February 13, 2013
Addressing Condominium Water Failures Before They Happen
by Dan Robles
Water system renewal can be a confusing process and certainly not a hands-off affair for the insurer. A qualified owner's representative is needed to help navigate the landscape of technologies and contractors who sell them.
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.
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 Association (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 Homeowners Association 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 Homeowners Associations can fall for a slick contractor peddling inferior products. Potable water is a matter than requires rational analysis.
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 Homeowners Association 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 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 are that special fusing irons and specially trained installers are required.
Water system renewal can be a confusing process — and certainly not a hands-off affair for the insurer. A qualified owner's representative is needed 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.