Innovative ways to renew small bore underground lead water pipes

The Innovation Exchange is working alongside Affinity Water, who are acting as a representative leader for a cross-industry working group researching improved methods for lead pipe replacement, including: Yorkshire Water, Welsh Water, Anglian Water and Severn Trent Water. The working group is looking to engage with innovators to help develop revolutionary and evolutionary methods to improve the replacement of lead water pipes between the water main in the street and customers’ properties. Replacement of lead pipes would remove potential health issues attributed to lead contamination for customers and reduce operational costs for water companies.


Challenge opens


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Opportunity to work with a group of UK water utility companies to address a high profile challenge that is prevalent globally.


Lead has been used as a material for water service pipes from the water main into customers houses, since circa 1900. The use of lead for service pipes was banned in 1969 due to potential health effects but many older properties retain their lead service pipes or parts thereof.

Aside from health effects, removal of old pipework and joints would help reduce water leakage on both company and customer-owned pipework. Renewing lead pipes may also give water companies an opportunity to replace a customers boundary stop tap, and in doing so allow them to install a water meter at the property. Therefore the replacement of lead pipes can bring additional benefits for water companies in meeting their regulator driven commitments, in additional areas besides maintaining water quality. 

Existing methods to replace lead pipes are capital and carbon-intensive, and disruptive in the street and within customer’s homes. This reduces customer uptake for pipe renewal, which makes current programmes inefficient, with low uptake rates and generates complaints due to customer disruption. The cost to find and renew the circa 9 million lead service pipes, using existing methods, is therefore prohibitive at a nationwide scale (estimated at over £25 Billion). 

The Drinking Water Inspectorate has expressed the desire for significant progress to have been achieved by 2035, and for England and Wales to be ‘Lead-free’ by 2050. It is considered that using existing methods of renewal, the industry will not be able to meet this timescale.

Currently, ownership of the water service pipe is split between the water company and the customer. The water company owns the pipe in the public ground adjacent to the property between the water main and boundary stop tap, which is referred to as the ‘communications pipe’. The property owner is responsible for the pipe from the property boundary into their home to the Internal Stop Valve which is termed the ‘supply pipe’. Renewal of customer-owned pipes is only possible with the consent of the customer, and the water companies have no mandatory power of replacement under current legislation. Water samples are taken at customer kitchen taps, so failures (elevated lead levels) can be as a result of both company-owned and customer-owned pipework (including domestic plumbing). An indicative diagram is below:

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