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Pinhole water leaks keep plumbing firms busy (3 Photos)

A north-side resident was surprised to find a dozen of his neighbours had problems.

THUNDER BAY — More information is coming to light about the scope of the pinhole leak problem in household copper water pipes across Thunder Bay.

Some homeowners have had to call plumbers in more than once to make repairs.

Sean Petrus, who lives in the Golf Links Road/John Street area, says he and about a dozen neighbours have experienced water leaks in recent months.

The first incident happened in his basement utility room last September.

Luckily, Petrus said, his girlfriend was home at the time.

"She noticed a spray of water from the pipe about five metres from the water meter. Water was coming down from the ceiling. There was a bunch of damaged tiles. It's a good thing we have a concrete floor with a good drain," he said.

Repairs were done, but less than two months later, a second pinhole leak developed in the 3/4 inch line less than a metre away from the first one.

"Fortunately it occurred again when my girlfriend was home. She found it when she went down to do the laundry and noticed the spray," Petrus said.

It wasn't until pre-Christmas gatherings with neighbours that he learned he wasn't the only homeowner in the area having problems.

"I started hearing their stories about these pinhole leaks. It seemed that everyone was experiencing leaks within a few months of each other."

One neighbour had three incidents between November and December, the most recent of which caused $8,000 in damage.

"It took two weeks to do the fix. The water had pooled in their ceiling so it damaged all their gyprock," Petrus said. "This final catastrophic incident resulted in their whole 3/4 inch line needing to be replaced with a PVC line. Their whole ceiling and some of the basement floor had to be redone."

Petrus believes home insurance covered all but $1,400 of the cost.

He's considering asking his own insurer if it wants him to proactively replace all the copper pipe in his house.

Even if he has to pay the deductible, he said, it may be worth it to prevent bigger expenses and inconvenience later on.

"Do you want to replace this pipe now or do you want to wait until I go away on vacation and come back to a flooded basement and a $10,000 claim?" Petrus asked rhetorically.

Local plumbing companies tell Tbnewswatch they have never received this many calls about pinhole leaks in such a short period of time.

"We've probably seen 10 to 20 times the amount of leaks in the last six to eight months. We've had more in the last year than we've had in the last 20 years," a spokesperson for one company said, adding "it's been crazy."

None of the four plumbing businesses we spoke with wanted to be publicly identified, for fear of jeopardizing working relationships with city hall.

But they all reported receiving an exceptionally high number of calls to repair pinhole leaks over the past year.

The city began adding sodium hydroxide to the water supply in 2018 to reduce acidity, thereby lowering the amount of toxic lead in the tapwater of older homes with lead pipes.

One plumbing firm told Tbnewswatch requests to fix pinhole leaks started ramping up about eight months after the lead mitigation program started.

"We were getting 10 calls a week" for service, a spokesperson said.

City officials have not indicated precisely how many complaints have come into city hall, saying only that they have received "dozens" of reports from homeowners, mostly on Thunder Bay's north side.

The extent of the problem is difficult to assess, because many residents have likely arranged for repairs without contacting the city.

Another plumbing company confirmed it's been making return visits to some customers.

"You fix one, and two days later, you have another one a foot farther down the line. Usually, people have to change a good chunk of the piping in their basement ceiling," a spokesperson said.

It's not only private residences that are being affected.

"It's got probably two dozen pinholes, and the ceilings have come down" because of leaking water, a local plumber told Tbnewswatch in describing a situation he's aware of in an apartment building.

The Canada Games Complex experienced a leak, and plumbers have cited instances of some business locations requiring costly repairs as well. 

At the end of January, the city announced it would terminate the practice of adding sodium hydroxide to the water. 

The treatment had been approved by the provincial government.

The city's Environment Division director, Michelle Warywoda, has said Thunder Bay is the first Ontario municipality to report a possible connection between sodium hydroxide and waterpipe leaks.   

The city continues to investigate alternatives for dealing with the lead problem that affects the tapwater in some 8,700 older homes

In the interim, it has supplied them all with water jugs equipped with filters to remove lead.

It's not clear if the city is legally responsible for compensating homeowners for out-of-pocket costs related to pinhole leaks.

In response to an inquiry from Tbnewswatch, a city spokesperson provided this statement:  "The standard process for any claim for compensation from the City is to direct that claim with appropriate information to the City Clerk's office. The assessment of all claims is handled on an individual, case by case basis."

Petrus plans to investigate his options after talking to his insurance company about replacing his pipes, and said his neighbours may do the same.

He feels it's prudent for homeowners like him to take preemptive measures.

"I've already experienced a couple of these leaks. Inevitably, there's going to be a catastrophic failure here. Even though that chemical's out of the system, how many other leaks are just a millimetre away from springing?" Petrus wondered.

Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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