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What if water companies didn't have to dig up your yard to identify lead pipes?

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Greater Cincinnati Water Works
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Without an above-ground device to detect lead lines, a GCWW employee has to dig down to uncover the service line. If it's lead, it has to be replaced.

Fifteen billion dollars in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill has been earmarked for replacing lead water service lines. The problem is there are so many that it might take $60 billion dollars to do the job. And most utilities say they are not ready to comply.

By 2024-2025, large utilities will be required by the U.S. EPA to identify where their lead lines are and publish that information online. This is the Lead and Copper Rule (LCCR). These service lines connect the water main to buildings and pose a risk to people’s health if they’re made of lead.

The Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) has been keeping good records and allows residents to find out if their service line is lead. But this department and others don’t know where all the lead lines are, and to find out if the lines are lead or copper means a lot of digging.

“That requires a crew going out using a backhoe to dig, starting around the sidewalk, the street somewhere around there and digging through the customer’s yard to their house,” says GCWW Water Quality Superintendent Jeff Swertfeger.

According to GCWW, it takes a half a day to get the equipment and determine if it is lead. Swertfeger says if it’s something else, it’s just wasted time and effort.

This technology could make their job easier

But what if workers didn’t have to dig up somebody’s yard to find out if the service line is lead?

“What would be really helpful, something like Jeff had mentioned, a magic wand but something similar like a metal detector where it’s something portable, something that one person could operate," says Deputy Director Verna Arnette. "It would be battery-operated. It would be something rugged that could be used in bad weather conditions.”

A group of water technology stakeholders, called Confluence, heard about this problem and gave it some thought. Melinda Kruyer is Confluence executive director.

“We know pretty much what they are looking for, something hand-held, something that can penetrate asphalt," she says. "So, they’ve given us all the information and we’ve got the partners in the region that can find the answers.”

Partners include the U.S. EPA in Cincinnati, UC, the Wright Brothers Institute - which includes the Air Force Research Lab and the DoD network - The Entrepreneur Center in Dayton and regional water utilities. Confluence has a call out for abstracts on this and other problems.

According to Kruyer, “We are receiving those abstracts. Now this is going to be something that continues and beyond because it is such a huge issue. We’re vetting those and will present some of those at the tech showcase which is on December 8.”

Solutions to this problem aren't limited to Greater Cincinnati or the U.S. Confluence is searching the world for this technology. Kruyer says it may already be developed and sitting on some university shelf. She says this can really change the landscape for utilities, their budgets, and their ability to go out and create an inventory of lead service lines.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.