Pipe problem getting fixed; Leaking PB systems being replaced under $950 million settlement


More than 14,000 Marylanders have now taken advantage of a $950 million settlement against Shell Chemical Co. that provides homeowners nationwide with free replacement of leaking polybutylene (PB) plastic plumbing systems and reimbursement for property damage.

Not every PB system leaks, but the material is susceptible to corrosion when it comes into contact with chlorinated water, resulting in breakage and splitting of PB piping.

Design and installation errors also contribute to the leakage.

"The goal of this settlement is really to give consumers a remedy for these PB leaks," said Tim Taylor, general manager of the Consumer Plumbing Recovery Center.

"But they have to have had a leak to be covered. That was stipulated in the suit."

Originally marketed as cheaper to install and more durable than the traditionally used copper-and-galvanized-metal plumbing systems, PB plumbing systems were installed in several million homes nationwide, beginning in the late 1970s.

The national settlement was approved in November 1995 and only homes with PB plumbing installed between Jan. 1, 1978, and July 31, 1995, are eligible for reimbursement or replacement.

"The whole process is pretty complex," Taylor said. "But the key thing is when was the original PB installed. That's the first element we look at for eligibility."

Homeowners who purchased their homes after Aug. 21, 1995, can request to be excluded from the settlement to pursue another remedy such as their own lawsuits but they must notify the CPRC by Dec. 31. "They have to notify us or else they will automatically be covered under the settlement," Taylor said.

Since the program began four years ago, the Consumer Plumbing Recovery Center -- a nonprofit corporation established to distribute the settlement -- has handed out more than $700 million and replumbed 250,000 homes nationwide.

Maryland ranks sixth in the country with PB plumbing replaced in 14,045 homes. In Baltimore County, 963 homes have had pipe replacements.

Dan Johnston, director of operations for Plumbing Express, which is contracted to perform the work in Maryland, said areas in Anne Arundel and Howard counties are providing nonstop work for PB plumbing replacement.

"You have to look at the areas that were going through substantial growth when PB plumbing was being used in the mid-to-late '80s," Johnston said.

"Places like Columbia and Laurel are full of it, but in Baltimore County not much was built during that time and PB isn't really that prevalent."

Johnston said the process for replacing the system takes only a few days because instead of ripping out the PB piping, plumbers install copper pipes that bypass the PB plumbing system.

"Homeowners always expect us to come in and tear up their home, but it's really not like that," Johnston said. "We're in and out pretty quickly."

The PB plumbing system is most easily identifiable by its gray plastic pipes, which are joined by plastic or metal fittings held in place by small aluminum or copper bands.

PB piping should not be confused with PVC or CPVC, which is a rigid white or off-white plastic pipe often used in homes.

Homeowners can check outside their home for blue, gray or black piping at the water meter or wherever the pipe enters the building.

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