CBC MARKETPLACE: HOME » LEAKY
Leaky plastic pipes drain homeowners' patience
Broadcast: February 9, 1999
of Canadian homeowners,
it's a nightmare that's come true: a leak
in the plumbing, somewhere behind the drywall, under the new and
expensive tiles. This is a story that's caused untold headaches for
homeowners, millions of dollars in lawsuits south of the border and
now it's a story the Canadian Standards Association doesn't want
you to hear.
Pierre Laflamme is a Quebec City
businessman. In 1985 he had a new home built in the suburbs. The
first problems showed up in 1992.
That year, his plumbing sprang not one but three leaks. Laflamme
ripped out walls, replaced the pipe, and covered it up. But in
it happened again, just one leak this time, and again last fall,
four more leaks.
Several renovations and several
thousand dollars later, Laflamme was fed up. He went to see a lawyer.
"It's simple," he says. "I want
to change all the pipes."
In Quebec, more than 100
homeowners have complained about the leaky pipes
Laflamme is not the only one to complain about the pipes.
In Quebec, more than 100 homeowners
with similar problems have contacted lawyer Denis Borgias.
joined 3,000 other consumers in a Vancouver-based class action
suit. The suit is aimed at three big U.S. companies -- it charges
that they've known about the problems for years.
"I think it's deplorable that certain
manufacturers would dare put such a product on the market knowing
it was defective," Laflamme says.
The plumbing in Laflamme's home
is a polybutylene system. That's "PolyB," or "PB" for short:
of grey polybutylene pipe linked with acetal fittings. The U.S.
named in the law suit make the raw materials.
PolyB systems were introduced in
the late 1970's for home plumbing and for hot water heating. They
were easier to install than traditional copper and cheaper too
-- at least in the short term.
Pierre Laflamme is angry with
the manufacturers of the PolyB pipes
as Pierre Laflamme has discovered, there can serious long-term
costs with PolyB plumbing and that's left him, in his words, "very
angry, very shocked and frustrated."
Laflamme is angry with the manufacturers.
But he's very angry with the Canadian regulators for allowing the
defective product on the market. "What really strikes me is the
CSA logo," Laflamme says, pointing out that the pipe in his house
was approved by the Canadian Standards Association.
It was the CSA that certified PolyB
for use in this country, so where are they now that it's starting
to leak? CSA refused speak to us on camera. They wanted to know
what all the fuss was about. Their records show only two cases
all of Canada where the CSA approved product failed. But Pierre
Laflamme's case isn't on their list.
The Atkinson's list of leaks
Don and Barb Atkinson count themselves
unfortunate colleagues of Pierre Laflamme. They're afraid to travel,
and they don't leave their Vancouver home without shutting off the
water for fear of leaks.
They moved into the house in 1986
and it was a couple of years later that the leaks started to occur.
"To date we have had 22 leaks that are documented since 1991, and
I can break it down by date," Don says. The Atkinson's list continues
to grow; the most recent tally is $1,946.82 over the eight years.
A look at their pipes reveals cracks which could have started
as small pinhole leaks that ruptured. They have water marks on
their ceiling and to fix that problem, plumbers have to cut holes
in the ceiling.
And the Atkinsons, too, note the CSA stamp on the pipes.
The Atkinsons probably aren't on the CSA list
either, but it's not for lack of trying. Don Atkinson sent CSA
a piece of defective pipe in 1996 and called the agency a dozen
times. "I did try contacting
them but they didn't return my calls," he says.
CSA was no help, so next the Atkinsons called a lawyer. Jim Poyner
is the Vancouver lawyer leading the Canadian class action suit.
"We made inquiries of different plumbers, and one thing led to
another and we determined that there were a number of people with
the same kind of problem," says Poyner.
is collecting samples of defective pipe and the names of consumers
who have PolyB systems. He says there's no shortage of either,
noting "our studies indicate that there are some 700,000 homes
across Canada that have been affected."
What exactly is wrong with polybutylene plumbing systems? We
asked Vancouver plumber Kirk Snowden who's making a good living
fixing PolyB plumbing. He says there are three distinct problems.
The most expensive problem happens when PolyB pipe is connected
to a home heating system. Strangely, it's oxygen getting into the
water through the walls of the pipe that causes the damage, not water
says the oxygenated water circulates through the system and can rust
out the boiler, the heat exchanger and the pump in just two or three
years. Normally such components can last up to 40 years.
The raw material for PolyB pipe is made by Shell in the US. Snowden
says that newer pipes are coated to stop oxygen from getting in.
But that only solves one problem. The second problem is the joints.
Simply put, they can leak.
Snowden knows from experience that the joints can
leak. To find out why they leak, we talked to Steve Reiber, an
engineer and water quality specialist in Bellevue, Washington.
"It's fairly well understood now that there was in fact a problem
with the polybutylene piping system, at least in terms of a drinking
water application," says Reiber.
"Not specifically the polybutylene
pipe, but rather some of the fittings that were used in the polybutylene
Reiber wrote the book on plastic pipe failures in 1993. He found
that the acetal fittings are attacked by the chlorine in water.
That means that the T connectors and elbows in a PolyB system can
crack and flake after several years. And when that happens, the
The raw material for those joints was made
by DuPont and Hoechst Celanese Corporation in the US.
Given that chlorine is widely used in the United States and Canada
to disinfect water, how is it the manufacturers of this system didn't
anticipate that this problem would arise?
According to Reiber, "clearly something
may have been lacking in their test protocol."
Reiber's six-year-old report is available
to anyone who cares to ask for it, including the experts at the
CSA. Jim Poyner has a copy in his files.
And so did the lawyers representing the thousands of US consumers
who had problems with the product. They have successfully sued several
times, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
In a 1995 settlement in
Tennessee, Hoechst-Celanese and Shell agreed to set aside $950 US
million for American consumers. There's even a hotline for consumer
complaints. That's because a third PB problem is now evident -- poor
The manufacturer of the polybutylene was shipping bad product and
what's more, Poyner says, company officials knew it was bad.
interoffice memo on the Shell Chemical letterhead date 1982, from
a person named R.F. Schimbor, addressed to several different people,
obviously in the Shell organization, is revealing.
In the memo, Schimbor says "... either we
immediately improve our quality... or be prepared to throw in
the towel... "
there's another memo, from 1979, this one addressed to R.F. Shimbor.
The writer states "I think Keith wants us to level with him. Admit
our product stinks."
again in March 1982, a letter written by the same person, R.F.
Shimbor on Shell letterhead to a Mr. Sullivan which deals with
the problems they are having with the product.
He says "serious
product complaints from customers -- both foreign and domestic
-- continue at high levels... problems abound..."
And on the same
page further down he adds, "our consultant in Canada is beginning
to achieve success."
So ... on the same page they have "problems
abound" and then right underneath it is written "Market Development." They
are focusing on Canada.
But the makers of PolyB aren't talking to
Poyner, and they wouldn't talk to Marketplace either, at least
not on camera. They said they couldn't comment in detail while
the issue is before the courts.
They did say that Canadians
can call the complaint hotline and in certain cases can get
their plumbing repaired.
But Canadians aren't covered
by the U.S. settlements and that's why Canadian consumers
have launched their own class action suit to get compensation
for damages caused by a product which, remember, is CSA certified.
The involvement of the standards organization
leaves Poyner mystified.
amazes me," he says. "It absolutely astounds me that the CSA would
approve this type of product... I don't know the answer to that one."