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Firestop Materials Attack Sprinkler Pipes!

By Kyle Pineo, Esq.
Published: December 2020

We sometimes find irony in our construction defect cases. Here's one: building products intended to increase safety turn out to be incompatible, leading to safety failures!

One such issue involves chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) fire sprinkler piping and incompatible firestopping sealants installed around the piping. Incompatible sealants in contact with the CPVC can cause systemic cracking which will ultimately lead to leaks. In condominium buildings, this defect has resulted in costs of repair approaching several million dollars.

CPVC

CPVC is an upgraded form of the classic PVC pipe. The material is more flexible and can withstand temperatures higher than standard PVC. Because it can withstand higher temperatures, CPVC is commonly used in fire sprinkler systems. Because fire sprinkler systems pass through penetrations in walls, CPVC pipes may be installed in contact with firestopping products incompatible with the CPVC.

Firestopping

Firestopping seals openings in buildings through which fire and smoke could pass in a fire. A fire sprinkler pipe may pass through a wall from a common area hallway to a unit interior. When the pipe is installed through the wall, there is a gap between the wall and the outside edge of the pipe. If this gap is left unsealed, fire and smoke may pass through the gap, and quickly spread the fire throughout the building. If the gap is properly sealed with firestopping, then the fire and smoke cannot pass through the opening. Firestopping is a code requirement that increases the safety of a building in the event of a fire.

Incompatibility

In our construction defect practice, we have discovered situations where incompatible materials – which were intended as a safety measure – created a different safety problem. Incompatible firestopping sealants applied around CPVC cause a chemical reaction in the CPVC that can lead to cracks and leaks, such as in the picture above. Where CPVC fire sprinkler pipe passes through a unit wall, a firestopping product is applied between the sprinkler pipe and the adjacent wall. The firestopping seals the gap like a flexible piece of tape, so it is applied directly around the CPVC pipe. If the firestopping material is chemically incompatible with the CPVC pipe, it will damage the structural integrity of the CPVC by creating an array of microcracks that eventually cause leaks. Fire sprinkler systems are pressurized and small cracks can become big cracks under pressure, leading to leaks or a burst pipe. Multiple cracks compound the problem.

CPVC manufacturers publish lists of products, including firestopping sealants, that are incompatible with their CPVC products. Builders are generally required to verify that all products in contact with CPVC are compatible, but because many sealants look the same, the builder or its subcontractor may use sealants that are incompatible with CPVC. If the incompatible products are installed throughout the CPVC system, the risk of a systemic failure increases.

What to Do

Repairing plumbing where incompatibility has damaged the pipe can become very expensive. Sometimes, sections of CPVC must be replaced and new firestopping installed at every unit wall penetration. In high-rise projects or projects with hundreds of units, the repair can run in the millions.

And there is another problem. The damage to the fire sprinkler piping may not be revealed for many years—sometimes long after the time limitation on claims against a developer or contractor have expired. Early inspection for incompatible materials is the best way to determine if a future problem exists.

If your association has a CPVC piping system for fire sprinklers or potable water, the pipes probably pass through unit walls and are sealed with firestopping. We recommend that the association inspect the pipe penetration to verify if firestopping or another sealant is in contact with the CPVC pipe. The sealant can be tested at a lab to determine whether it is incompatible with CPVC. If the building is less than ten years old, there may still be time to assert a claim.

The attorneys at Berding | Weil are experienced in investigating CPVC and sealant incompatibility and, if the project is still new enough, pursuing developer claims. Please contact us if you see this issue, and we can assist in identifying experts who can determine if a future problem exists. Some caution now will insure that safety products at your development do not become future safety threats.

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