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What’s the true deal with lead in brass pipe/fittings

jsavage
jsavage Member Posts: 40
I am in the middle of replacing all of the brass domestic water lines in my house with PEX out of concern for the amount of lead in the brass pipe and fittings. I read recently, however, that lead was not added to brass fittings until circa 1970 (to improve machinability). The lines and fittings in my house almost certainly predate that by several decades.

Does anyone have more information on this? Is lead content in brass a more recent problem or does it go back pre-1970?

Thank you!
--
Homeowner from Providence, RI
Home b. 1897, one-pipe steam with a indirect gravity hot air system using Gold's pin radiators.

Comments

  • lchmb
    lchmb Member Posts: 2,997
    just curious, has your water been tested? if the levels are safe I would put my money into something else unless you see sign's of impending leaks or problems..
    GroundUp
  • Larry Weingarten
    Larry Weingarten Member Posts: 2,121
    Hi @jsavage , I agree with @lchmb . Back in the day, brass systems were considered the Cadillac of piping. A water test is the only way of knowing if there is a problem. If hardness from the water has coated the inside of the brass, you likely don't have a problem, even if there is lead in the metal. If you soften the water, stripping that hardness coating off the brass, it could be a problem.

    Yours, Larry
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,260
    So this is threaded brass pipe and fittings?
  • Intplm.
    Intplm. Member Posts: 1,285
    As stated above by @Ichmb. Have your water tested for lead before going through all of that trouble.
  • hot_rod
    hot_rod Member Posts: 14,738
    Brass has alway been an alloy of lead, or zinc with red brass. There are many brass alloys, different blends of tin, lead, zinc, bismuth, etc.
    It takes aggressive water conditions for the lead to leach out, low ph for one. O2, temperature, chlorine also play a part.
    Test your water for ph or any other aggressive to lead component.

    Know also the current brass is not lead free, it is low lead, the amount of lead is a weighted calculation.
    DNZ is de zincified brass, most water brass parts are DNZ. CR for corrosion resistant, DR is another label
    Bob "hot rod" Rohr
    trainer for Caleffi NA
    Living the hydronic dream
  • jsavage
    jsavage Member Posts: 40
    Yes this was threaded brass pipe with some inelegant sections of copper and pex-al-pex.

    The lead test we were provided with was 5 ppb when we bought the house, however I do not know when that test was conducted or where in the house it was conducted. The house currently has a copper service line, but I do not know when it was replaced (and if the lead test was before or after that replacement). All houses in our area had lead service lines originally. By comparison, our previous house tested 2 ppb with a lead service line. 5 ppb is the threshold where they begin recommending water filtration etc.

    I’m almost finished with the bulk of it now. The job was not as difficult as it sounds because almost all of the pipe was either accessible due to other renovations I’m doing or was accessible through panels in the floor (how it was installed originally). I also needed to run new lines to two bathrooms and a 2nd floor washing machine, so I was debating how much I wanted to be transitioning between materials.

    The pipe turned out to be much more of a mess inside than I estimated. Some had 50% blockage at the fittings. I had two or three that snapped right at the fitting with very minimal force (which surprised me having worked on our 100-year-old steam heating system).

    The main purpose of my question (other than simple curiosity about the composition of brass) was to decide on how I wanted to handle the exposed chrome pipe that is very visible in the bathroom and has really nice, old fittings. Based on your answers I’m thinking I’m going to retain that (as opposed to replacing with new chrome or something else). I’ll then test the water for lead content when I have it put back together and replace the HWH. I’d be surprised if it registers.

    Thank you all!
    --
    Homeowner from Providence, RI
    Home b. 1897, one-pipe steam with a indirect gravity hot air system using Gold's pin radiators.
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 2,745
    Just remember, the Greatest Generation drank water from lead pipes. The ones drinking from low lead piping? Millennials.
    mattmia2
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 11,537
    ratio said:

    Just remember, the Greatest Generation drank water from lead pipes. The ones drinking from low lead piping? Millennials.

    Several things.

    1: You do understand most Millennials grew up in the 80s and 90s right? The youngest Millennial is 25 years old now. Most likely drank from garden hoses connected to copper piping soldered with 50/50.

    2: Lead piping is BAD, it always has been. This is scientifically proven it's not an opinion.


    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
    Intplm.
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 2,745
    I know, I know. But it seems to me that it can't really be OMGLEAD!!1! People've been drinking from lead pipes since, well, there were pipes. How could civilization have developed if it was like that?
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 2,838
    If the old chrome fittings are standard modern NPT (which they may not be, check) you can buy new low lead chrome plated brass nipples to connect the fittings to whatever material you use in the wall with something like a drop ear ell. Old brass pipe is notorious for being brittle. Old iron and steel pipe is much more malleable.
  • jsavage
    jsavage Member Posts: 40
    I will check for the NPT connections on the fittings, however I’m screwed if they’re not NPT as I just rethreaded the chrome nipples this morning!

    On the new chrome nipples, I usually order online through SupplyHouse and was unable to find them in sizes > 12” (which I need because it runs exposed along the wall for a bit).

    Re OMGLEAD, I knew I’d get at least one comment along those lines! It takes a high level of lead to kill you, the issue is that it causes problems like depression etc that you’ve got to deal with for your whole life. We have our first kid on the way and, for the few days that it took to swap the lines out, it made sense to me to do. Especially considering that we have an above average exposure to lead paint in our old house. Plus my wife is super-focused on it and, as they say, “if momma ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy!”
    --
    Homeowner from Providence, RI
    Home b. 1897, one-pipe steam with a indirect gravity hot air system using Gold's pin radiators.
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 2,745
    Hope I didn't come off too obnoxious. If my water tested high for lead, I'd be looking at the brass too.

    & Congratulations! I won't tell you a fib & say it gets easier as they get older, but the work does change as they grow up; & the physical exhaustion mostly goes away.

  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 2,838
    edited May 2020
    There are other suppliers of longer chrome plated brass pipe sections. The prices are astronomical because it is brass. You could also couple 2 sections to get length you need. After about 1' they usually only come in 6" or 12" increments. I saw the price when I was putting in a radiator with some exposed piping and decided to go with painted black iron.
  • hot_rod
    hot_rod Member Posts: 14,738
    Are you on a public water supply? Ortho and polyphosphates are added to water to help prevent leaching of copper, lead and brass from old piping and fittings. It basically provides a thin protective film inside the piping. You want to be sure any treatment you add at your home does not strip these components from your water, which could cause elevated levels of "leaching"

    Some of the "whole house" filtration system can strip the water and make it aggressive and lead to leaching.

    It's a good idea to go to the city website and see if they post their treatment process and occasional test results. I believe that needs to be available to the public if the water department receives taxpayer monies.

    For peace of mind it may be wise to occasionally sample the water in your home and have a lab run a detailed analysis.

    My county offers a water test for a minimal fee, mostly for folks on private wells. Although they are mainly looking for bacteria, from compromised septic field, etc.
    Bob "hot rod" Rohr
    trainer for Caleffi NA
    Living the hydronic dream
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 15,698
    Just a thought... for maximum safety in terms of bad things in the drinking water due to the plumbing. Copper with lead free solder or black iron. Then if you are on a private water supply, test the incoming water and, if it is too acid -- pH less than 5.5 to 6 -- treat (whole house) for that. If it is so hard that it is objectionable, you can soften it (excess hardness and low pH at the same time is essentially impossible in natural water) -- but don't go overboard, as excessively soft water is very aggressive, even if the pH is under control.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Zman
    Zman Member Posts: 6,529
    edited May 2020
    Have you been able to determine the lead content of the city water before it gets to your house? I would be surprised if a few brass fittings and some solder joints are getting you to 5ppb.
    If it is coming from the city lines, you are wasting time and money by re piping your house, filtering would be a better plan..
    "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough"
    Albert Einstein
    ChrisJ
  • jsavage
    jsavage Member Posts: 40
    I looked at our utility’s lead content report and they test exclusively at the tap in homes. The water distribution here is cast iron, but a large number of homes still have lead service lines. The number they release is the 90th percentile, the result is that the top 10% of homes exceed 15ppb, but no info on the overall distribution. The city does view it as their responsibility to add those chemicals to protect lead from leaching into the water at each home.

    @Zman This is beyond just fittings, almost all of the pipe was brass. Given the amount of debris, scale, and rust in the pipes, I think it’s likely that the lead level arose from that, as the service line and other lines in the house were likely lead when the brass pipe was first installed.

    @Jamie Hall I thought you couldn’t run black iron for water without treatment due to issues with corrosion. I’ve finished replacing the brass with PEX, so that’ll have to do for now. But I do agree that using those materials is probably the safest.

    The city does do free testing, so when I get most of the work done I’ll see where we’re at and evaluate if we need a filtration system. I agree that they can do more harm than good. I was thinking of putting an RO system in anyways because I’ve been using the steam heat to humidify the air in the winter and I need to treat the makeup water.
    --
    Homeowner from Providence, RI
    Home b. 1897, one-pipe steam with a indirect gravity hot air system using Gold's pin radiators.
  • Zman
    Zman Member Posts: 6,529
    You might try testing it 2 ways. Once when the water in the pipes has been stagnant for a day or so and once after you have thoroughly flushed the pipes. That would give you an idea of how much of the lead is leaching from your fittings.
    "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough"
    Albert Einstein
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