Copper’s Role in the Water Infrastructure Crisis

Copper’s Role in the Water Infrastructure Crisis

Feb 27, 2018

In the wake of a water crisis that threatened public safety, the city of Flint, Michigan chose copper pipes to fix its aging infrastructure. Citing copper’s durability and reliability, Flint will replace an estimated 18,000 iron and lead service lines with copper. According to Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, it was an obvious choice: “Copper piping is the best material to use for the service lines because it’s long lasting and impermeable, so contaminants can’t get into our drinking water.” Flint’s decision to protect its water supply with copper piping is an example many communities in North America should embrace in the coming years.

Using Copper Pipes for Water Supply

  • Safer and Cleaner: Copper is corrosion resistant and lead free. It does not accumulate rust.
  • Impermeable: Unlike other plumbing materials, copper is completely impermeable. Chemicals commonly found in both urban and rural areas, like petroleum products, insecticides, and fertilizers, can’t seep into the water system.
  • Sustainable: When the time comes to replace copper piping, it can be recycled without losing any of its beneficial properties. Additionally, no matter how long it was in use or buried underground, copper maintains its value—returning 80 to 90% of its original value when recycled.

The advantages of copper piping become even more apparent when compared to plastic, iron, and steel plumbing materials:

  • Durable and Reliable: Copper pipes are less likely to crack, rupture, and leak than plastic tubing. As such, they require fewer and cheaper repairs. Though copper may be slightly more costly to install, the price difference only accounts for 5% of the total cost of a service line installation or repair. Copper’s durability offsets any extra expense over the course of its lifespan.
  • Less Likely to Clog: Unlike steel and iron plumbing, copper’s corrosion resistance means it’s less likely to get clogged by mineral deposits.
  • Environmental Impacts: Unlike cheaper plastic tubing, copper does not contain harmful additives: chemical stabilizers, antioxidants, heat stabilizers, or plasticizers that can leach into the water.  

What This Means for the Rest of Us

Flint’s story isn’t unique. While corrosion resistant copper pipes are currently used in 80% of all water service line installations, that wasn’t always the case. Many of these older, iron and lead pipes are now nearing the end of their 75-year lifespan. According to the American Water Works Association, a remaining 6.1 million lead pipes provide drinking water to 15-22 million Americans. The Flint water crisis could have happened anywhere. Fortunately, a solution is available. It’s one of the most ancient construction materials in the world. It’s copper. Copper pipes are the safest, most durable, and cost-effective option for safeguarding our water supply. It’s a long-term solution that just requires a little long-term thinking.