For you younger tradesfolk who have entered into a mechanical career within the past 20 years, you may never have encountered PB (polybutylene) tubing and fittings. To tell you the truth, it’s been a long time since the PB product recall, and more than a decade or two since I have had to deal with PB installations. They say things come in threes and that certainly was true for PB and me over the past month!
PB NO. 1
A friend and customer asked me to provide a whole house PHVAC inspection following one done by a nationally certified home inspector because they felt the inspector had missed some issues: A condensate leak in the PVC exhaust for the furnace, the water piping and water heater. Here’s my report:
“On April 18, I inspected plumbing concerns you expressed for the property you are thinking of purchasing. Specifically, the plastic water lines and leaking PVC furnace exhaust piping.
- “Your incoming water service is copper and appears to be in good condition.
- “After the copper service line, all visible water lines were found to be Vanguard PB (polybutylene) plastic piping. PB piping was installed between 1978 and 1995, and there was a class action lawsuit over numerous PB pipe and fitting failures. The manufacturers’ set up a $950-million-dollar fund to offset some or all of the costs associated with the replacement of PB piping systems.
“The funds were exhausted long ago, but not all PB piping systems were replaced. The consensus was that PB piping had an approximate 30-year useful life. Given that the home was constructed in 1989, the piping is at the end of its projected life cycle. Essentially, for those who have PB piping systems, it’s not a question of if, but when leaks will develop. Certified home inspectors are not required to report the presence of PB piping or anything about the recall.
- “Several joints between PVC fittings and pipe on the furnace exhaust were not properly joined using primer and solvent-weld cement. No primer had been utilized and the color of the cement would indicate it was CPVC cement. Primer is required to etch away the hard glaze on the surface of the pipe and interior surface of the fitting to expose the underlying PVC plastic and PVC solvent-weld cement bonds both PVC surfaces to create a water-tight joint.
“Absent the use of primer, the cement acts only as a filler between the two surfaces and can be easily compromised, as is evident here by virtue of an active leak of liquid condensate. Condensate created from the combustion process has an approximate pH of 4, which is acidic, and it is apparent this has been leaking for a long time due to the erosion of the concrete floor where the dripping condensate is landing.”
• “Given that PB piping will fail, based upon numerous credible sources you can find via Google, the PB piping system should be replaced. In addition, you should check with your intended homeowner’s insurance company to determine if they will insure a home with PB piping. Those that do often increase the premiums, so replacing the PB piping may lower your insurance premiums. I would anticipate a cost of $x,xxx.xx to replace the home’s PB piping, valves and fixture connections with PEX tubing, valves and fixture supply tubes. Bear in mind this cost does not include drywall patching and painting.
• “Life and safety issue: The PVC combustion exhaust piping must be replaced and properly joined using the correct solvent-weld cement and primer. Every year I come across stories about homeowners who have been killed or permanently disabled from CO (carbon monoxide) poisoning after the exhaust vent piping has failed.
• “A 4.5-gallon thermal expansion tank needs to be installed to protect the water heater and potable water system from over-pressurization stress created by water expanding while being heated.”
PB NO. 2
Local friends were looking at a vacation home near the beach and forwarded the home inspection report to me asking for my input. The inspector provided numerous pictures of the plumbing within the crawl space, and the water piping was a patchwork nightmare where leaking PB had been sliced and diced by adding copper, galvanized, and copper piping with push-on, threaded galvanized and crimp fittings!
Most of the piping was not supported making the piping look like a bowl of tossed spaghetti. The fact that PB remains in the potable water piping, along with the patchwork quilt of leak repairs, indicates a real need to completely repipe the potable water system. Theirs is a single floor vacation home with a single bath, kitchen, outdoor shower, one hose bib and a spacious crawl space.
PB NO. 3
There was a kitchen remodel in a beautiful home. The carpenter cut open floor access to a sealed crawl space (who does that?) so the electrician could run new power wires. While inside the recessed crawl space, he discovered a water leak.
You guessed it: PB and yet another patchwork quilt of PB, patch, PB, patch, PB, patch. The new homeowners had no idea they had purchased a home with a recalled product! Needless to say, the PB is no more and the patches were removed too for a solid copper repipe.
Clearly PB issues fall under “let the buyer beware” since certified home inspectors are not required to report anything about the recall or the fact that PB is nearing, or has passed, the end of its projected life. Insurance companies are in a position to deny water damage claims if they discover PB is the underlying cause unless the PB piping was made known to them when they issued the insurance policy.
PB indoor potable water piping is typically gray but can be other colors. Blue PB tubing was intended for below grade applications. Tubing will have a marking PB2110 stamped along its exterior. Although Shell Oil, Hoechst Celanese Corp., and E. I. DuPont all denied there was any defect in PB piping or associated fittings, they agreed to a settlement to fund some or all costs associated with repiping homes with PB piping and some types of fittings (For more detailed information, visit bit.ly/2oMWqQc).
If you encounter PB piping, do your customers a huge favor by educating them regarding the issues. Then provide an offer to repipe the home or the portion of their potable water system where PB remains.