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120Water Releases Tools to Help Utilities Find Lead Pipes

The nation's water utilities have three years to do something most of them haven't done before: inventory their lead pipes. Doing so will take a lot of work, so one startup is offering tools to help organize the effort.

Old lead pipes, such as might be found in a water system
Old lead pipes, such as might be found in a water system
Shutterstock/micmacpics
How many lead water pipes are there in the U.S.? Nobody knows — but we’re about to get a pretty good idea.

The federal government is currently in the process of revising the 30-year-old Lead and Copper Rule, creating a dramatic expansion of responsibility for water utilities across the country. One of the revisions will require utilities, for the first time, to inventory all their lead pipes. They have until 2024 to do so.

One startup, 120Water, is now taking the opportunity to offer those utilities technology to help.

“It’s certainly less than 5 percent of the market that had made a proactive approach to identify their service lines,” said Megan Glover, CEO and co-founder of the company. “Some of the more progressive [utilities], maybe at one point in time when pipe was going in the ground, would keep paper coupons or cards that they keep in … file cabinets.”

When lead from pipes gets into water, it can cause myriad health problems for the people who use it, including premature birth, anemia and decreased kidney function.

Right now, Glover said, the way most water utilities approach lead pipes is that if they find out they exist in the course of their normal work, they take them out. But ever since the water crisis in Flint, Mich., began in 2014, the nation’s been looking for ways to get more serious about replacing those pipes. And as part of a massive infrastructure spending proposal, President Biden is calling for widespread replacement to begin in earnest.

“In some aspects it’s a little bit Herculean, especially for these water systems that may not have lead, but still have to prove that they don’t,” Glover said. “I think that’s why you’re seeing the emphasis in the administration on this infrastructure plan and funding, because there will just need to be so many jobs and funding resources to be able to actually identify these materials.”

The company recently added new capabilities for inventorying lead service lines to its software, adding to existing functionality for conducting testing programs. Anticipating a need to communicate results with customers, the company has also created new features to help display data from water testing programs on public-facing dashboards.

The rules also expand utilities’ responsibility to include pipes running into homes and schools, which means they will have to work more with customers to test the material those lines are made of.

The idea behind the software’s new capabilities is to help utilities separate those out so it’s better able to distinguish between different types of lead pipe, as well as map them out — and therefore improve their ability to report to the federal government and eventually remove the pipes.

“It’s not good enough just to submit an Excel sheet saying ‘I don’t have lead,’” she said. “You have to actually collect certain pieces of data to prove or disprove the presence of lead in that service line.”

While the regulation revisions are not technically in effect yet — the Biden administration has frozen many new regulations and is reviewing them — Glover said the end result is the same. At some point in 2024, utilities will need to have a complete inventory of lead service lines. She believe they’re especially concentrated in the Midwestern and Eastern states, and in water systems built before the 1960s.

“We can estimate that based on age and some of their informal studies, there may be upward of 10 million, but no one really knows until we start creating these inventories,” she said.

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Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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