Prolonged operation of piezoelectric ceramic devices under high dc electric fields promotes leakage currents between the electrodes. This paper investigates the effects of ceramic porosity, edge conduction and electrode materials and geometry in the development of low resistance conduction paths through the ceramic. Localized changes in the ceramic structure and corresponding microscopic breakdown sites are shown to be associated with leakage currents and breakdown processes resulting from prolonged operation in harsh environments. The role of barrier coatings in mitigating the effects of humidity is studied, and results are presented on improved performance using composite diamond-like carbon/polymer coatings. In contrast to the changes in the electrical properties of the ceramic, the measurements of the piezoelectric properties showed no significant effect of humidity.