California approves PEX for state plumbing code

Jan. 24, 2009
The California Building Standards Commission has approved the use of PEX plumbing for domestic water systems

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — The California Building Standards Commission has approved the use of PEX plumbing for domestic water systems, finally following the lead of every other state and many of its own counties and municipalities that have already approved the use of PEX.

The action that the CBSC took was to certify the Environmental Impact Report on PEX tubing. In doing so, the CBSC adopted regulations approving PEX water distribution systems into the California Plumbing Code. The new regulations take effect Aug. 1, 2009. Until then, local jurisdictions can adopt a code to use PEX in new and remodel construction before statewide adoption.

“Today’s decision represents a victory for the trade and for the consumer in California,” said Rich Houle, Uponor associate product manager, commercial. “Contractors and consumers finally have access to an environmentally superior product that will provide a durable solution to the state's aggressive water conditions, while meeting California’s high standards for drinking-water quality.”

“This is a great day for consumers and a great day for the building industry in California,” said Richard Church, executive director of the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association.

“PEX has probably been studied, scrutinized and analyzed more than any non-metal building material in history,” said Church. “The result is a win-win for consumers and the environment.”

The exhaustive EIR approved by the CBSC concluded that the use of PEX as outlined was an “environmentally superior alternative,” meaning that that the inclusion of PEX in the California Plumbing Code was a “greener” alternative to leaving PEX out of the code.

Manufacturers have been actively pursuing the adoption of PEX tubing in the California Plumbing Code since 2000. Three years of litigation resulted in a decision by the CBSC to conduct a full Environmental Impact Report on PEX tubing and its impact on air quality, water quality and performance. In addition, the report evaluates PEX tubing installation, use and disposability, as well as manufacturing processes in the areas of waste, recycling, energy consumption and natural resources.

Conducted from October 2007 through December 2008, the EIR states that the adoption of PEX tubing into the California Plumbing Code with proposed regulations would be “an environmentally superior action with respect to public health and hazards, water quality and air quality.”

Currently, 180 municipalities and counties within the state have approved the use of PEX tubing as an alternate material to copper and other materials used for plumbing piping. Millions of feet of PEX tubing are in use in water distribution systems in residential and commercial applications throughout California.

In a materials table, the code change was noted by striking out the wording that said, “The use of PEX … in potable water supply systems is not adopted for applications under the authority of the California Building Standards Commission, the Division of State Architect and the Department of Housing and Community Development.”

Oddly enough, the prohibition of PEX-AL-PEX was not changed even though they are essentially the same materials.

The state plumbing code is based on the International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials’ Uniform Plumbing Code. Sections of the code dealing with PEX, PEX fittings and water heater connections had previously been annotated, “Not adopted by BSC, HCD, DSA/SS, DHS, AGR, and OSHPD.”

Those state entities referenced are the Building Standards Commission, Department of Housing and Community Development, Division of the State Architect, Department of Public Health, which was previously called the Department of Health Services, Department of Food and Agriculture and the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

The code change was opposed by the Coalition for Safe Building Materials, which is composed of California Pipe Trades Council, Consumer Federation of California, California Professional Firefighters, Planning and Conservation League, Center for Environmental Health, Sierra Club California, and Communities for a Better Environment. The coalition expressed concerns that PEX pipe would leach Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) and tert-butyl alcohol (TBA) into the water.

Some of the letters appeared to be part of an orchestrated letter writing campaign by a PEX manufacturer. The letters stated, in near identical wording, that the contractor had been installing PEX pipe for a certain number of years, stated the number of homes in which PEX had been installed, often in the hundreds or thousands, and that PEX had never created any problems.

A comment by contractor Griffin Industries, Calabasas, Calif., stated that the firm had installed PEX in more than 5,000 homes and businesses since 1998 without a failure. It had, however, experienced numerous failures over the past 30 years in copper and galvanized steel pipe because of aggressive water conditions.

A West Sacramento building official wrote that he has been approving PEX in his jurisdiction since 1996 with no complaints about taste and odor problems or premature failure of the pipe. He also noted that PEX was approved for use in kidney dialysis machines but not for plumbing in California.

A commenter from Stanford University Medical Center pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had approved PEX for use in medical devices.

The BSC was persuaded by extensive comments from NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation), Ann Arbor, Mich., on its NSF/ANSI Standard 61 drinking water standard.

“We are perplexed,” NSF stated in its comments about some of the chemicals listed by those who objected to approval of PEX, such as benzene or trichloroethylene, which don’t exist in any PEX pipe produced by any manufacturer. NSF also stated that MTBE or TBA might exist in PEX pipe when it’s newly manufactured but that it dissipates in 90 days to levels that are not considered human health risks by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The complete 296-page CBSC Final Environmental Impact Report is available in Adobe Acrobat format by clicking here.

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