Architecture & Building

Why Do Aquatherm Pipes Fail?

Domestic water supply applications of Polypropylene (PPR) have been commercialized largely under the Aquatherm trade name and manufactured in Germany.  After a period of reportedly reliable performance in Europe, Aquatherm began to market the product in Australia, Canada, the US, and elsewhere.  Recently a string failures started to appear; first in Australia and now increasingly in the US. 

After fire, water damage is the most expensive peril that a building owner may face.  Many of these are winding up in the courts in what looks like the three-way shoot out at the end of the Clint Eastwood movie, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  The contractor is pointing at the manufacturer who in turn is pointing back at the owner/operator who is pointing alternately at the contractor and the manufacturer. 

For the record, I like PPR for many reasons, but there appears to be 3 main vulnerabilities with PPR: the manner in which it is clamped, the temperature of the water, and the water chemistry – specifically the presence of copper ions.  I call it the witches brew. If all three vulnerabilities are present, then the likelihood of failure is very high. If only one (or maybe two) of the vulnerabilities are present, the likelihood of failure seems substantially lower. 

The problem is that each of the litigating parties may be responsible for at least one of the vulnerable conditions. Therefore, it is tremendously difficult to assign a percentage of the blame on any single party especially where the absence of any one condition may result in no failure.

Aquatherm had claimed that standard pipe clamps could be used with loosely specified modifications.  In practice the pipes are sized in the Metric system and the clamps were sized in the Imperial measurement system.  Further, the materiel is soft so there was little feedback for the mechanics accustomed to using a torque wrench.  Often we’ll find the failed piece deformed inside the clamp.  Is the contractor to blame or Aquatherm?

In another case, Aquatherm specified strict temperature and pressure limitations.  In the real world, we found two boilers set up incorrectly causing occasional fluctuations beyond the temperature limits – normally not a problem with most other piping systems.

In another case, the boilers had CuNi (Copper/Nickel) heat exchangers that, if not correctly installed or maintained, may be a source of copper ionization.   How is the owner / HVAC contractor to know about these details?

One of the advantages of Aquatherm is that it can be run at a much faster flow speed than other pipes.  If you run water too fast in a system mixed with copper, the turbulence can erode the copper releasing ions to the water system, which can then attack the Aquatherm.  Most of the retrofits will have mixed systems in one form or another.  Whose responsibility is it to manage mixed systems?

I have been contacted by attorneys on both sides of more than one PPR lawsuit. Most lawyers are looking for a sharp knife to cut their client free from culpability.  When I share my thoughts on the topic, based on real-life experience, I’m rarely called back. The last thing they want to hear is that there is plenty of blame to go around. I believe that an inherent bias is baked-in, leading to closed settlements.  

So, Why DO Aquatherm Pipes Fail?

The answer is simple.  Information needs to flow to the industry without fear of repercussion so that owners and operators and installers can mitigate the risk.  Most piping materials seem to go through a period of failures until the industry can see how they actually perform over the long term. PolyButylene, CPVC, and PEX have all had their time in the hot-seat.  Polypropylene, in my opinion, holds great promise in some applications.  Few people want to talk about the details and court settlements are often sealed, so the public and the industry are uninformed. 

Instead of learning from mistakes, a new game plays out anew for every instance of failure.  This is counterproductive. What really needs to happen is that each of the parties need to fess up, mitigate the failures, and then share information with everyone else so that the problems can be ironed out as soon as possible and this innovative material can achieve its potential.

 

The Future of Real Estate Transactions – Engineering Inspections

According to Realtor.com, the average amount of time to close on a house is 50 days after listing. By contrast, houses sold by auction are instantaneous. In both cases, several weeks of preparation are required, but the closing process itself is drastically simplified by an Engineering Pre-listing Inspection (EPLI).

What if we could adapt the speed, fairness, and predictability of the Real Estate auction process to the scale and security of the conventional Real Estate market? This article will discuss how an EPLI can significantly increase the liquidity of 140 million of Americans’ most valuable asset while saving billion of dollars in wasted time and unnecessary labor.

 

We all know the drill.  

First, the homeowner decides to sell their property. After a bit of paint and a power wash, the property still has some deficiencies. But everyone wants a quick sale.  After all, a stale listing can lose appeal, and agents need to turn the property as quickly as possible –  not only for their commissions, but also for their reputation. In addition, the owners may need to transition between homes as quickly as possible without incurring double mortgage payments.  There is a lot on the line when timing a property sale.

With fingers crossed, the property goes on the market staged for a quick sale. The first offer comes quickly and is accepted – pending inspection. After a few days the inspector arrives and spots some rotten wood under a window or a few cracks in the foundation. This scares the first buyer away, and sometimes the home must be pulled off the market until repairs can be assessed and corrected.

When the second offer comes in, the  last inspection report belongs to the last buyer, not the owner – so a new inspection report is ordered. This time a different inspector finds a few more cracks and recommends that that a professional engineer is consulted. Any engineering deficiencies must now be acknowledged per real estate disclosure laws.

Days pass as everyone now scrambles to meet the new timeline, negotiate concessions, develop scope of work, get contractor ROMs, etc.  Few things are more expensive than trying to save money.

 

The Cost of eliminating “Seller Bias”.

The reason that the buyer must purchase the inspection report is to eliminate the possibility of seller bias. That means that there may be some nuanced physical deficiency that the seller is not aware of, or does not think is worth mentioning, or may try to intentionally hide in order to defraud the market into paying more than the property is actually worth.  Obviously, it is important to catch the bad guys, but what is the true cost of “seller bias” and is there some way we can assure the physical integrity of a real estate asset in a more efficient manner than buyer driven inspections?

 

How do people buy property at auctions?

Thousands of properties are sold every day at auctions. All the buyers have their financing set up, they have their insurance set up, titles have been searched, permits have been sealed. Everything is prepared beforehand so that everyone has the exact same information as everyone else about the transaction – the good, the bad, and the ugly – because when the gavel falls, the deal is done.

The most critical component of the property auction is an unbiased professional engineering inspection of critical systems. The engineer is concerned with the age, materials, and condition of the entire piping system, not so much wether a particular sink drains quickly as a home inspector would note.   The engineer evaluates the structural integrity, plumbing, mold and rot progression, electrical safety, occupant hazards and expected useful life of building components.  The engineering report may include system definitions, estimated maintenance costs, calculations of useful life, and feasibility of alternate use cases for the property.  The EPLI can also determine limitation of use including easements, critical slopes, roof and floor loading limits, etc. These are what the banks and insurance company care about the most, as should the owner.

The engineer can also credibly tout excellent maintenance, expensive upgrades, and additional safety features, and measurable amenities in a credible and unbiased opinion.  Many such communications are currently constrained by professional laws and ethics, except where validated by a Professional Engineer.

 

The Institution of Professional Engineers:

Only 5% of all engineering graduates in the US are able to attain the Professional Engineering designation. A Professional Engineer must pass board exams and pursue continuing education not unlike the bar exam for lawyers. Professional engineers also need to be nominated by other several other PEs would must validate 4-8 years of qualified working experience. After that, Professional engineers are regulated by the PE act where they are held accountable by law for their integrity, competence, and ethical behaviors. A PE can lose their license for committing negligence, incompetence, fraud, or breach of contract.

Due to the strength of the engineering profession, the rules of the auction can be made very clear. Everyone is in consensus that the Licensed Professional Engineering is worthy of public trust, competence, and unbiased assessment of fact. These attributes rank far beyond a simple home inspection.

 

Items that can be provided in an EPLI document may include:

  • Review of critical systems
  • Cost of ownership
  • Fire, flood, tree hazards
  • Validation of improvements
  • Energy calculation
  • Scope of Work
  • Feasibility studies: solar, additions, conversions
  • Impact of easements
  • Structural evaluation
  • Mold, wind, waterproofing, seismic review
  • Permit review
  • Land use regulations
  • Critical slope

These are by no means the only facts that an engineer can validate, but we can be assured that there is always an engineer who can adapt their expertise to any imaginable condition that may present itself in the Real Estate market.

 

How much will an EPLI it cost?

An EPLI will be more expensive than a home inspection report because engineers command higher compensation and carry greater liabilities than a home inspector.   The professional engineering report is also more useful and can be used in many different situations by legal definition.  It can be used as a basis for contractor selection, insurance coverage, or mortgage financing.

The truth is that many different engineering reports may be generated from the same information collected in a single visit by a qualified engineer. The only difference is in the write up, calculations, and validation by peer review.

 

How much will an EPLI save?

Instead, we should look at the cost of not conducting an EPLI. Nobody knows the true value of a home – today’s pricing is based on what the people down the road paid regardless of how well that home was maintained or improved. Mortgage holders and insurance companies absorb the valuation risk at significant cost to the homeowner. Increasingly, homeowners associations emerge to enforce community standards on private property to which each homeowner is levied at tax. Still, at the end of the day, there is little or no objective information included in the sale of a 3 trillion dollar per year US RE market.

 

The 2008 Financial Crisis;

In 2008, the real estate bubble popped. The result was that the theoretical paper value of all properties far exceeded the theoretical market value of all properties. This turned banking balance sheets upside down as they were forced to mark-to-market.

What few people realized that in the absence of true value for physical property – as assessed by a licensed engineer – there is are only theoretical values to work with in the enormous and complicated financial markets.   If only a small percentage of properties had a valid EPLI, this data could be extrapolated onto all properties to establish a nominal true value for real estate. Banks could then “mark-to-value” rather than mark to market. True value must be disclosed to everyone equally; only from there, we can be confident that market forces can do their magic.

 

Conclusion:

The current real estate delivery system is inefficient. Every regulation adds litigation, which increases time, complexity, risk, and cost to the transaction. The Institution of professional engineering is underutilized for the ability to eliminate bias, distrust, fraud, and other conditions that can diminish the value of a property.  The Institution of professional engineering is also greatly under utilized for validating information that could increase the utility, value, and re-sale of a property.

Taken together the Engineering Pre-Listing Inspection suite is a simple and inexpensive way to increase the speed, security, and efficiency of 140 million American’s most important transaction.