A years-long battle between the PEX plastic plumbing pipe industry and its opponents is continuing in California. A win for the industry was short-lived when a court order on June 17 directed the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) to cancel its approval of the material for residential construction.

Despite its best efforts, the cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) industry has been unable to have its products added to California’s plumbing code for very long. Opponents of the products, including environmentalists and construction unions, have repeatedly filed lawsuits impeding the industry’s progress.

“Up until August 2009, PEX was not in the California plumbing code, and contractors had to rely on their local jurisdictions to approve use of the product,” says Dale Stroud, business strategy manager for PEX manufacturer Uponor. “We know plumbers and their customers have been looking for a product that’s safe, clean, and environmentally friendly, but there’s been resistance against putting it into the state code.”

PEX Battle Timeline

While arguments about the approval of PEX in California have been going on for years, the last 18 months have been particularly volatile.

To illustrate the safety of PEX products in residential construction, the industry performed a detailed Environmental Impact Review (EIR) in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act. The CBSC certified the EIR in January 2009 and directed that PEX be adopted into the state’s plumbing code effective August 1 of that year.

Opposing groups filed a lawsuit in February 2009 claiming the EIR was improperly performed, and a judge issued a court order for the repeal of the PEX approval to the state code. The PEX industry won a stay of the judge’s order, allowing the initial August 1 date to stand; the use of PEX in residential applications was added to the building code that summer as planned.

In December 2009, another opposing lawsuit was filed. “Ultimately, the judge’s original court order stood, and the CBSC had no choice but to vote under threat of contempt of court to abide by the repeal,” Stroud says. “The use of PEX reverted back to the way it had been, in which only local jurisdictions had the power to approve the use of PEX.”

Amid the lawsuits and court arguments, a revised EIR has been published with a comment period through July 19, 2010. Industry manufacturers expect the CBSC to recertify the new EIR in August or September, thereby re-approving PEX for the state code.

Opponents Fight Approval

Builders and plumbers are of the opinion that PEX is easier and faster to install than copper piping, and that third-party testing has shown that the material is safe for consumers. On the other side of the issue, pipefitters unions and environmentalists disagree, claiming that chemicals used in the manufacturing process could be a health hazard.

Groups such as the California State Pipe Trades Council (CPTSC) call the repeal a “victory for Californians,” suggesting that a specific chemical called methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) can leach into drinking water from plastic pipes.

“Evaluating the risks from exposure to MTBE-contaminated drinking water is particularly important to protect the health of construction workers” says Rod Cameron, CSPTC executive director. “Construction workers are often the first people to consume water from newly installed pipe, and because they move from one jobsite to the next, construction workers will be repeatedly exposed to this contaminated water over the course of their work career.”

Industry manufacturers have voiced their disappointment over the course of the California PEX battle.

“Viega, as a long-time manufacturer and seller of PEX, is obviously is disappointed in the continued efforts to derail approval of PEX in California by groups that have historically opposed the use of any plastic pipe in plumbing systems,” says Bill Seiler, chief of staff for Viega. “PEX is a proven product with many advantages, particularly in remodeling applications. It has successfully undergone extensive testing and listing procedures, to include ANSI/NSF 61 on health effects, and Viega will continue to vigorously participate in getting California to join the other 49 states in giving persons a full choice of plumbing materials for their applications and local conditions.”

Indeed, across the United States, California is the lone hold-out for adding PEX to its state plumbing code. Stroud estimates that 60% of single-family homes are currently plumbed with PEX, with the balance falling to copper and CPVC piping. He adds that PEX has been a useful product in repiping applications as well, making it an attractive choice for remodelers.

“PEX has been used in North America for 20 years and in Europe for 40 years,” Stroud says. “The arguments over PEX have made it more difficult for residents of California to enjoy the benefits of a safe, long-lasting plumbing system.”