Issue: 5/03

The decision to include or eliminate a building material in the building code may be argued on its virtues, environmental impact and health issues; in reality, it's more likely a case of political clout. The role of politics regarding the inclusion or exclusion of plastic pipe and fittings in building codes is unmistakable, as well as legendary.

Properly chosen and properly installed plastic pipe and fittings are a viable choice in just about any plumbing application. They have been proven to be cost effective, easy to install, corrosion resistant, durable and environmentally beneficial. The plastic pipe and fittings manufacturing community has known this for decades and has worked diligently to educate the construction industry, the regulatory community and the general public. They have been successful on all fronts. Plastic pipe and fittings are now frequently chosen for use in new and remodeled construction throughout the country in single family, residential and many commercial installations.

Model code acceptance of plastic pipe and fittings as well as education have driven this acceptance. Plumbing codes are the basis for acceptance of materials for specific plumbing installations and for the methods of installation. Model plumbing codes, sponsored by associations of building inspectors or other industry groups, are the basis for most of the codes adopted by more than 14,000 local jurisdictions in this country, and they govern the choice and installation of plumbing, and for that matter, all building materials. They ensure public safety by the use of consensus standards. Through a process of consolidation and alliances, the number of model codes has dwindled from almost a dozen to two. They are the International Codes and the C3 Code System.

Most local codes--whether they are municipal, county, state, etc.--are traditionally based on these model codes. While many jurisdictions adopt model codes as they are published, many also have the power to amend codes when they are adopted. In many cases, these amendments apply to particular sections of the code dealing with local conditions or revert to earlier code versions. The Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association (PPFA) and the industry have worked diligently to remove these barriers to the inclusion of plastic pipe and fittings code by code. They have drafted code revisions and provided testimony at the local, state, regional and national levels to gain the acceptance of their products.

Those efforts have paid off. Today, plastic pipe is accepted without restriction in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. And plastic pipe is permissible in most of the remaining states with some minor restrictions in certain applications.

Governmental and/or regulatory bodies moving to accept the use of new and better products has become old news. The real story is the lingering prohibition of plastic pipe by state or municipal codes. Code activities in New York and California underscore the capriciousness of code acceptance. The inclusion or exclusion of an otherwise accepted building product from a model code does more than erode the potential marketplace for the product manufacturer. It limits consumer choices, often to more expensive and less durable options.

New York: Plastics In, Plastics Out

For a number of years, municipal leaders across the state urged code reforms to encourage redevelopment of architecturally important buildings in stagnating downtown areas. Redevelopers willing to tackle projects in downtown areas believed streamlined codes were essential to their success. Both groups were gratified when an administrative committee created by the state legislature successfully updated the state's construction and fire prevention codes to bring them into line with national standards. The work was accomplished over a period of four years by a committee of members with broadly divergent backgrounds. Throughout the process, union interests--particularly from New York City, where plastic pipe had always been met with resistance--tried several times to include limitations on plastic pipe. They were rebuffed each time, including a final effort at the highest level of the acceptance process.

After the code including plastic pipe was approved--and developers and redevelopers bid projects accordingly--the union played its trump card. In the hectic, closing days of the 2001 Legislative Session, the union succeeded in passing a labor law that reinstated cast iron pipe requirements for waste and venting in many structures and limited plastic piping to residential buildings six stories or less in height.

The real story behind this move had little to do with the benefits of either material and everything to do with political muscle and special interests. The Buffalo News reported on December 12, 2002, that the Pipe Trades Political Action Committee contributed more than $146,000 to New York politicians, including $7,000 to Gov. George Pataki and $2,500 to Sen. Nicholas A. Spano, who sponsored the reinstatement bill. Stunned by this turn of events after the support plastic pipe was given in the code process, plastic pipe interests re-visited legislators they had considered "friendly," only to be told that this was simply "politics."

The result has been construction chaos throughout the state. The design and contracting communities are in the unenviable position of having to be knowledgeable in the Plumbing Code and working within the State Labor Law. Redevelopment projects, construction and municipal progress itself are now hostage to the irreconcilable differences between the construction code and the labor law. Developers with projects bid and financed based on the construction code allowing plastic pipe are unwilling--and often unable financially--to bow to the labor law. Observers say one philosophy has been to ignore the labor law requirements, since neither the labor department nor local officials have any means of enforcement. Others have even argued that the labor law is not applicable unless public dollars are involved in the project. One of the more interesting rumors has New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg actually looking at options to loosen the restrictions on plastic pipe--and speed development within the city--before the labor law sunsets at the end of 2005.

For the plastic pipe and fittings industry, however, the political wrangling has held plastic pipe hostage. As it now stands, the New York State Labor Law restricts the use of plastic pipe to residential buildings six stories or less in height. The new State Plumbing Code (IPC) allows plastic pipe for all structures and applications. The real victims here are the people of New York, whose jobs and development opportunities are stymied by special interests.

Taking California to Court

The California Plumbing Code, as adopted by the State Building Standards Commission, allows plastic pipe only under very restricted conditions. This is significantly different from the Uniform Plumbing Code, which is the code used by the State. The differences relate to the use of ABS, CPVC, PEX and PVC.

In 1998, California's Department of Housing and Community Development published a long-awaited environmental impact report on CPVC for drinking water applications. Not surprisingly, the report concluded that CPVC would not adversely affect public health, as its critics alleged. This EIR was challenged in court by the plumbers' union. Through a negotiated settlement, provisions to allow CPVC with special code requirements and restrictions were included in the California Plumbing Code.

California was ready to adopt the latest (2000 Edition) UPC, which included plastic piping without restrictions, when the State Pipe Trades Council filed environmental objections against all plastic pipes. Under political pressure, the Department of Housing and Community Development backed down, striking the expanded use of plastic piping from its proposed code revisions. The effect of this reversal restricted ABS and PVC to a two-story height limitation in residential construction, the special code requirements and restrictions for CPVC remained, and PEX was removed from the code for all applications. The PEX manufacturers and PPFA determined they had no choice but to take the state to court, alleging the state had not fulfilled the requirements of the code adoption process and had acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

The lawsuit pointed out that state law allows jurisdictions to utilize alternate materials. PEX has about 160 local approvals throughout the state, but with nearly 550 separate cities and counties requiring approval, PEX manufacturers and the Plastic Pipe and Fitting Association have argued that their product is discriminated against.

Plastic pipe advocates estimate that the use of plastic piping saves about $500 per home. The bottom line for homeowners is an increase of $50 million in housing costs statewide. Despite the continued but unfounded objections over environmental issues, the Sacramento Bee and others have reported that the plumbers' union has wielded considerable economic clout in the governor's office. Records show it contributed at least $384,000 to the Davis re-election campaign. Records dating back four years, when Davis began his campaign for governor, reveal the plumbers have given him more than $2 million.

Plastics pipe producers, led by PPFA, won their lawsuit against the state of California. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs ordered the inclusion of PEX plastic pipe into the California Plumbing Code (CPC). The ruling agreed that state agencies had acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in excluding PEX from the CPC and found that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) could not be used to exclude PEX, because PEX is a "product" and not a "project" under state law.

Judge Janavs' decision underscores PPFA's position. PEX offers a high quality, affordable product for the distribution of hot and cold drinking water in private homes and apartments, and in commercial installations including offices, factories and shopping centers. PEX has been used throughout the rest of the U.S., Canada and Europe for more than 30 years. More than 180 local jurisdictions in California already approve PEX. By including PEX in the California Plumbing Code, this ruling makes the product available to consumers throughout California.

The Future of Plastic Pipe and Fittings

The use of plastic pipe and fittings will undoubtedly continue to grow. They are durable, cost-effective, environmentally effective products. Plastic pipe and fittings are integral to new options in heating, cooling, and fire sprinkler systems. But perhaps most importantly, disallowing the use of plastic pipe and fittings gives the advantage to special interests, when the real advantage should be to the property owner, who should have the best possible product installed at the lowest long-term cost.