Water Quality Concerns in Older D.C. Homes

This week, a neighbor in Shepherd Park posted this message about the water quality in her home to the community listserv:

In my neighborhood in Shepherd, in most of the older homes, built in the mid to late 1930’s, we routinely find the water to be discolored and that it smells bad.  We find ourselves cleaning our bathrooms a few times a week.  Specifically, the toilet is cleaned almost daily, and the bacteria growing in the bowl is overwhelming.  The water coming out of the taps is never clear but is constantly an off-white to a yellowish-brown color.  Who would willingly use discolored water to bathe in or worse yet, to wash your face or brush your teeth or even drink?  What chemicals, debris, bacteria are in the water flowing thru our pipes? – Karen P

Unsafe water is obviously a concern that no homeowner wants to deal with.  As much as we pay for our water service these days, every resident should expect to see pure, clean water coming from their tap.  Upon further reflection, however, there is a chance that the source of the problem is a lot closer than the water main in the street.

Water Distribution System

A few other neighbors responded to the original message and indicated that they are not seeing this water quality problem in their Shepherd Park homes.  We also have not experienced this in our house at 16th St and Holly St NW.  Judging by this 1985 map of the DC Water Distribution System, a layman might surmise that all of us who live north of Alaska Avenue NW receive our water supply from the same source, through the same water main.  If the water problems are not coming from the street, the next place to look would be inside the home.water distribution


Interior Plumbing

1913 Holly Street Home
This home on Holly Street NW was built in 1913.

Many of the homes in Shepherd Park were built during the period between 1913 and 1960. As several articles and neighbor Butch A. indicated, the most popular plumbing material during that time was galvanized steel. Galvanized iron pipes are actually steel pipes that are covered with a protective layer of zinc that were installed in many homes that were built before the 1960s. Homes built after that time used copper pipes until that became too expensive.  Our home, built in 1970, has copper plumbing. Homes built today generally use some form of plastic piping.

The Problems with Galvanized Pipes

Galvanized steel was a great technology for its day, but most homes have far exceeded the life expectancy of those pipes. Over time, the zinc coating wears away and the pipes begin to rust from the inside out.  galvanized pipes

As Karen noted above, one of the first problems you will see with old galvanized pipes is discolored water.  A sure sign of this is a brown stain on a porcelain sink.

Low or uneven water pressure is another sign.  The rust simply shrinks the volume of the inside of the pipe.  Eventually, pipes will rust all the way through and cause leaks in your home.

The most serious issue though, is the potential for lead contamination. Many, many homes in our area have or had lead service lines.  Click here to see DC Water’s Leave Service line map and see if your home still has a lead service line.  The corroded insides of galvanized pipes can trap small bits of lead and release them at any time, even if your lead service line was removed long ago.

What should you do if you have galvanized plumbing?

The simple answer is that you should strongly consider replacing those old pipes in your home. Unfortunately, this is an expensive proposition and requires the assistance of licensed plumber. If that is not an option for you, consider using an NSF Certified Water filtration system or water pitcher.

Do You Have Galvanized Pipes?

DC Water has information that can help homeowners identify which type of plumbing they have in their homes.  Follow this link  to find it.

If you have concerns about your water quality and need a reference to a licensed plumber, give me at call at (202) 717-2276.


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