the lead water mains that I’ve come across inspecting are always in St. Paul, but it’s kinda mind blowing to see how many there are still. ‘Cause this is piping that’s a 100 years old, right?
TM: They stopped putting this into houses in, what was it 1926 or 1925?
RS: Tessa, you’re good. That is correct.
TM: I couldn’t remember if it was 1926 or ’25, but yeah, it’s piping that’s been buried for a 100 years, and a lot of times it can be working just fine and people don’t even know that it’s lead, but, one of the problems with lead is it’s so soft that it can get pinched or crushed, and that can reduce the water flow to a house, and that could be a major contributor to people’s low flow. That’s a huge benefit if you’re living in St. Paul, and you have a lead water supply pipe that the city is now… This is funded by the city, right? Or this… Who’s paying for this?
RS: Yeah, the city is funding it. I gave them a call the other day just to talk to one of their engineers about this program, and he wasn’t super specific with me about this, but he said they recently came into a very large sum of money. And so they’re using that money to pay for this. I don’t know if it’s federal or what, I don’t know where it came from. But he said that they’ve got funds that should last them probably the next five to six years, and they will get the rest of the funds to finish the 10-year program, they don’t know exactly how they’re gonna get there, but they’re quite confident that they’ll get the funds to complete this program.
TM: That’s amazing. If you’re a home owner, do you have to know about this in order to take advantage of it, or is the city just gonna take care of it for you? Do you know.
RS: They’re just gonna take care of it for people.
TM: Oh my gosh. That’s a what? What is that that like a five to $10000 gift right there?
RS: It’s in that neighborhood. Yeah, that’s about right, Tess.
RS: So everybody’s getting it. And just one thought that I had is that… Well, hold on, let me back up. Number one, as home inspectors, our standard of practice does not require us to report on environmental hazards like the presence of lead, asbestos, radon, things like that, those are excluded from home inspection standards of practice, so there’s that. Number two, home inspectors are required to describe the type of water distribution piping in a home, but were not required to describe the type of water supply pipe coming into a house. So whatever that is, it really does fall outside home inspection standards for the lead supply pipes but we all know that this is a big concern and…
BO: Well, and every home inspector who… They go right to that meter and they look at the material on the street side of the meter and they always report what it is.
RS: Yeah, exactly. Well, we report what it is, if it’s steel or lead, if it’s copper or plastic, I don’t think there’s a spot in our report where we actually describe it, but we do bring it up if it’s not copper or plastic, we report on that. Absolutely, because it’s a big concern here, even though our standard of practice doesn’t require us to, it just… For me it’s a common sense thing. Of course, we’re gonna report on this, it’s a big deal.
TM: Reuben, you should explain why this is a big deal. We’ve mentioned a couple of things, but we haven’t covered all the reasons why this is a big deal.
RS: Sure, so you brought up the low water flow, and the other big concern is lead getting into your drinking water. And we’ve always been very non-committal with our comments on that because… I don’t know, I’ve always said, “Do your own research on it.” We’ve told people there’s a concern with lead getting into your drinking water, and we’re not gonna tell you if it’s a problem or not, that situation that happened in Flint, Michigan a while ago, that really brought public awareness to the concern of lead in drinking water, a lot of people were freaked out. NPR had a really good article they wrote talking about the concerns of lead and how even very small amounts… Amounts that might be acceptable by a municipality are still definitely something you don’t want in your drinking water, especially if you have kids drinking the water, or people who are pregnant drinking that water.
RS: My comfort level with lead would be absolutely zero. Not five parts per billion, I mean zero. So that would be my comfort level. And the EPA doesn’t have quite that strict a standard when it comes to what’s allowable for lead, the cities treat the water, they help do things to help make sure that the lead doesn’t want to leach out into the water. And I think for the most part, it’s probably safe in most cases, but once you’ve had water standing in that pipe for a long time, you got a greatly increased potential for lead to leach out. And once that happens, it’s like, “Well, what do you do?” The way I see it, there’s three things that people can do about this. Number one, you replace your water pipes, just replace them entirely. Number two, you do nothing, and you just say, I’m gonna be fine. Well, no, no, no, I’m not gonna say that’s an option, we’ll say number two is you don’t…
RS: We’ll say number two is you don’t drink the water and you just get bottled water at your house or… Well, yeah, that’s about it. You source your water from somewhere else. Number three is you take proactive steps in your own house to deal with it. We just had Aquarius on our podcast last week, they talked a lot about water filtration systems, it could be a matter of putting in a filtration system that would get the lead out. At least I think there’s such a thing. Another might be, you run your water for an extended period of time before you consume it, now, I saw on the… I think it was on the St. Paul website where they suggested maybe running your water for 60 seconds or something like that before you drink the water, but…
RS: I tested the water at my own house just to see how long it took to get hot water, and back before I reconfigured my hot water in my kitchen sink, it took me over 60 seconds just to get hot water. So I’m talking about 60 seconds of water going from my water heater to my faucet, that doesn’t begin to affect the drinking water going out to the street. So my point is 60 seconds isn’t nearly long enough, and thanks to our low flow fixtures that restrict the gallons per minute, I think on a kitchen faucet it’s like one and a half gallons per minute or something, we’ve got these flow restrictors, you probably wanna run your faucet for about five minutes before consuming any of that drinking water.
BO: Not practical, I used to… You know it’s…
BO: This is how ignorant I am sometimes. When we first moved into this house, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law lived with us for a pretty extended period of time ’cause they were traveling back and forth from their home, and my mother-in-law would always run the water. “Why are you running the water, it’s just drink what’s there?” And she said, “No, ’cause the lead pipes and they… ” When they first got to the US, they were in New Jersey, and I think that was like standard procedure, you just run the water for a good while and then use it for tea or drinking or whatever you’re gonna use it for, and it just never dawned on me in 20… That was 2002 that you had to still do that, and it’s just old habits are hard to break. And I showed her the new pipes and she said, “Well, I don’t know what I can’t see, so I’m still gonna run the water.”
TM: Well, out of sight out of mind too, even if you do know, you don’t see it every day, you’re not reminded of it, and you just forget about it too.
BO: Well, it’s interesting because one of the gaps in our knowledge when we’re out looking at a house like this and determining the water supply line on the… Immediately on the street side of the meter is that… As Reuben’s already explained, there’s another section of pipe that might be what you don’t want it to. And nobody’s gonna know, but now you know, because you can go to this fancy website and get this information. This podcast alone is an amazing value added tip for real state agents because they don’t have to get on the phone to the water department and ask them to go to the dusty book in the basement and open it up and look up the address to see what supplies were there, because that was all recorded.
BO: And it’s actually pretty interesting, before this, you could call the Water Engineering Department and they would tell you. And if Minneapolis doesn’t have a similar map in the works like St. Paul does, that’s how you get that information from that municipality. So you still probably have to make a call to Minneapolis, but it’s interesting, you think you have this all dialed in and yet there’s… I don’t wanna call it a boogie monster, but there still could be something in there that might raise a customer or a homeowner’s eyebrows, like, “Why didn’t anybody tell me that, it seems like something I would have wanted to check out before I actually own the house.”
TM: Bill you brought up a good point, you might see… You might go down and check your own water supply pipe coming into the house, and it could be copper or it could be plastic or something else, and think, “Okay, that’s fine.” But there is a chance that water supply pipe where it hits the curb stop and then connects to the city main could be the original lead or galvanized steel. And we’ve talked about that running across that before during a home inspection on a previous podcast. I think it might have been even one of our first podcasts. Do you remember that?
RS: Yes, it was.
TM: Was it Easter eggs.
BO: Okay, I have to jump in. Do you think the city is gonna be proactive about getting rid of galvanized pipe, if any exists in the areas where they’re digging for lead.
TM: This program only covers lead, right Reuben?
RS: Yeah this is a health hazard.
TM: Yeah, so there’s gonna be a bunch of houses out there potentially that still have galvanized water supply I think coming in.
BO: I wonder if the city knows how much galvanize is laying around in the street as well.
RS: Yeah I don’t know man.
TM: It would be interesting to know. Yeah, it would be really interesting to see the numbers on that.
BO: Reuben’s got more homework to do. It’s a follow up blog.
RS: Yeah thank you. Thank you for asking my question. Yes. But to that point, Tess for anybody outside of St. Paul or Minneapolis, for anybody else who’s curious, and maybe you don’t have a municipality that you can easily contact and get answers, how do you know… Okay, you can’t figure out what you have from the curb out to the street and… Side note, sorry, Bill, I wanted to jump in with this as you were saying that, saying, maybe there’s a bunch of houses that have it. Well, I was looking at that map and they make it really clear, it’s either like a blue check mark or a red X, and I clicked on a bunch of the red Xs, and there are a ton that have a copper line going from the curb stop into the house. So all you can see is copper, but they do have lead going out to the street, like a lot of ’em. I know that just from clicking on a handful of those properties. So it’s like how do you identify lead Tessa? What do we do when we see it?
TM: Well, when you see… Well, if you can see it, if it’s the pipe coming in through the basement floor up to the meter, it’s gonna have a certain kind of special look to it, it’s a softer metal and it’s usually a bit dark gray color, and typically you can just kind of take your fingernail and gouge it, ’cause it’s so soft and scrape the outside of it, so that’s one way to identify it. But if it’s not visible, like let’s say, for instance, it’s just still in the supply piping that goes from the curb stop to the city main, like you said Reuben, there’s a bunch of houses that you just saw by clicking that still have that portion, how would you identify that as a homeowner? Well, it’s hard to do that. One thing you could check to see is if your water flow is poor coming into your house, and if you’ve got all copper distribution piping in your house and a copper supply pipe coming through the floor and you still have poor water flow, that could be an indication of either a section of galvanized steel or lead supply piping still.
RS: And then one other thing, if you scrape it with your fingernail, it turns really shiny where you scraped it.
TM: Yeah, that’s a good description. It looks silvery underneath.
RS: Yeah, yeah. And also you can put a magnet up to it, if it’s lead, a magnet is not gonna stick to it, but if it’s galvanized or copper, it will.
TM: Oh, good tip.
RS: So, one other little trick that people could use there to help figure it out.
TM: Good tip. And you know what, while we’re on the subject, do you wanna tell people how they would identify a galvanized steel water pipe?
RS: It’ll have a threaded fitting. Yeah, that’s the only one that’s gonna have a threaded fitting on the end. However, it doesn’t necessarily have a threaded fitting. Sometimes it’ll transition to another material with something called a wiped joint, and it’s a big ball of lead that they had to pour and wipe over this connection. It’s like this big bulbous thing, I don’t know, I got pictures of it. If you click in the show notes, you can see what a white lead joint looks like. And that could connect to galvanized steel, but usually you’re gonna see some threaded fitting somewhere.
TM: Yeah, that’s helpful. I wonder how many people listening to this podcast know what their water supply pipe is? [chuckle]
BO: One of my neighbors has a lead part of their line.
TM: Do they?
RS: Well, I’m gonna pull up the map and I’ll…
BO: I know, I’m looking at the map. [laughter]
RS: Nice. Yeah, you’re gonna have to go knocking on doors letting your neighbours know what’s up. But just one other thought I had about the concerns with lead, because we don’t tell people how much of a concern this really is, we tell people to research it. Just the fact that the City of St. Paul is spending, I don’t know, a gazillion dollars on this project should be enough to tell you that there’s some serious concerns with it. I mean, you can minimize it all you want, but they’re not gonna be spending all this money if it’s not a real concern. This really increases my concern over lead water pipes.
BO: Well, in 2022, when we’re having this conversation, there’s a social awareness about what’s right and what’s wrong. And Flint, Michigan has a big black eye in how they handled the whole situation, and I’m sure there’s other cities that are gonna try to get out in front of this whether there is a serious concern here or not. Perception is, “You knew about it. You did nothing about it. Why?” And so I think St. Paul to their credits has just taken it off the table, “No, we’re gonna do what we can, and it’s never gonna be less expensive than right now today to fix it. Can’t go back in time, and we know these materials are not going down in cost. So what the hell? Let’s go. Let’s get it done. We look proactive, it feels proactive and it’s an upgrade in the system, so why not?”
TM: You know, I’m just looking at their hand-out, their FAQ hand-out, and it says the total project cost will be around $250 million for this.
BO: That’s half of US Bank Stadium. That’s interesting, it’s a weird perspective thing, but it is true. I would have thought it might cost more to be honest with you, ’cause it’s so much spot digging, there’s so much labor involved in this that in just moving equipment and all that other stuff, I thought it might actually cost more. When you start looking at a water system like this in a municipality, I was just in New York over the weekend, and that system, I was just thinking… I wasn’t thinking about the water system, I was just thinking about how vulnerable a massive city is, any one of these critical infrastructure items just being taken out for whatever reason, say the water got contaminated or they can no longer move the sewage or maybe there was a water level rise, or something that created a catastrophic event as it pertains to these very important services. I’m a fan of the SUC, the Sustainable Urban Core, and it’s right there and it just feels so vulnerable to have so much of it so compact, but yet, miraculously it seems to work most of the time.
RS: Well, that’s the stuff of movies, Bill. I’m pretty sure in one of the Batman movies, I think that was the Joker’s plan to take out Gotham City, was through the water supply.
BO: Well, it makes total sense, but for the average person, we’re not sitting around thinking about municipal vulnerabilities, but yet there’s a lot in the ground, the streets, the pipes, the sewage lines, all of this stuff, it’s just a hell of a lot to maintain. And I guess, I don’t wanna sing the praises of cities, ’cause I don’t think they always do a great job, but holy cats, there’s a lot to stay ahead of on this, right?
BO: I routinely drive around, when I’m driving around, you’ll see water leaking out of one of those shut-offs. There’s a failure and you know there’s just water pouring out of it two days later. The city’s there with a backhoe and one of those little things they put in so the earth doesn’t collapse on you, and they’re fixing away. It’s like this non-stop ‘put your finger in that hole, put your finger in that hole,’ and it still works, even though there’s all of these leaks. It’s amazing.
TM: We’re pretty… In the Midwest, and especially here in the United States, we’re pretty young all things considered. Our cities are, here in the Twin Cities, a couple of hundred years old, and we’re just babies. Think about what it would cost and all the layers of history that cities in Europe have with their infrastructure and their sewer lines and water supply lines, that would be fascinating to know more about that.
BO: Well, the directional boring that can be done now to help fix some of these problems, where it used to be just a trench that had to be dug, right?
BO: It’s pretty interesting.
RS: That’s the point.
BO: Even planning the whole thing out, like we’ve got a plan for enough capacity out there if some day out there gets developed, which in 1910, did they think out there, my neck of the woods would actually get developed? Probably not, but they planned for it. Let’s put a wrap on this, let’s summarize this. Reuben, you’re gonna post the website and the white paper or the PDF that you read, right? So that will be in this show notes.
RS: Yeah, I’m gonna put all of that in my blog post, exactly.
BO: Okay, so both in the blog posts and in this show’s notes, we’ll link up to both of those. Read that stuff first, don’t go calling the city. They’ve got a telephone number I noticed there, but I don’t actually think they want you to call it because…
RS: They were very helpful. He was very friendly, very chatty. I was very impressed at just how friendly he was. I expected somebody really surly who didn’t wanna take my call, but it was very good customer service. I mean, kudos to the…
BO: They’re sort of nice, Reuben. They’re sort of nice.
RS: St. Paul Residential Water Services.
BO: Yeah, the good people that keep the water flowing.
RS: They are good people.
BO: Yes, yes. Alright, so look for the blog. If you did read it, you can get all your information right there, if not, and you’re not in St. Paul and you could care less about lead supply lines, well, enjoy reading it just for the education.
RS: And just appreciate what you have the next time you’re drinking a clean glass of water.
BO: There’s all… Plastics all the rage, right? Everywhere else in the… Certainly outside of the 4-94-6-94 ring, I don’t think there’s any copper in those houses? Probably.
RS: Not much.
BO: Yeah, not much. I mean, there’s some old houses out there, don’t get me… Anyway, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. Thanks for listening. Have a great day.