The Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association is suing six California agencies to allow full use of cross-linked polyethylene pipe.
The suit's real target, however, is a plumbers union's strong influence on government decisions. Manufacturers of cross-linked PE products, known as PEX, want broader access to the California market for hot and cold potable-water distribution.
``The union has forced state agencies to write PEX out of the state plumbing code,'' said Rich Houle, a codes and standards director with Uponor North America Inc. in Apple Valley, Minn.
PEX, which PPFA said is cheaper to buy and install than copper pipe, has been used since about 1985 in the United States and earlier in Europe, the suit said. Houle said Uponor unit Wirsbo Co., also of Apple Valley, has been supplying PEX since 1996 for hot and cold water systems in thousands of California residential sites, including those in Los Angeles.
But the union claims PEX is a new material and ``is writing the [local] jurisdictions saying it is illegal to install PEX,'' Houle said.
More than 130 California local governments have approved use of PEX as an alternate material to transmit hot and cold potable water. California regulators also allow use of PEX in manufactured housing.
But on May 2 the state Building Standards Commission took a step against wider use of PEX. The panel formally asked for a state review of PEX consistent with requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. The move, in effect, delayed a state process of regularly adopting provisions of nationwide model building codes, including the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials' code, which includes PEX as an approved material.
The suit by PPFA, on behalf of its PEX product line committee, asks the court to overturn that decision.
The suit said the state excluded PEX from the new code ``not because of any real health or environmental concerns but because of the political pressures brought to bear by the California Pipe Trades Council.''
``We disagree with the statements made in the writ,'' said Stan Nishimura, executive director of the Building Standards Commission in Sacramento.
History of resistance
The PEX legal skirmish follows earlier plastic pipe marketing and regulatory efforts - with routine union resistance - relating to the use of chlorinated PVC and polybutylene and the removal of the state's ABS and PVC height limitations for drainage and waste applications.
The PEX industry's concerns extend to the plumbers' contributions to California Gov. Gray Davis' campaign fund and two of Davis' recent appointments to the Building Standards Commission.
Los Angeles lawyer Brant H. Dveirin filed PPFA's 20-page suit May 31 in Los Angeles Superior Court. Defendants include the commission; departments overseeing housing and community development, health services and food and agriculture; the architectural safety division; and the statewide health planning and development office.
It is ``the first time I remember that our industry has sued a state with regard to code adoption,'' said Richard Church, executive secretary of Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based PPFA.
PEX suppliers in California include U.S. Industries Inc.'s Bath and Plumbing Division in Commerce, Texas; Uponor units Wirsbo and Radiant Technology of Bellport, N.Y.; Rehau Inc. of Leesburg, Va.; and Vanguard Piping Systems Inc. of McPherson, Kan.
PPFA's 70 member companies principally make plastic pipe, fittings and connections for use as plumbing products on building premises. Advocates say PEX is flexible, heat- and corrosion-resistant, plus easier to install and 40 percent less expensive than copper pipe.
Union representatives cited California Environmental Quality Act requirements for environmental impact reports in getting state agencies to pull back from authorizing use of PEX as an alternate material.
In one letter, lawyers for a plumbers local counseled a city building official to deny use of PEX in his jurisdiction and suggested that approval of PEX would create liability issues ``that you may want to discuss with your legal counsel.''
PPFA is underscoring the union's political contributions. Records in the secretary of state's office list California pipe trades council and affiliated plumbers union contributions of nearly $1.38 million to Davis' campaign fund from January 1998 through February 2002. The 158 contributions ranged from $300 to $100,000. Davis, a Democrat, was elected governor in 1998. He runs for a second term in November.
On April 26 Davis filled months-old vacancies on the seven-member Building Standards Commission, appointing Barry Broad, 44, a Sacramento lawyer, and Donald Dickerson, 75, a Van Nuys professional engineer. Broad introduced the anti-PEX motion on May 2.
A PPFA issues primer compares average costs for per-house pipe-fitting material and installation: $175 and eight hours for PEX vs. $300 and 20 hours for copper.
``At current labor rates, that's roughly $500 per house,'' the sheet said - meaning that, during 2001, ``California families paid an extra $53.5 million `plumber's tax' '' on 107,000 single-family houses. ``Not a bad return on a $1.4 million investment.''