Tag: polypropylene

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.

 

Addressing Water System Failures Before They Happen

water failure

In the heyday of the real estate bubble, developers flipped tens of thousands of apartment structures into condominiums – with little regard for the condition of the potable water system. Many of these galvanized steel or early copper systems are rapidly approaching the end of their service life.  Unseen, a small leak can cause thousands of dollars of damage and a ruptured main riser can amount to millions of dollars in claims and severe hardship for the community of homeowners.

Many Factors are involved

While it may be tempting to react to failure statistics, not all water systems are equal. Water chemistry varies substantially across the country, as do workmanship and materials quality – these variables may have a greater influence on mode and consequences of the failure than the age of the system itself.  The least appropriate action may be for the insurer to put the community in an emergency situation.  Poor or rushed Homeowners Associations (HOA) decisions can end up costing everyone far more than a properly replaced system that is well planned.

Insurers must first help the community to resolve to replace their potable water system.  Then, they must encourage the community to have a comprehensive piping condition assessment overseen by a qualified engineering representative. It is essential to determine the stability of the existing system without the threat of policy cancellation. Small leaks may be tolerable as long as the possibility of a large rupture is fairly remote – they are not necessarily related conditions.  Once these probabilities are known, then good decisions regarding a replacement system can be made.

Unfortunately, The HOA board is often left with a daunting task of selecting the right technology that both heals the pain and fits the budget. All pipe renewal solutions have different risks and vulnerabilities and many HOAs can fall for a slick contractor’s peddling inferior products. Potable water is a matter than requires rational analysis.

Piping Materials:

The three main classifications of piping renewal materials on the market include epoxy liner, copper re-pipe, or a variety of plastic products.  All have vulnerabilities and limitations so it is important for the insurer to take a deep hard look at the risks while the HOA can focus on the costs.

Epoxy Pipe Liner

Epoxy pipe liner is a continuous paint-like coating that is blown through an existing pipe system that has been cleaned by an abrasive sandblasting. Epoxy has the advantage of being relatively fast and minimally invasive. The problem with epoxy is there is no certain way to know the pipe is clean on the inside and no certain way to know if the cleaning process compromises the strength of the pipe.  Finally, if we were to test the epoxy, and adhesion is shown to be poor – then what?  There is no way to remove the epoxy and breaking the continuity of the coating breaks the protection. Our research has found that an epoxy failure can very likely happen at the exact place where the pipe is already at its weakest. This does little to mitigate the peril of the multi-million dollar rupture claim.  While we are confident that epoxy may be applied correctly, we are not confident the epoxy would be risk/cost competitive over a far superior re-pipe.

New Copper Re-pipe:

Copper is a very familiar to most people from its use in the penny.  The tarnish that forms on copper actually protects it from corrosion. Under the right conditions, a 50-year service life is a reasonable expectation if that tarnish coat is not disrupted. Copper plumbing has been extensively studied and many professional codes and standards apply to its use. Consequently, many copper failures can be traced directly back as failures to apply these standards; improper design, poor workmanship, aggressive water chemistry, or inferior materials, etc. All are known perils, which may be avoided or mitigated with the assistance of a good technical advisor representing the best interest of the owners.

Cross Linked Polyethylene (PEX)

PEX is a white or colored plastic that is fairly stiff but also quite flexible.  A slightly weaker form is commonly used in plastic milk jugs. PEX has been used in the US for 20-25 years, and has demonstrated an excellent track record in millions of installations.  PEX is easy to install, relatively low cost, and enjoys broad market acceptance.   PEX has two main problems – both of which are avoidable.  Lawsuits have been filed over failures due to ‘dezincification’ of low cost brass fittings.  It is extremely important to avoid some sources of fittings with high zinc composition in alloy.  Lawsuits have also been filed over the leaching of chemical compounds from types A and C PEX – the use of Type B PEX largely eliminates this problem.   Again, a good owner’s representative can help navigate this landscape. Many other plastic piping materials exist, but not without similar controversies.

New Polypropylene Pipe

A newcomer to the pipe materials selection is polypropylene – polypropylene is a common recyclable material with important uses in medical and food grade applications. Polypropylene is a very simple molecule of carbon and hydrogen – nothing bad goes in so nothing bad can leach out.  While new to the US, we have traced its use in Europe to at least 30 years back with a very low failure incident rate. Polypropylene has excellent thermal and acoustic properties and is widely considered the most environmentally friendly piping material available.  Some disadvantages include special fusing irons and specially trained installers are required.

Addressing Water System Failures Before They Happen

Water system renewal can be a confusing process – and certainly not a hands-off affair for the insurer.  A qualified owner’s representative to help navigate the landscape of technologies and contractors who sell them.  When the project is complete, the representative can help petition the underwriter, the financial industry, and the real estate market for adjustments that reflect the value of your renewed new system.   The technical representative can help eliminate engineering and construction risks without interfering with the normal dynamics of a wise and proactive homeowners association.