The behind-the-scenes story about why (and whether) Chinese cast iron pipe is banned in Michigan.

For more than 30 years, I have been a big advocate of the codes and standards process. As you know from reading my columns, I have supported codes and the reference of consensus standards in those codes. My reasoning is simple: Codes level the playing field. Consensus standards allow everyone the opportunity to compete.

Too often, I see codes and standards used to restrict trade or market an individual product. That is not the purpose of codes and standards. However, unfortunately, that is a reality that exists in this profession.

Case In Point

A little more than a year ago, I received a call from a manufacturer of Chinese no-hub cast iron soil pipe. The manufacturer informed me that they were having problems receiving approval from the State of Michigan. I asked a number of questions regarding the Chinese cast iron pipe.

I was informed that the pipe had been listed by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) as being in conformance to ASTM A888. Furthermore, IAPMO continues to list the pipe and perform periodic in-plant inspections.

In this brief conversation, I said it appears to me that the pipe clearly conforms to the requirements of the International Plumbing Code, and that the company doesn’t need me to assist them in gaining approval. The manufacturer insisted that they wanted my help anyway, since they have come upon a brick wall in trying to gain approval.

I said that I knew the Chief Plumbing Inspector, Bob Konyndyk, personally, and would see what I could do. I asked them to forward all of the information that they sent to the State of Michigan, and I would review the file.

After receiving the file, I placed a call to my good friend Bob. He asked me to come to Michigan to discuss the file and review what had been previously submitted. During this initial meeting, I was informed that, prior to using the IAPMO T&S (later renamed IAPMO R&T Laboratories), there was another lab that tested the Chinese cast iron.

Bob was dismayed with this other lab and thought they did a poor job of evaluating the pipe. I should point out that all of us in the industry know Bob as being a stickler. That is not a problem, since I would prefer to have a stickler versus someone who doesn’t even look at any of the details of a product. I asked Bob to ignore the other reports since the only one that mattered was the IAPMO Test Report.

When we discussed the IAPMO Test Report, Bob raised some questions about the measurements that were made of the pipe. I contacted IAPMO and they acknowledged that the wall thickness readings were not properly reported. Hence, they modified the report and issued an updated one.

Bob then went on to find a typo in the revised report. A 3” dimension was listed as 2”. This happens all the time in test reports. Again, IAPMO corrected the report and issued a revised report.

This is the point where things went downhill. Bob became “uncomfortable” with the IAPMO Test Report and the quality control reports from the manufacturer. Mind you, the Test Report and quality control reports all indicated that the Chinese pipe conformed to the ASTM standard and the International Plumbing Code, which is adopted by the State of Michigan.

After many meetings, telephone calls, letters and e-mails, Bob kept telling me that he remained “uncomfortable.” I asked for a review by the State Plumbing Board. Bob issued a report stating that the Chinese pipe did not conform since I had not complied with his list of requirements. This infuriated me, since I had complied with all of Bob’s requests, but he simply remained “uncomfortable.”

At the State Plumbing Board meeting, it became obvious that most of the Board members did not go into the minutia of reviewing the pipe. They relied on the report from the Chief Plumbing Inspector. Furthermore, the Cast Iron Soil Pipe Institute (CISPI) made an appearance in an attempt to obfuscate and confuse the Board. To CISPI’s credit, they never said the pipe didn’t comply with the standard or the International Plumbing Code - only that they had concerns.

The Plumbing Board simply went along with the Chief Plumbing Inspector and refused to offer a recommendation for approval of the pipe.

The next step was the Construction Code Commission. The Commission has the authority to approve products statewide in Michigan. The Commission was presented with more than 200 pages of information on the Chinese pipe. With less than two weeks to read this information, it was somewhat obvious that the majority of the Commission members did not have the time to digest all of the material.

Once again, Bob presented his mantra of not being “comfortable.” Of course, you throw in the comments about protecting the citizens of the great state of Michigan. It was almost like saying, “The other states that already approved the Chinese pipe be damned.”

The Commission members seemed eager to simply go along with the Chief Plumbing Inspector. That is how they voted.

Spinning the Truth

Following the vote, the spin machines went wild. “Chinese pipe banned in Michigan.” All of the spin couldn’t be further from the truth. But then again, what do you expect from those that use spin rather than the technical wherewithal to support their arguments. Chinese pipe is still approved by local jurisdictions in Michigan and is still being used.

Here was a Chinese pipe manufacturer, at the end of their wits, asking: What happened to the system?

The code references a standard. It is the manufacturer’s obligation to comply with the standard. One means of showing compliance is the listing of the product by an approved testing agency. Of the plumbing listing agencies, IAPMO is one of the most widely respected and used by manufacturers.

Should a gut reaction, “I’m not comfortable,” be able to prevent a state from approving a piping product? In my opinion, not only “No,” but “Hell no!”

This is a perfect example of the system failing the Plumbing Code and consensus standard. The legal system works on checks and balances, not personal prejudices of an individual that chooses to abuse their power.

The only step left is the courts. Unfortunately, it is a situation like this that leads to unnecessary legal cases that clog the courts.

By the way, I am a proud American that likes American pipe. I specify one manufacturer in particular because of their unending support of the plumbing engineering community. But we all must fight for proper use and application of the Plumbing Codes and Standards. That includes supporting the right of foreign manufacturers to sell their products. That is what we call a free market society. Plumbing codes and standards are not meant to be used as protectionism tools.