In the first installment of this article, I covered what I knew about Polybutylene (PB) piping concerns before 1995. Early concerns primarily focused on fitting and testing changes. When I was first introduced to PB as a plumbing contractor, our information came from salesmen, supply house workers and local code inspectors. Eventually, the TV news program “60 minutes” ran a major piece on polybutylene leaks. To this day, I’ve never received special bulletins or notices from a manufacturer. The only unsolicited official document I received citing problems with PB was a 1995 notice about a major class action settlement. By then I had long since stopped installing the product in new construction because of what I’d learned about it from making repairs in the field.
Going to court
As a result of class action settlements surrounding the use of polybutylene, more than a billion dollars has been paid over the years. There have been numerous lawsuits regarding the leaks and the subsequent damage involving PB pipes. The two largest class action settlements are the Spencer settlement and the Cox vs. Shell settlement.
The Spencer settlement was set up with $120 million from DuPont. Money from the settlement was used to pay 10 percent of a claimant’s costs incurred from replacement of a polybutylene system. An equal percentage was earmarked for past damages caused by the leaks.
In 1995, another Civil Action reached a settlement in the Tina Cox, et al, vs. Shell Oil Company. Though the defendants involved in this case, Shell Oil Co. and Hoechst Celanese Corporation denied and apparently still deny that they have any legal liability, the Court did agree to a settlement. In this case, the defendants agreed to give $950 million to a settlement fund to pay for the replacement of the pipes, damage to tangible property and for the administrative expenses incurred in managing the settlement.
The eligibility periods and filing deadlines are spelled out in a
chart provided by the Consumer Plumbing Recovery Center (CPRC). There are other qualifying requirements for individuals to be approved for a settlement, including when a leak is considered a qualifying leak.
It’s not easy to determine what constitutes a qualifying leak. The CPRC should be contacted for specific details. Some of the general considerations follow.
• The leak must have occurred after the first year of installation.
• The leak is not covered under another warranty.
• Leaks in icemaker lines or on fixture supply tubes, or on pipes that can be reached without opening walls, ceilings or floors are not considered qualified.
• Leaks in exterior pipes that can be repaired without excavation, or pipes that are damaged due to out of the ordinary use are not likely to qualify either.
With re-pipes and repairs, some plumbers are benefiting from PB problems. But for real estate agents and home inspectors, there’s no good to be found. As a former Realtor®, I’m aware of the many unpaid hours invested in locating just the right home for a perspective buyer, and the polybutylene pipe situation has made it a bit tougher for some to find that home. Because so many of our newer neighborhoods – those built in the 1980s and 1990s – are piped with PB, Hampton Roads agents deal with the issue every day.
In the early 90s when I sold property, agents produced a disclosure form with a dozen or so points of interest that could affect the buyer from a legal, financial or health and safety position. Since that time the list has more than doubled, offering information on a variety of topics such as environmental concerns, Megan’s Law, aircraft noise and accident zones, EIFS and polybutylene pipes.
Major topic for Hampton Roads
The Real Estate Information Network, Inc. Consumer Disclosure Information Form for our area, dated 7/1/00, puts PB information at #5 on a list of 25 items. The document suggests that the buyer may want to investigate a potential purchase for the presence of PB pipes, and it states that polybutylene “has been known to fail, resulting in leaks.” PB is mentioned again under a “Limitations of Expertise” passage where it notes that along with other areas of concern, real estate agents are not experts on the subject of polybutylene pipes.
To help guide the agents with the polybutylene issue, our local Association of Realtors® and a group of local home inspectors created a brochure for the association members. It expresses the concerns about the product, gives important phone numbers, lists Web sites to pass on to clients, and provides some direction to handling questions that come up about PB.
Though many agents believe PB problems are a plastic-fitting problem, it specifically points out the newer fittings may contribute to the deterioration of the pipe and the pipe itself could fail. The handout also notes some hazard insurance companies are backing away from PB piped homes. Companies have canceled policies on homes following major claims.
Experienced listing agents now alert sellers that the polybutylene issue will likely surface at some point in the sales process, and it could become part of negotiations. When a home has been re-piped or just piped with copper, this positive note is put in the computer listing information, mentioned in home highlight brochures, and quickly made available to potential buyers, other agents and to home inspectors as well.
Identifying the water distribution pipe is important
To avoid PB plumbing, some agents use a “wiggle test” to identify concealed piping material in houses built in the last 20 years. It involves grabbing the wall stub-out pipe or the angle stop and wiggling it. If it moves freely, chances are PB is attached in the wall. As a result, some agents strike the property from their primary showing list.
When inspecting a slab home, where there is no PB visible below sinks, behind water heaters, under jetted tubs or in the attic, I recommend trying to check the washing machine utility box. Though some inspectors check at the water meter, this doesn’t necessarily determine if the problematic pipe is in the wall. It may indicate the possibility that the yard service line is polybutylene. A common practice for plumbers was to connect the polybutylene piping directly to the service valves (boiler drains), thread the pipe through the 1/2" valve hole at the washing machine box and use a lock nut to secure the valve at to the box.
Remove the trim frame from the washing machine utility box, and cut or chip away a small area of plasterboard or sheetrock. If the plumbing connection is made with PB, it can almost always be discovered. When the frame is re-installed, the small hole will be covered up without any visible damage at the wall. PB can often be found at this location when there is no other evidence in the house that the pipe exists.
From the buyers’ point of view
Occasionally, buyers walk in the door concerned about PB pipes. Sometimes a buyer or an agent will express concern about PB piping at the start of an inspection. More often the buyer is under the impression the house is piped in copper, and is noticeably caught off guard when told it’s piped in PB, with the visible copper as the stub-outs. Sometimes the inspection ends at that point, but more often homebuyers discuss other options, including the cost of a re-pipe.
Companies have specialized in mar-keting this option to homebuyers. Buyers weigh their concerns against other factors including purchase price, how long they intend to stay in the home, and the positive aspects of the property. Home Warranty Plans, casualty insurers and creative financing options are sometimes discussed. Some believe they could get assistance if needed from a class action settlement, and resolve to investigate their chances for help, but few qualify.
PB and points to note during the home inspection
Clients are notified of the existence of PB and the related concerns in different ways. A recent survey of local ASHI Chapter Members revealed the major inspec-tion firms and top inspectors in Hampton Roads are identifying PB plumbing as a problematic piping system to their clients, but emphasizing it in varying degrees. Most use boilerplate or written statements to note concerns. Some offer oral comments as well.
I try to note any visible evidence of a problem-plagued system, such as piles of removed fittings and crimp rings in the crawl space or attic. Patches or stains likely associated with the piping and any comments made by the seller about previous leaks are also reported. Beyond that, I note any potential application or installation problems I observed.
Specific defects or majors concerns that might be noted on the inspection report include the following:
• Obvious leaks
• Poorly supported piping
• Noticeably bad crimps
• Kinked pipe or previous kinks
• Loose hose bibs
• Sunlight exposed pipe at an exter-ior shower or at improvised work
• Loose tub and shower valves
• Improperly installed fittings
• PB pipe on Apollo type or continuous loop systems
• Pipe too close to major heat sources
• Pipe closer than 18" to the water heater connections
• Loose washing machine hose bibs
Educating real estate agents about polybutylene and having a uniform method of product disclosure is working for our company. Some of the agents we deal with are familiar with the pamphlet, but many are not. Our inspectors carry the information brochure, and offer it to concerned agents they meet in the field. Some of us speak at real estate company meetings and others contribute to print articles as well.
A handwritten statement on our report is now boldly pre-printed below the piping material identification. The statement reads “Note: PB is a problematic tubing involved in several class action settlements.” We give each client purchasing a property with PB pipes a copy of the local Real Estate Association’s® agent brochure. We suggest they read the pamphlet, research information about the concerns of the product, get expert opinions and determine possible remedies.
PB was originally embraced because it was believed to be cheap, easy-to-use, and using it could shave days off the average plumbing job. It was cheap and it did shave days off the average plumbing job. Was it easy to install? Yes. But easy to install properly is another question. The PPFA handbook points out there are at least five ways to make an improper crimp connection. We also know now PB doesn’t tolerate abuse well. Couple this with the constant pressure by builders for speedier installations, the employment of lesser-qualified installers, contradictory official information, and material defects, and problems were inevitable.
Polybutylene plumbing systems will affect not only the owners and occupants of PB piped homes, but likely the real estate and insurance industries, plumbers, and home inspectors – probably for years to come. Some insurers are backing away from PB piped homes. The insurance industry is confronting the manufacturers. Some realty associations are quietly making it known with disclosures and brochures that there are problems with this product.
While plumbers enjoy income from repair and replacement work, home restoration and carpet cleaning companies benefit from the leaks.
For home inspectors, money and reputations are at stake. News-papers and magazines carry heartbreaking stories about polybutylene and its victims. And there’s a growing mentality that the home inspector is often to blame.
There is a consensus among plumb-ing professionals about polybutylene piping. It’s no longer a matter of “if” the pipes will leak, but “when” they will leak. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen. What we do know is there’s more than a billion dollars in known settlement payouts and an unknown amount in undocumented costs related to PB. Home inspectors must take special care when reporting on PB plumbing systems, so polybutylene problems don’t put a crimp in the business.
Locating polybutylene pipes
PB pipes are often not visible in slab homes and wiggling the pipes can be risky. The washing machine utility box is a good place to look for PB pipes.
Lightly mark the edge of the box trim frame and remove it.
Chip or cut away a small section of wall within the frame area using the pencil mark for guidance. Check inside the wall with a flashlight for the gray pipe and metal ring.
On outer walls it may be necessary to pull the pipe wrap from around the pipe. This can usually be done with a screwdriver or other flat edge.
After your check re-install the frame.
The removed valve at the left is typical of what you might see, but in some cases a compression fitting might be observed.
Photos by TS Hart