California hangs on to PEX pipe plans, for now

by Matt Defosse, Modern Plastics Worldwide

An appeal filed on December 31, 2009 by the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association (PPFA; Glen Ellyn, IL) means that, for now, cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) could still be used in California for pipe and tubing in plumbing, including drinking water pipes and tubing. But the fight in that state over the material’s plumbing use continues, as it has for more than five years.

PPFA appealed the ruling by a lower court on the question of the approval of cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) piping in the California Plumbing Code. The appeal keeps in place the regulations, which took effect August 1, 2009, that first approved the use of PEX in the Code. But in fact, PEX already was being chosen in about half of all new homes built in the state, according to Richard Church, executive director of PPFA, who spoke with MPW.

He said the percentage is based on a survey of plumbing supplies’ companies in the state. More than 300 communities in the state already had opted for local approval of PEX before the material’s use statewide was approved last August. One reason, said Church, is that copper tubing had proven near-worthless in some communities where dirt and rocks containe aggressive minerals that were limiting copper tubing’s lifespan to a year or even less.

In the latest twist on the ongoing fight, the California Building Standards Commission’s approval of PEX in its Code has been challenged by a group of organizations, led by the California Pipe Trades Council (CPTC), the union representing plumbers and pipe fitters, which argued that health risks associated with PEX plumbing were being overlooked. A cynic might note that installation of copper pipe and tubing is about twice as expensive as that for plastics alternatives with that increased cost stemming mostly from labor costs.

Specifically, the CPTC and other groups convinced the Alameda Superior Court to file a judgment on December 30, 2009 overturning the state’s approval of PEX drinking water pipe, with the Court finding that the state failed to consider health risks from chemicals that it says may leach from PEX pipe.

The Court also found that the state failed to evaluate drinking water taste and odor impacts caused by leaching and failed to address the risk of PEX pipe failure in certain applications. Joining the CPTC to file the lawsuit was a diverse coalition of groups: the Center for Environmental Health, the Consumer Federation of California, the Planning and Conservation League, California Professional Firefighters and Sierra Club California.

Church argued that the Almeda court’s ruling failed to recognize evidence from an environmental review of PEX and data supporting the California Building Standards Commission’s determination that PEX does not pose a significant risk to human health.

The PPFA is a non-profit organization of North American companies primarily engaged in processing of plastic pipe and fittings for plumbing and piping applications typically installed on the building premises. Church noted that PVC pipe/tubing is also approved for plumbing use in the state, he said, but its approval was not countered by any legal action.