Do These City Workers Have a Pipe Dream?

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Sunday, December 2, 2018, 6:30 am
Jessy Gregg

From left: Greg McCafferty (Water Division staff), Scott House (Director of Public Works), Ron Lacasse (Infrastructure Administrator), and Dave Pope (Water Division Lead Worker)

Editor’s note: East Lansing’s Department of Public Works personnel (and ELi) have been trying to get East Lansing homeowners' attention on an important health and safety issue: the drinking water pipe that comes into their homes.

As we previously reported, the State now mandates that our Department of Public Works (DPW) staff find out if these pipes contain lead and that the City offer to replace your line if yours does. But DPW can’t logistically get this done without many homeowners’ help.

So, we asked our reporter Jessy Gregg to answer the kinds of questions that may be keeping homeowners from being responsive. We’re bringing you this special Q&A on a Sunday with the thought that you might have time today to check your pipe.

What’s all this about?

A mandate from the State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is requiring that old service lines be replaced following the widespread problems in Flint, where lead from pipes ending up in drinking water due to inadequate treatment of corrosive water.

According to Ron Lacasse, East Lansing’s Infrastructure Administrator, East Lansing has been replacing galvanized service lines and lead “goose necks” (a flexible piece of pipe which connects the service line to the water main) for more than 20 years. Up until the recent DEQ mandate, the City was only replacing the City owned portion of the service line that was in the public right of way, between the service valve and the city water main.

The recent DEQ ruling requires that cities now replace privately owned lead or galvanized service lines as well. That’s the portion running between the house and the sidewalk. It also mandates that any galvanized water service that had a lead pipe attached to it, either as the main service line or as a goose neck, be considered a lead line, even if the lead portion of the line has already been replaced.

Will they dig up my whole yard, and kill my trees?

No. With so many pipes on private property needing to be replaced East Lansing’s Department of Public works is experimenting with several techniques that are less invasive than “trenching” (fully excavating the service line from the ground level).

East Lansing Department of Public works took advantage of the Neighborhood Improvement Project in the Glencairn neighborhood to pilot a “trenchless” system for replacing lead and galvanized service lines for East Lansing residents’ homes.

Below: Sidewalk replacement in Glencairn this summer.

In a presentation to City Council on November 20, DPW Director Scott House spoke about eleven service lines that have now been replaced in East Lansing. Two were replaced with the trench method, three were replaced using a trenchless system called a “directional mole,” and six were replaced with a “directional bore.”

How are the trenchless methods working so far in terms of preserving landscaping?

As has been repeatedly demonstrated over the last few years, many East Lansing residents love their trees, so a minimally invasive method of replacing buried service lines is important.

According to Lacasse, of the eleven lines replaced so far “not one tree or shrub” has been disturbed. In the two cases where a full trench was dug, there were other repairs that needed to be completed which required a full excavation.

According to Lacasse, the dense soil in the Glencairn neighborhood made the “directional mole” method impractical and they switched to the “directional boring” method, which does require a pit to be excavated near the service valve out by the street.

Lacasse said that it’s impossible to know going forward if they’ll be able to use the boring method in every case, since there are many potential complications, such as the placement of the water meter inside the house, and the level of the basement which is being bored into.

Lacasse seems optimistic about the results from the newer methods so far. According to Lacasse, DPW crews working with a private contractor were able to complete service line replacement in one day using the boring method, and he hopes that, as they get more confident, that rate will increase to three replacements over two days.

Am I required to have my service line replaced?

Property owners can decline to have the City replace their lines.

So far, one resident has refused to have their line updated. Lacasse told us that the individual in question had lived in their house for a long time and did not have a problem with their water quality. DPW had a sample of the resident’s water tested at the DEQ and results determined that there was no detectible lead.

“We have control of the right of way, basically to the sidewalk. We can’t force people to allow us access to private property,” Lacasse told ELi.

He emphasized, however, that there are good reasons to replace galvanized lines even if no lead is detected in the water. They can corrode and are difficult to maintain.

Below: Scott House with a corroded pipe.

How do I figure out if my line is one which will need replacement?

The City has been gathering information about lead and galvanized service lines through a dedicated website where residents can “self-report” what their service lines are made of. They ask that residents take a picture of their water service line where it enters their house, and upload it to a city website. (See the special website.)

Residents who feel unsure about how to follow the instructions can simply ask DPW to come out and help. Call 517-337-9459 and leave a message in the general box if you call outside of regular hours.

In areas where the City has planned infrastructure upgrades, like in the Glencairn neighborhood where watermains and sewers have recently been repaired, crews will be trying to connect directly with homeowners to determine if they have a line which needs to be upgraded, since it makes sense to do the replacements when streets are already torn up.

Lacasse also told ELi that City Code Enforcement officials and rental inspectors are being asked to look at service lines while they are visiting properties.

In cases where DPW cannot gain access to a property to determine the composition of the service line, they can use their Hydrovac equipment, more frequently used for cleaning out clogged sewers, to bore a hole in the ground next to the service valve. A high powered jet of water is used to loosen the soil and a vacuum suctions it out to create a hole so that DPW employees can visually determine the material of the supply pipe.

But Lacasse said this is an expensive last resort, since the equipment takes three employees to run and only a few sites can be inspected this way in a day.

When will my pipes be replaced?

DPW has already sent out 175 notification letters to people who will need to have their service lines replaced, but because they are still strategizing how to do the replacements with the least amount of expense and inconvenience, there is not a timeline yet as to which pipes will be replaced first.

Coupling pipe replacement projects with major infrastructure improvements, such as the recent Glencairn project, will be the first priority. DPW also plans to take advantage of other special opportunities, such as when residents have other utility work done which would expose the supply line.

The supply line replacement project will ultimately stretch out as long as the next 20 years, as the state has mandated a goal of replacing 5% of the pipes per year. Both House and Lacasse emphasized that there has been no evidence of lead in the East Lansing drinking water supply.

Tell me one more time what I should do?

Residents who would like to have a DPW employee come to their house to visually inspect their water service pipeline can schedule an appointment by calling (517) 337-9459 and leaving a message. They can also use the City’s special website to learn how to self-report the composition of their pipes.


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