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The Gray Plague
By Gary Andrews
In 1978 Ameri
ca saw a new technological advancement that promised to be a Godsend to the construction industry. The product, Polybutylene, has turned out to be anything but.
Polybutylene was created to be the greatest innovation in indoor plumbing since Thomas Crapper gave us his contribution to modern living. It allowed contractors to install Interior Potable Water Distribution Systems much faster, and cheaper than with other systems such as copper, CPVC, or Galvanized pipes. This boon to the new construction industry has, however, become a boondoggle to homeowners.
You may have it in your home and not even know it. One way of determining whether or not you have Polybutylene is simply to look. Polybutylene is a semi-rigid material that will usually have a slight curve to it and will normally be gray or black when installed inside of a
structure, and blue, (but can be gray or even black), when used in a service line running outside of the structure from the meter. Look at the ceilings of unfinished basements and crawl spaces or around water heaters, under stairs, and under sinks, especially a kitchen sink.
There are two fundamental flaws with the Polybutylene. First, Chlorine and other oxidants are leached into the pipes, which will react with the Polybutylene causing it to become brittle. As the pipes become brittle, micro-fractures result reducing the structural integrity of the pipe. Second, some pipes simply were installed incorrectly. Whichever the case, if the pipe becomes weakened, it can fail without any warning causing damages to building structures and/or personal property. The damages can be obvious and occur in varying scopes from little leaks that are caught quickly with minor, if any, actual damage, all the way up to catastrophic floods. The hidden damages can be even more menacing and can lead to infestations of toxic Black Mold, especially behind sheetrock walls where airflow is non-existent.
The process of leaching chlorine and other oxidants from the water can be sped up by many circumstances, some of which are related to the manner in which the pipe was installed, usually involving insert fittings that are secured to the pipe by means of a crimp band that pinches the pipe. Other things that can speed up the deterioration of Polybutylene can be the pipes having been kinked, or even that it simply was left outside in a supply yard exposed to the Ultra-violet rays of the Sun while waiting to be delivered to job sites. You can’t tell what condition the pipe is in by looking at it, as all deterioration will occur on the inside of the pipe. One thing is for sure, a leak is a symptom of a system wide failure. When the pipes have deteriorated to the point where they are about to spring a leak, conditions such as high pressure or a shock to the system such as shutting off the water and turning it back on can be the last straw.
Whatever the circumstance, the problem with Polybutylene is so pervasive that one of the largest class settlements in U.S. history was handed down against the makers of Shell Oil a manufacturer of the Polybutylene resin. Unfortunately, many structures did not qualify before the Class Action Settlement came to an end in 2009.
Another common scenario that can lead to many homeowners believing that they do not have a problem lies in having bad or partial information. I have heard hundreds of times such things as; I have the copper fitting so it’s all right or I have the pipes that are stamped PB2110M so it’s the type that doesn’t have problems. When I hear those things, I cringe.
If someone has been told that copper fittings are good, or that pipes stamped PB2110M are good, that tells me that the person telling them that has just enough information to be dangerous. Pipes having the copper insert fittings had 3 more years of eligibility under the Class Action Settlement; Shell v. Cox, than did the Acetal (plastic) insert fittings, so in that respect it is better if you have the copper fittings, but it certainly does not mean that those pipes are safe. As to pipes that are stamped PB2110M, that designation was specifically excluded under the Shell v. Cox lawsuit so people may assume that means those pipes have been modified to be good in some manner. The designation letter “M” has been added to the old designation only as a manufacturers “water mark” that stands for Mitsui, a Japanese manufacturer that also made the Polybutylene resin, between 1993 and 1995. (Contact Georgia Delta Mechanical, Inc. at 800-496-2288 for further information on PB2110M).
The only permanent solution for “The Gray Plague” is to cut it out like a cancer and replace it with a proven, reliable system such as Flowguard Gold CPVC, (www.flowguardgold.com). Unfortunately there are only a small handful of plumbing companies around the country that honestly specialize in such a process. The process is known as repipe or replumb. Companies that specialize in repipe differ from “general service plumbers” in many ways, most notably is in the approach to the task at hand. First, companies that specialize in Polybutylene or other defective plumbing repipes work exclusively in finished, usually occupied structures. Second, the really good companies will offer a true turnkey process that will include restoration of access damages created during the repipe procedure after the jurisdictional code inspection by employees of the contractor and not farmed out to other sub-contractors. Third, since most of their work is in occupied homes, they will know how to provide tenants or owners the ability to stay in the home without having to temporarily move out by restoring water service nightly and keeping the homes’ interior environment clean and picked up each night. Fourth, since they repair access damages, they will tend to make fewer damages to begin with and will search out the least invasive routing for their new water lines.
When looking for a reliable, professional Repipe expert, be sure and check them out thoroughly. The best source for experts would be from the people that managed the class action lawsuit against Polybutylene; Shell v. Cox, (CPRC). Although the class settlement ended in 2009, they still have a list of recommended Polybutylene replacement experts in your area on their web site; www.pbpipe.com. Also another excellent source would be to contact organizations such as The American Society of Home Inspectors, (www.ashi.org), The Georgia Association of Home Inspectors, (www.gahi.com), the National Association of Home Inspectors (www.nahi.org), or the Realtors Association in your area. Beware of Companies that claim to be Polybutylene repipe experts. While it is true that any licensed plumber can change out pipes, the manner in which they do it as well as what condition they will leave your house in probably won’t be to your satisfaction, and will involve outside finishing contractors as well as added expense, more damages to your home, and the necessity of having to move out while the work is being completed. Then there are plumbers that have arrangements with other independent contractors that will repair their wallboard damages, but they still don’t have an appreciation for being less invasive and will approach the job with the same destructive search and destroy tactics employed by plumbers that don’t care about the damages they leave behind. After all, the damages are someone else’s headache. Then there is the question of who do you contact if the paint doesn’t match. Remember that changing out water systems may be “something else” that general service plumbers can do, but it’s not what they do daily.
This “bargain plumber” cut every stud in this 30′ load
bearing wall and 2 adjacent walls.
Be aware that there are a lot of new “Repipe experts” out there. With the new housing market in decline, contractors use to only doing new construction are putting on the mantle of Polybutylene Repipe experts, even though they have little or no experience working in a finished, let alone occupied residence. Then there are the small “mom and pop” operations without a visible business address. I certainly don’t have anything against family business’ in fact I applaud them, however, when you are replacing one of the most major systems in a home, you want the assurance of dealing with a company that has the strength to weather the storm of this slow economy and be there to back up any warranty issues, should they arise.
Be sure to check references; a legitimate Polybutylene Repipe expert should be able to produce many references but you should also be able to check them out online. Besides making the obvious inquiry to the Better Business Bureau, (www.bbb.com), be sure to check out referral sites such as Kudzu (www.kudzu.com). You will be able to read statements, pro and con, about the company you’re interested in. Also ask your neighbors if anyone in the neighborhood has had to replace their pipes, it’s highly likely someone has. Find out who they used and ask about their experience. Check with the County Planning and Development Depart in your jurisdiction. Do they pull required permits? Do they fail inspections and have to call for re-inspections? And last but not least, check the company’s insurance and licenses, (local business and state plumbing licenses), Contact the Secretary of State to verify licensure, this is a great place to get additional information such as how long they have been a practicing plumber, if they currently licensed, have any disciplinary actions against them or even if they have ever been convicted of a felony.
When you have found contractors to give you bids, be sure that when comparing prices, that you are comparing apples to apples. The best case scenario is for the contractor to offer a true turnkey service that includes permits, inspections, in house wallboard repair and painting, but most plumbing contractors will only price out the replacement of the pipes only. Others may also include code required updates and/or system upgrades as well as the costs of permits in their pricing, but no repair to access damage, while yet others may offer everything, but utilize sub-contractors for various stages of the work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions such as what kinds of access damages and where they may be anticipated, how long will the work take, will the water be off during the process, how long, are the people who will be working in your home licensed, insured, and bonded, and be sure to ask for references.
Be sure the contractor you hire does not require you to pay for the job ahead of time. While it is common practice for quality companies to require a deposit of 50% or more when the job is begun with the balance due upon completion, there are some fly-by-nights that will take the money and run without providing any services. The right contractor should also have other options such as “payment from closing” in the case of real estate transactions. It is important to get a signed contract with a detailed Scope of Work.
The bottom line is that Polybutylene is a catastrophe waiting to happen. It is not a matter of if, but when and where leaks will occur. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you may find a leak immediately with little or no damage. Sometimes leaks aren’t so obvious, such as leaks under slabs or inside of walls. If the Service Line outside running from the meter is leaking, you may notice a wet spot that won’t dry in your yard, or that your water bill has doubled, tripled, or more. The best defense is a good offense. You need to be pro-active and take measures before the pipe breaks when the only damages will be from easily repaired, controlled access and not from unpredictable water leaks.
Gary Andrews is the Operations Manager for Georgia Delta Mechanical, Inc., (a division of Delta Mechanical, Inc., the nation’s largest residential plumbing company). Mr. Andrews, a licensed plumber, has been a specialist in the field of Polybutylene pipe replacement since 1998 and has overseen the water line replacements in over 10,000 homes and Multi-Family units in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Nevada, Virginia and Ohio.
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