Lead In the Water: Should You Replace A Lead Water Main?

Replacing all of the plumbing is usually on the agenda for many people renovating an old home. If you’re moving around kitchens and bathrooms or if the pipes are deteriorating it’s often best to replace it all. If your pipes are old enough there is also a chance that they could be introducing lead into your water. Lead pipes were commonly used in homes built before the 1980’s. Changing all of the pipes in your home may not solve the problem if the water main coming in from the city’s line is also lead. Many renovators wonder if its worth going through the cost and trouble of replacing it.

Checking our water main to see if it’s lead or not.

A traditional water main hiding in our basement.

How do you know if your water main is lead?

One way to know if you water main is lead is to test the water. A less scientific way would be to take a look at the main pipe. You can locate your main in the basement usually coming in from the front of the house. You’ll see a pipe less than an inch in diameter connected to a small meter. To determine if it’s lead, follow these steps. You’ll need a flat head screwdriver and a magnet.

  1. Pick an area on the water line between where it comes into your home and the meter.
  2. Scrape it a bit with a flat head screwdriver to get any corrosion off.
  3. If it’s silver and shiny in color and a magnet does not stick to it, likely it is lead.
  4. If it’s a dull grey color and a magnet does stick to it is likely galvanized steel.
  5. If it’s a brownish copper color then your water line is copper.

Scraping off corrosion to get a clear view of the pipe underneath.

If you have a lead water main should you change it? That is up to you. To some people it isn’t a concern, to others no amount of lead in their water is acceptable. Many families with kids err on the side of caution.

It sounds like a big, expensive job.

Your water main runs through your foundation wall, under the sidewalk, and depending on what side of the street the city’s main line is on, under the street. It connects to the city main through a device called a tap. There is quite a bit of digging and breaking up cement involved. The extent of the work and cost involved has a lot to do with whether or no you live on the side of the street where the city’s water main line runs. The easiest way to determine that is to look at where the fire hydrants are. If they are on your side it is a shorter distance from your home to the city’s main, if they are on the opposite side, it’s farther. The contractor will break the cement, dig a trench, and change your water main to a copper one. The entire job usually takes a day or 2.

How much does it usually cost?

Changing your existing water main on the existing tap can cost about $6,000-$8,000. The variable usually being the distance to the main. There can also be trees and other obstacles that might affect the price.

You may also choose to upgrade your water main and tap while you’re at it. We use a lot more water than we did 50 years ago. We have more bathrooms with more plumbing fixtures, dishwashers and washing machines than ever before. Standard sized old mains for residential homes are about 5/8 of an inch (this can be looked up in the city’s records on your home). That may be a bit undersized for a modernized home with multipolar full bathrooms and the above mentioned appliances. It’s possible to upgrade to some like a 1 inch tap with a 1-1/4” copper line. This is considerably more expensive due to the DEP permitting required to change the tap on the city’s line. Expect the price to go up to $12-15,000.

A good contractor will get the job done in a day or 2 and will put everything back just like they found it. They will provide new concrete for the sidewalk, patch the street, and close up any other holes they need to dig.

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