BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
SEATTLE — PEX tubing manufactured by Plasco Manufacturing Co., Regina, Saskatchewan, has been blamed for heating system failures in approximately 70 homes in the Seattle area.
Whether the tubing is at fault is debatable. One thing for certain is the heating systems in the houses are a train wreck. When Steve Murray of Northwest Mechanical who’s fixing the systems was asked who designed them, his answer was nobody.
“I can’t find any documentation of anybody doing the design,” said Murray, who’s working for the attorney representing the homeowners.
The problem came to widespread attention when television station KIRO in Seattle aired a report that blamed Plasco and the tubing. Indeed, the tubing was bursting, but that may be a symptom and not the disease.
“Like many in our industry, the staff of Plasco Manufacturing were very disappointed with the incomplete, misleading and sensational investigative report entitled, ‘The Heating System that Doesn’t Work,’ which aired February 3 on Seattle TV station KIRO,” said Plasco’s Vice President of Operations Travis Wiens in a prepared statement. “Plasco has been in the business of manufacturing quality plastic tubing since 1977 and is a registered ISO 9001 and 14001 company. We carry all necessary listings and are committed to continuous product and manufacturing process improvements.”
The statement then notes that billions of feet of PEX tubing has been installed worldwide.
“Evidence suggests that our tubing was not properly handled after it left our control,” the statement continues. “As with all products, our PEX-D pipe is subject to temperature and pressure limitations and must be handled, stored and installed in an appropriate manner. We continue to investigate the causes behind the failures experienced at Blueberry [the development], and our top priority is to restore homeowner confidence and satisfaction. We are absolutely committed to the idea that all systems containing our products will perform as advertised and meet customer expectations. We remain confident that our products were not at fault in the situation and we continue to stand behind the quality of all tubing manufactured by Plasco.”
Plasco is now a division of Uponor, although it was not in the mid to late 1990s when the tubing in question was installed.
Murray said the development is upscale condos and townhouses in duplex and four-plex buildings. It’s a gated community. The heating systems were probably promoted as hydronic and maybe even as radiant although they are not.
The units are hydro-air with seven to eight fan coil units. The heat source is a standard low input gas water heater. The fan coil units are controlled with individual line voltage thermostats, usually five in each home with some thermostats controlling two fan coils. The thermostats turn on a circulator at the water heater. The circulator also has a summer switch that turns it off. Nevertheless, some kind of heat is always passing through the fan coil units if the circulator is running even if their individual fans are not running. The piping is laid out as an open system with the same water being used for heating and domestic hot water. The components were connected with potable water-grade PEX. Murray said the water sits there in the pipes all summer and the pipes contain sludge and slime. He’s worried about Legionnaires Disease.
Such poorly thought out systems are too common in the Pacific Northwest, he said.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen an awful lot of this around here,” Murray said. “Forced-air heating companies thought they could get into this market.”
Surprisingly, a division of a reputable and well-known company, MacDonald-Miller Residential, installed these heating systems.
The undersized water heaters could not supply both domestic hot water and the 15,000-18,000 Btuh needed for heating, Murray continued. With a heating load, the water heaters could not produce more than 110°F water at steady state conditions, no matter how high the homeowners had cranked the thermostat. By the time the water reached the convectors it was probably around 100°F.
Water heaters began failing before five years as flue gas condensation from the non-stop struggle to meet the load corroded the tanks.
The systems have been so patched up that Murray is not sure what was there originally.
“There are all kinds of mismatched metals in the system,” Murray said “There are some black iron fittings at the hot water tank connection to the heating side of loop, which is still an open system, galvanized tees in some spots and mixtures of galvanized, copper and Kitec [PEX-aluminum-PEX] tubing. It’s tough to say what was there originally because so many repairs have been made. The Kitec connects from the water heater to the manifold but it was just strung willy-nilly to get there. I think they got into something that they thought would be easy but they didn’t take the time to train people to understand it. I don’t know if a licensed plumber worked on this job. I’ve talked with people on the project and they were not licensed plumbers, so that’s a severe violation there.”
The question remains who is going to pay for this mess. One target is MacDonald-Miller, although Chris Casey, an attorney for the homeowners, said that MacDonald-Miller is arguing that the corporate entity that installed the systems no longer exists.
Chuck Orton, the president of MacDonald-Miller Residential, said he was one of the partners in the old McDonald-Miller organization that was sold to Group Maintenance America Corp. in 1997. MacDonald-Miller Residential was not one of the entities sold. Orton briefly went to work for GroupMAC/Encompass in Houston. He left Encompass and, with other partners, bought the assets of MacDonald-Miller Residential in July 2001. Since Encompass filed for bankruptcy, some other key players bought back MacDonald-Miller and are operating it as MacDonald-Miller Facilities Services, Orton said.
“This particular business is a different company with different ownership that the company prior to July 2, 2001,” said Orton, who commented that he’d probably said far more than his lawyer would be comfortable with. He said the lawyer for the insurance companies of the predecessor firm was handling the lawsuits. The lawyer did not return phone calls from CONTRACTOR.
“MacDonald-Miller Residential was purchased in 2001 by a holding company that retained the name and the employees and it goes under another name,” explained attorney Casey. “And since the purchaser is not the company that did the install, we got nobody to sue, so it’s crafty as hell.
“They saw this coming down the pike in 2000 and 2001 when they started getting complaints from homeowners, so they sold the company,” Casey continued. “They’re still using MacDonald-Miller trucks and people but technically they don’t exist.”
Casey estimates that it will cost $25,000 per unit for repairs.
Meanwhile, Murray figures all the units must be completely re-piped within the next 12 months or else risk huge property damage.
“I have hundreds of people madder than hell who want their systems fixed,” he said.