The material has had a long history with California regulators, judges and various consumer and environmental groups who cite concerns about alleged chemical leaching and failure risks, among other concerns, as reasons enough to keep the tubing out of the state for potable water purposes.
This story will start on Jan. 22, 2009. That's the date when California became the 50th state in the union to approve PEX for use throughout the state in commercial and residential projects and not just as an "alternate material." Approval by the California Building Standards Commission took place following certification of a nearly 300-page environmental impact report that took more than two years to produce, indicating PEX met the standards of the California Environmental Quality Act and was officially part of the codes on Aug. 1, 2009.
Richard Church, director of the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association in Glen Ellyn, Ill., called approval a, "great day" for consumers and the state's building industry. He said the brief removal of PEX from the code was the result of ongoing legal wrangling, even after initial approval by the CBSC. An appeal of the material's approval was filed by a coalition of groups, including the California State Pipe Trades Council, which represents thousands of plumbers and pipefitters at locals throughout the state, along with The Sierra Club, California Professional Firefighters and the Consumer Federation of California. This was in turn appealed by the PPFA and other proponents.
"Because of the appeal PEX stayed in the code," Church said. "This past spring, the [coalition] went back to the same judge and asked that the judge rule the state had to take PEX out of the code even though there was an appeal pending, which he did. That was the period of time over the part of the summer when PEX was actually out of the code. Even though PPFA appealed the judge's decision on the old environmental impact report, the state decided to do some more work on it and update it along the lines of the criticisms made by the Plumbers Union coalition."
Those criticisms alleged PEX can leach levels of Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether in amounts exceeding California Safe Drinking Water standards. Other concerns were raised as well, Church said, including allegations the material gets permeated by hydrocarbons in the soil, the material's use in hot water recirculation, and troubles with some fittings. "The final thing is they thought PEX might be subject to UV damage if it were in the sun outside too long," Church said.
Dale Stroud is the senior manager, new business development/market research for Uponor, Inc. Uponor is one of a number of large PEX manufacturers and the company issued statements over the summer predicting its reinstatment.
"The coalition filed a suit claiming that the environmental impact report that served as the basis for the inclusion of PEX in the plumbing code did not fully satisfy the requirements of CEQA," Stroud said. "As it turned out, the settlement that finally occurred just a few weeks ago had an inclusion that requires flushing the system after a plumbing system was installed. The reason for that was the coalition's concern there may be some residual component leaching from the PEX into the water."
Inquiries to the California State Pipe Trades Council executive director Rod Cameron were referred to Thomas Enslow, an attorney with the Sacramento firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo. Enslow represented the Council and "numerous consumer, public health and environmental organizations in the recent lawsuit challenging the state's approval of PEX."
"As you are probably aware, we recently settled the lawsuit resulting in the state approving PEX in California with a number of restrictions and conditions designed to protect consumers, building occupants and workers," Enslow said.
The settlement agreement which got PEX back into the California code is quite detailed, but boils down to five key mitigation measures and restrictions:
First, PEX in a potable water system that's buried in soil has to be sleeved with a "material approved for potable water use in soil or other material that is impermeable to solvents or petroleum products";
Next, if PEX is used in a hot water recirculation system, the material must meet or exceed ASTM F876-08 performance requirements;
Brass fittings used with PEX now have to meet or exceed the NSF 14-2009 requirements to prevent dezincification and stress crack corrosion;
Any PEX installation where it is the "initial plumbing piping installed in new construction" now must be flushed twice, following a specific procedure, over the course of a week. And building officials are going to ask for written certification from installers the flushing requirements will be complied with before a permit to install PEX will be issued;
And finally, that all PEX pipe installed in California must provide at least 30 days of protection against ultraviolet light, just in case it's left in the sun on a job site. Additional details of the settlement agreement can be found online.
"It was officially posted on the California Building Standards Commission web site on Aug. 18. Accompanying that was emergency regulation placing PEX back in the code immediately," Uponor's Stroud said, adding the PEX in California saga may well be over. Were the events of the summer of 2010 just a little regulatory hiccup, with the result being everybody loves PEX now? Could anything happen that could get PEX taken out of the code in California again?
"We don't know of anything of that would cause it to be removed from the code again," Stroud said. "The coalition that initially did not want PEX in the code came out in official support of the revised environmental impact report. In fact there was a joint communication issued by the coalition, the Building Standards Commission, and the Center for Environmental Health and the PPFA all supporting it. In fact the attorney for the coalition publicly spoke at the Building Standards Commission supporting the environmental impact report and the adoption of the regulation to put PEX back into the code. That doesn't mean somebody else couldn't do something, but I believe there will be no further actions taken by the parties in this particular case."
PPFA's Church agreed, addressing some concerns that the underlying reason PEX had been so strongly opposed in California may have been a concern for jobs.
"That's always been kind of what we thought. I don't know how to prove that plastic pipe in general has created more work for plumbers than it has taken away, but I really believe that. When you think of there being two cast iron foundries where there used to be 12 not all that many years ago, what would you do without plastic?" he asked, adding the real winner in the situation is California consumers.
"Especially consumers, who have had trouble with [other piping systems] in areas where either the ground or the water is so aggressive that repiping has been epidemic,' Church said. "This gives contractors a real tool to help the consumer. Now there are choices."
The bottom line for contractors in the Golden State is that PEX is still approved (with a few additional restrictions). Uponor's Stroud echoed the positive sentiments from PPFA's Church, suggesting the state's approval of the material provides contractors and consumers with, "unfettered access to a reliable, easy to install, economical, a long-lasting plumbing system."