In some parts of California, aggressive water and soil can cause havoc on metallic piping.
“One contractor I talk to does nothing but re-pipes,” states Rich Houle, Uponor’s associate product manager, commercial plumbing. “In the last seven years, he’s done 12,000 re-pipes because of failures under slabs or in walls.”
Houle says that particular contractor uses cross-linked polyethylene pipe - also known as PEX - on those re-pipe jobs.
“He has no issues,” says Houle, whose company’s involvement with PEX pipe dates back to 1970. “PEX is not subjected to the same issues you run into with copper pipe like pinhole leaks and corrosion when you have aggressive soils and waters.”
But this particular piping method, which Houle estimates now makes up 60 percent of piping in residential new home construction in the country, has become a lightning rod for controversy in California in recent years, resulting in a flurry of back-and-forth legal wrangling over health, safety and performance issues related to the flexible pipe.
That judicial rollercoaster finally came to a halt in mid-August when a coalition of consumer, environmental, public health and labor organizations reached an agreement with the state and the plastic pipe industry to settle ongoing litigation over California’s approval of PEX as drinking water pipe in homes and buildings.
“We think this provides significant protection for homeowners, occupants and workers,” states Tom Enslow, a lawyer at Sacramento, Calif.-based Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo who represented the coalition in the lawsuit. “At the end, we came to the same place. It was nice that the state, industry and coalition organizations could find common ground and get it done.”
TimelineThe California PEX pipe issue dates back to 2002 when the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association filed an unsuccessful lawsuit arguing California’s proposed review of PEX pipe was unlawful. A court of appeals denied the PPFA’s claim and held that evidence of potential drinking water contamination through chemical leaching and permeation, as well as evidence of mechanical performance problems and failures, required PEX undergo a public review process prior to state approval.
That led to the state issuing an Environmental Impact Report that corroborated many of the concerns of the coalition only to reverse many of its findings several months later in a revised EIR. The coalition then filed a lawsuit challenging the revised EIR and the adoption of regulations approving PEX.
Last December, an Alameda Superior Court judge ruled the state had failed to evaluate evidence of health risks and failed to address the risk of PEX pipe failure in certain applications. The court ordered the state to withdraw the regulations and redo the EIR, a ruling appealed by the PPFA.
While the appeal was pending and PEX was back out of the code this year, the state prepared a new EIR to address the issues raised in the ruling, which led to the current settlement.
As a result, the California Building Standards Commission now allows the use of PEX in all occupancies, including commercial, residential and institutional building construction, rehabilitation and repair under the jurisdiction of the CBSC and responsible agencies in all areas of the state effective Aug. 18 (for the 2007 California Plumbing Code) and Jan. 1, 2011 (for the 2010 CPC).
California is the last state in the nation to approve PEX at the state level, Houle says. Some major jurisdictions around the country such as New York City and Clark County, Nev. (which includes the Las Vegas strip), still do not allow plastic pipe in certain applications.
The code now includes new regulations that provide measures to address issues such as: the vulnerability of PEX to permeation by outside contaminants like gasoline and solvents; the vulnerability of PEX to premature failure when exposed to sunlight; the failure of PEX brass fittings due to dezincification and stress crack corrosion; the potential for traditional PEX pipe to fail when installed in continuously recirculating hot water systems; and the potential health impacts from the leaching of chemicals like methyl-tertiary-butyl ether from PEX pipe.
“One of the biggest concerns was MTBE possibly leaching into the water, which through the EIR and subsequent studies was determined not to be a health concern,” CBSC Executive Director Dave Walls says. “There are also flushing requirements in the code now. You have to flush PEX out twice within a one-week period prior to use so anything that might have gotten in there during construction would be cleared out before anybody drinks the water.”
The BenefitsIn sections of California you can hear horror stories about re-piping as the result of corrosive waters and soils attacking metallic piping.
“About 10 years ago there was an isolated case here in Southern California. We were doing a 60-unit tract and before we were done we were already re-piping it,” explains Dave Kokosenski, a designer at Riverside, Calif.-based RCR Plumbing, which does work with 400 field employees throughout California and some parts of Nevada.
“By the time we were done, we were doing a re-pipe of the re-pipe. The job ended up in litigation with all of the homes re-piped in CPVC before it was done. It doesn’t happen in all areas, but the chemical makeup of the water and the corrosive nature of copper can cause issues. Corrosive water issues go away when you use PEX.”
Houle recalls a study done on 250 homes in a California development that had copper pipe installed. The study revealed 750 re-piping jobs occurred there in an eight-year period.
Making Life EasierDespite the fact PEX moved in and out of the state plumbing code over the last decade, California law still allowed localities across the state to permit the use of PEX pipe as an alternate material method. But larger cities such as Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno and San Francisco held tight to state codes.
“There were like 200 jurisdictions in the state that allowed it already,” Walls notes. “It kind of depends on where you are at in the state.”
Mike Taylor, director of operations and analysis at RCR Plumbing, feels the settlement will make life easier for plumbing contractors throughout the state - especially ones that do work in different jurisdictions.
“We work across many state jurisdictions," he says. "Now when we estimate and bid on jobs, we know with confidence that we can use PEX. It puts everybody on a level playing field to use the right product for a particular job.”
Labor TalkWhile some in the industry have pointed to union labor issues being at the root of the PEX dispute, the outcome of litigation paints a different picture.
“The union ended up supporting the new EIR and changes to the code, and for that we’re grateful,” says Dick Church, the Plastic Pipe Fittings Association executive director. “We’re all on the same page and hopefully we stay there.”
Enslow, who represented a coalition that included the California State Pipe Trades Council, adds: People need to look at the scope of the members of the coalition, which included some of the largest environmental, consumer and public health organizations in California. The end goal was not to ban the use of PEX pipe. The goal was to ensure that PEX pipe is as safe, protective and reliable as other pipe allowed in the code.”
A Win-Win SituationAt the end of the day, the overwhelming feeling feeling is the ruling will benefit manufacturers, contractors and end-users.
“That’s it in a nutshell,” says Steve Barrett, Watts Regulator’s director of marketing. “The home builder, the contractor and the homeowner have another choice for plumbing components.”
Church adds: “It seems (the end-user) is the person that deserves to win the most and will as a result of this. Folks have a full range of products to choose from now. That’s kind of what it’s been about the whole time - making sure there is freedom of choice for contractors and consumers.”
Church notes a sustainability factor also is involved.
“PEX and CPVC can put through a lot of water even though the pipe diameter is slightly less,” he says. “That saves a bundle of water and energy. There is a huge green component here.”
Moving ForwardHoule estimates PEX is currently used in only 2 to 3 percent of the commercial marketplace, but he sees that number rising in the future. “I think you will start to see growth in commercial and that’s a function of the pipe size,” he states. “In the not too distant past, 2-inch pipe was introduced and now they are making up to 4-inch pipe, which opens up opportunities.”
Gary Runyan, manager of product development, engineering at Zurn PEX, sees future PEX growth in plumbing applications across the board.
“With the International Code Council’s residential fire sprinkler mandate in one- and two-family dwellings, you’ll have new piping being added,” he notes. “We see that as a growth opportunity.
“We think ultimately PEX will be the main choice in residential piping for hot and cold water. PEX brings a lot of benefits to the table. Most people that work with PEX generally prefer to work with it once they have gotten used to it. We think it’s the best choice.”
And it’s now a choice available throughout California.