Lead Water Service Line Replacement Poses Problem for Utilities

By: Bill Eller

You turn on the tap and water comes out. It seems simple, but it isn’t for millions of homes across the country that have lead water service lines and lead plumbing.

Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to babies and small children, and children in low-income and black households are more likely to be impacted by lead exposure. Adults with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, are also more vulnerable to lead exposure. There are no safe levels of lead exposure.

Lead was malleable and inexpensive, making it useful for a wide array of products that ended up in the home, and it took decades before the dangers of having lead in our homes was clearly understood and until the 1970s until lead service lines were banned.

Lead service lines are the primary source of lead exposure in water, with millions still in service throughout the country. Through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $15 billion has been earmarked to replace lead lines throughout the country.

Since the average cost of a lead line replacement is $5,000, that $15 billion is only roughly one-half to a third of what is needed to replace lead service lines throughout the country. Additionally, most lead service line replacements are only done if a line fails. Large scale replacements are rare, and almost always driven by local government.

However, laws are starting to change. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a deadline for lead service line inventories and a plan to replace them by 2024. In December, the EPA announced it will issue new regulations by that same year with an eye to prioritizing lead service line replacements.

The EPA isn’t the only agency pushing more strongly for lead service line replacements – some of the states also are getting into the act. Some states, such as Michigan, are requiring utilities to replace lead service lines, and others are enabling utilities to pay for lead service line replacements. The focus has become addressing lead service line replacement before it becomes a crisis.

There is a concern, however, that utilities with less resources – many of which are serving low-income communities and communities of color – will be behind on replacing these lines or the financial burden will fall on those ratepayers, further deepening the disparity. Many low-income homeowners will be unable to afford the cost of replacing a lead water service line, forcing utilities to either delay lead water service line replacements or to finance the costs, acting almost as a lending institution for the homeowner. That is assuming that the utility itself can undertake those costs.

Additionally, the U.S. is facing a skilled labor gap shortage – the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are four million unfilled skilled labor positions in the country right now. Plumbers are one of the skilled trade positions  expected one of the most high demand over the next 10 years. This may make finding plumbers to do these repairs more difficult than expected, and it may not be an issue that federal and state agencies are considering.

It will be up to utilities to navigate these concerns and put the lead service line replacements into practice. A partnership with the NLC Service Line Warranty Program will give utilities access to our nationwide network of pre-vetted, licensed and insured local plumbers and help educate homeowners about their service line responsibilities at no cost to the utility. Additionally, the Service Line Warranty Program also offers an optional service line warranty that can protect homeowners from the financial shock of an unexpected water service line repair.

To learn more about partnerships, contact us.