Copper pipe has long been the standard for plumbing materials. It’s expected to last at least 20 years, but in the last several years, copper piping has been more and more prone to corrosive damage that leads to small leaks, called pinhole leaks. Pinhole leaks are exactly what they sound like – very small holes in a pipe through which water slowly drips. They’re usually less that 1/8” wide. Scientists estimate that there are about 750,000 pinhole leaks in the U.S. each year, and they’re more common in Texas, Florida, and California. There’s still some debate about what causes these issues, but it’s important for homeowners to know about the risk, how to look out for it, and what to do about it.
What Are Likely Causes of Pinhole Leaks?
Pinhole leaks start on the inside of the pipe. Copper pipes resist corrosion better than other metals, but over time, they can still deteriorate. So they have an interior oxide coating that protects the metal from corrosive elements. That coating can be compromised if conditions are right; then the exposed copper will react, and the corrosion will eat through a small section of the pipe wall. Several factors may contribute to the problem:
- The water is acidic (less than 7.0 pH).
- The water is alkaline (more than 8.5 pH).
- It has high levels of dissolved solids, like salts.
- It hosts bacteria, such as sulfate or iron bacteria.
- It carries sand, sediment, or gritty solids through the pipes.
- It has high levels of chloramines.
Choramines are commonly found in the municipal water in areas prone to copper pipe corrosion. This may be the result of government efforts to increase drinking water safety standards. Chloramines improve the effectiveness of chlorine added to the water in treatment plants, but water with added chloramines or any of the other conditions can eat away the protective lining and start working on the copper itself.
Other problems also promote corrosion by exposing or stressing the pipe. For example, if pipes were not properly deburred during installation or if they were soldered with excessive acid flux, the joins may have exposed copper vulnerable to corrosion. Very high water pressure can also increase the stress on the system and wear away the lining. Poorly grounded electrical systems can put a slight voltage on the pipes, encouraging chemical reactions. And the oxide coating itself may not have been applied evenly, leaving some areas with little protection.
How Can You Check for Pinhole Leaks?
It’s a good idea to check for leaks around all your pipes and plumbing systems regularly. But because they’re very small, pinhole leaks can be harder to find. The best indication is a blue stain on the outside of the pipe where water has come out and is reacting with the surrounding copper. Where possible, run your hands along the pipe and check for moisture. A pinhole leak might not drip, but the water would run down the pipe like condensation. Also, investigate any moldy or musty smells or damp patches even if you don’t see an obvious leak.
If you suspect a leak but can’t find one, turn off your water and watch the water meter. If it continues to run, the water’s getting out somewhere. Higher-than-usual water bills or dropping water pressure could also signal a problem.
Because pinhole leaks are sneaky, you might want to have a plumber check out your system. They have years of experience sniffing out pinholes with sophisticated listening, scanning, and video devices that can reach hidden areas of your system.
How Can You Avoid Pinhole Leaks?
It’s not possible to protect your pipes entirely from corrosion, but you can take steps to minimize any problems and save money in the long run.
Care for aging pipes.
If your copper pipes are nearing the end of their expected lifespan (20 years), have them checked out by a professional regularly and plan to make repairs or replacements as needed.
Manage water pressure.
High pressure and velocity are causes of corrosion. You can test your home’s system with a water pressure gauge. If it measures over 80 PSI, it’s too high, and you should consider installing a water pressure regulator. Sometimes the town or city will provide or replace regulators for you, but if not, it’s best to bring in a plumber to make sure it’s installed correctly.
Install a water softener.
If you have hard water, which is common in the North Texas area, a water softener can remove some of the minerals that lead to corrosion.
How Can You Fix a Pinhole Leak?
When you find a leak in copper pipe, it’s important to get a plumber involved. But if it’s a weekend or holiday, and you don’t need emergency services, you can find temporary fixes on DIY websites. For example, you can clamp a piece of rubber over the hole with a jubilee clip. This will block the leak until a plumber can arrive.
More adventurous homeowners can cut the pipe entirely right at the pinhole leak and reattach the two pieces with a compression fitting. The fitting will cover the hole temporarily.
But for the long term, you need to have the pipe fixed properly. The plumber will slice the pipe at the hole and solder the pieces back together for a solid, corrosion-resistant join. If you have several small leaks or heavy damage is visible once the pipe is cut open, the plumber may recommend replacing that section.
Also, if you’re facing a large replacement project, discuss whether your plumber recommends a new piping type, such as PEX or cross-linked Polyethylene, which is a flexible plastic piping becoming more common in new home plumbing systems. It’s generally cheaper than copper, easier to install, and doesn’t require soldering.
Call on Horizon to Help Prevent and Fix Leaks – Big or Small
Our experienced professionals at Horizon have helped homeowners in the Fort Worth area maintain leak-free plumbing systems for over 40 years. Whether you have a small problem you don’t want to get bigger or a big problem you need to fix now, we’re here to help.