New Report on CSST

A newly released study addresses the CSST failure scenario and suggests significant testing in an effort to “mitigate” it. The report, which is 267 pages is entitled, Validation of Installation Methods for CSST Gas Piping to Mitigate Lightning Related Damage. The report was issued by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, a group that consists of members of NFPA, the National Electrical Contractors Association, the U.S. Army, the New Mexico Institute of Technology, and three private engineering firms, among others. Significantly, the Sponsors of the study included numerous CSST manufacturers. Yet the report may not have been welcome news to the manufacturers, as it charges them with the need to conduct numerous tests in an effort to reduce the hazards of the product.

The report mentions by name the Cozen O’Connor CSST Task Force and highlights a number of cases handled by our attorneys. Several months ago, Angela Hahn, co-chair of the CSST Task Force, had a chance to share information with one of the Panel members of the Foundation, engineer Mitchell Guthrie, at the Lightning Protection System's Annual conference . She was joined by Mark Utke, who later met again with Mr. Guthrie to discuss at length the case of Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., a CSST failure case that Mark tried to verdict this past January.

As background, CSST stands for corrugated stainless steel tubing. It consists of a continuous, flexible stainless steel pipe corrugated in helical fashion to make it flexible. The exterior of CSST is typically coated with PVC or polyethylene (PE) that is yellow in color. The tubing walls of CSST are flexible and only approximately 10 mils thick (the equivalent of four sheets of paper), making CSST extremely vulnerable to damage in the event that energy from lightning should strike at or near a structure. The energy from a direct or indirect lightning strike will seek conductive materials to travel along and move toward ground. While seeking to go to ground and traveling the course of the CSST material, the energy can and does on occasion transfer or “jump” from the tubing. The transfer can occur when there is another metallic circuit, such as a chimney line, near the CSST, resulting in electrical arcing. The effect of an electrical arc is to create a hot plasma discharge and leave a hole. The combination of the high heat from the arcing event and the flow of gas through the resulting hole – both occurring at the same location -- will ignite the pressurized gas and causes a blow-torch effect, which can result in a significant fire.

The April 2011 CSST Report provides numerous examples of CSST failure scenarios and attempts to offer solutions, which it also calls “mitigations,” to address future CSST failure scenario. The Report cautions that merely bonding the CSST at its starting and/or ending point may not be sufficient and that “a global equipotential solution is necessary to achieve a complete solution.” The “mitigations” would include the following possibilities if supported by testing: multiple bonding, bonding with a short length of conductor, requiring minimum bends, requiring a separation distance from another metallic circuit (such as a chimney flue or cable), and a design change that would enhance the ability to withstand a lightning surge. The report notes that some manufacturers already include some of these requirements in their latest “installation rules.” But the report cautions: “However, based on some studied CSST cases, holes do not always occur where the distance between the CSST and a metallic part is the smallest, and thus separation distance may be difficult to address.” It also cautions that none of these potential solutions may actually work: testing is still needed to show that they will, in fact, work.

The recommended testing is summarized in the Conclusion section, as follows:

The scenario analysis, when compared to tests published so far (or simulations, should it be difficult to carry out some tests due to laboratory limitations when long lengths of CSST are required) have shown that some tests are missing. For the sake of clarity, we repeat below the main statements given in the scenario clause:
• Simulations are needed to show if separation distance is needed based on bonding conductor length and possible lightning currents given from the standard database. Bonding conductors located at the entrance may not be enough if the bonding conductors are too long. In that case, multiple bonding or separation distance may solve the problem (please note that a few cases have shown that incidents occurred in spite of apparent sufficient separation distance).
• Tests should be made to check the ability of CSST to withstand small fault current for a long time, as well as higher fault current for a shorter time.
It should be confirmed that multiple bonding is unlikely to create a major problem when surge current is flowing along CSST.
• Tests should be performed to identify the impedance (mainly inductance) of CSST per unit measure.
• Tests to determine CSST impedance should incorporate the maximum bending radius as given in technical brochures. The effect of bends should be investigated.
• Tests should be performed with 8/20 impulses (representing induced surges) to see if this can damage CSST if multiple bonding is not provided.
Based on tests results, it will be possible to determine if multiple bonding is necessary of not. The needed tests and simulations are described below. With four types of test, all scenarios can be covered.

Whether CSST manufacturers will follow the report’s recommendations and conduct the testing remains to be seen.  For additional information regarding CSST failures, please contact the author of this blog post.

Flash, KABOOM! Water Heater Failures Involving GAC's

 Lightning strikes and a water heater fails resulting in a fire. Is the subrogation investigation over? Not if the water heater failure involves a Gas Appliance Connector (GAC). GAC’s have properties similar to Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing (CSST).

Recently, in a case tried by Cozen O’Connor, a jury imposed fault on a CSST manufacturer, finding that the CSST had failed during a lightning strike, causing a fire. CSST is used in gas distribution systems in residential and commercial construction. Lightning struck a home causing a leaking hole in the CSST igniting fuel, causing extensive damage. The jury determined that CSST was a defective product for which the manufacturer was strictly liable.

Similar to CSST, Gas Appliances Connectors (“GACs”) are pre-fabricated, similar in appearance and construction to CSST, with shorter runs. GACs service gas appliances such as furnaces, stoves, and water heaters. Like CSST, GACs can be subject to failure when impacted by errant electricity. The electrical current may result from a lightning strike, a failed air conditioning compressor, or other electrical anomalies such as energized or floating neutrals. The typical failure mechanism is an electrical arc and ‘blow out’ of the flared end of the GAC. 

The issue is whether a GAC is unreasonably dangerous given alternative, feasible designs. Although black iron pipe is an excellent alternative to CSST for gas distribution systems, it is not a good substitute for GACs given the difficulty in precisely lining up an appliance with the stub of a black pipe. Moreover, the GAC also functions to protect the gas system from leaks that might be caused by structural shifts in or vibrations to a black iron pipe system.


 

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JURY RULES THAT CSST IS A DEFECTIVE PRODUCT IN LANDMARK CASE

Cozen O'Connor recently handled the first trial to go to a jury on the issue of strict liability against a manufacturer of CSST (corrugated stainless steel tubing). We are pleased to announce that, following an eight day trial conducted by Mark Utke of our Philadelphia office, the jury found CSST to be a defective product and imposed strict liability against Omegaflex, one of the major manufacturers of CSST.   Mark represented Terence and Judith Tincher, as well as their property insurance carrier, for both subrogated and uninsured losses. The jury awarded 100% recovery of both the subrogated and uninsured losses, for a total judgment that will exceed $1,000,000.  Tincher v. Omegaflex involved a CSST line that was installed in 1998 and failed from the effects of indirect lightning in June of 2007, and was tried in the Common Pleas Court of Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Recipients of our Subrogation Alerts and readers of the blog know of the issues arising from the development of CSST.  Since 1988, CSST has been used in industrial, commercial and residential construction to transport pressurized propane and natural gas.  The tubing walls are flexible and only approximately 10 mils thick (the equivalent of four sheets of paper), making CSST extremely vulnerable to the energy from indirect lightning strikes.  While seeking to go to ground, the energy can result in a perforation in the tubing. When this occurs, an arc ignites the pressurized gas and causes a blow torch effect, which typically results in a significant fire. CSST failures are annually responsible for millions of dollars in property damage across the United States, and hundreds of claims are pending against the various manufacturers of CSST.

Omegaflex sells a brand of CSST known as TracPipe, which first came on the market in 1996, as a replacement for traditional black iron pipe.  To date, over 750 million feet of this product has been sold across the country.  The purported advantages of TracPipe are its flexibility, ease of installation, and ability to reduce the incidents of gas leaks.  At trial, Omegaflex argued TracPipe’s ability to survive natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tornadoes, far outweighed any disadvantage associated with  the product, including its vulnerability in confronting indirect lightning strikes.  Omegaflex also argued that a properly bonded CSST system could withstand the energy produced from an indirect lightning strike.  Omegaflex's failure to ever  test TracPipe’s ability to withstand such energy, when properly bonded, proved fatal to its defense. 

The National Electric and Fuel Gas Codes both contain bonding requirements for household gas and electric systems.  However, these codes are intended to address life safety issues arising from stray electric current, as opposed to the dissipation of the energy created by an indirect lightning strike.  Despite this, CSST manufacturers, as an industry, argue that compliance with these code requirements demonstrates their products to be safe.  However, the National Fire Protection Association is currently evaluating the effectiveness of bonding as it relates to CSST and has considered recommending a complete ban on the sale of CSST, absent a demonstration by the industry that bonding can be a safe and effective means of safely dissipating the electrical energy created by an indirect lightning strike.

The Tincher verdict, significant on its own, has the potential to impact cases against Omegaflex beyond Chester County, Pennsylvania. A viable argument exists to extend the principles of collateral estoppel to apply to other cases against the manufacturer in other jurisdictions, involving similar facts and claims of defect. The defective nature of the product would no longer be an issue for the jury to decide, given the prior determination by the Tincher jury. 

For additional information, please feel free to contact either Mark Utke or any of  the 130 subrogation attorneys at Cozen O’Connor.

NFPA Reviewing Safety of CSST

As its name suggests, the National Fire Protection Association’s goal is to protect against fires. It is therefore not surprising that the number of fires involving corrugated stainless steel gas tubing over the last few years has caught the NFPA’s attention. In the fall of 2009, the NFPA formed a CSST Task Group. The Task Group was entrusted with the job of taking a closer look CSST’s potential for failure when confronted with energy from direct and indirect lightning strikes. The CSST Task Group has now met, submitted a report and has been discharged.

Only time will tell, but the CSST Task Group report may have a far ranging impact in both the construction and CSST industries. First, one of the main issues that the Task Group reviewed was whether bonding of CSST, as set forth in the present edition of the National Fuel Gas Code (NFPA 54), was enough to prevent lightning-induced CSST fires. The Task Group reports that it sought research supporting the continued use of the current CSST bonding requirements of NFPA 54. To this end, the Task Group specifically asked manufacturers of CSST to provide research performed by them on their behalf in this regard. The information the Task Group received in response was of “limited value” and “did not provide enough information to ascertain that the proposed bonding remedy will provide adequate protection from lightning induced surges.” The minutes of the Task Group meeting further reveal that at least one of the members observed failed CSST gas lines even in instances where the CSST was bonded per NFPA 54 and the manufacturer’s recommendation.

As a result of the Task Group’s work, the NFPA has decided that further review of CSST is warranted before the next version of NFPA 54 is published in 2014. Among other things, the NFPA is now looking to validate whether bonding of CSST is an adequate solution to the lightning exposure problem or if there are other alternative methods of installation that will make the product safe. 

Could this be the end of CSST as means of delivering gas products? Or, could this be the start of a movement to make CSST a genuinely safe product? The NFPA appears serious about making sure this product is safe. An Action Report dated June 23, 2010 concluded with these words of warning: 

Over the next full revision [of NFPA 54] currently scheduled to be in the Annual 2014 revision cycle, the industry and others advocating the continued use of CSST in gas piping systems shall validate the safe use of the product through independent third-party validated research and testing that can be reviewed and evaluated by the standards developers in a timely way… [I]t is incumbent upon the manufacturers or others promoting the use of CSST in gas piping systems to provide independently validated and reliable technical substantiation demonstrating the CSST can safely be used. If such substantiation is not provided, the Technical Committee on the National Fuel Gas Code must consider prohibited the use of CSST in NFPA 54. In addition, should the issues not be reasonably addressed by the end of the next full revision cycle, Annual 2014, the Council may take action as it deems appropriate up to and including prohibition of the use of CSST in NFPA 54.

For many who have already lost their homes due to lightning-induced CSST fires, these developments have already come too late. But for now, NFPA appears poised to act. Hopefully, we all will be safer for it.

Summer Storms And Lightning CSST Fires

Summer is upon us. Summertime means barbeques and thunderstorms, but it’s best to keep them separate. Most of us have gas-fed barbeque grills, but we know to keep them outside. With thunderstorms, come lightning. For an unfortunate few whose homes contain corrugated stainless steel gas tubing (CSST), lightning will strike at or near their homes and energize the gas piping. As this happens, the energy from the lightning strike will burn a hole through this thin steel material, allowing pressurized flammable gas to escape. At the same time, the heat from the lightning strike will ignite the escaping gas. No one wants a barbeque grill inside their home. 

Unlike last year, this summer has not yet to featured many powerful thunder storms. However, in the few storms that have occurred across the country, we are seeing CSST losses and these losses have recovery potential. Review of several contractor message boards across the country reveals that contractors using CSST are concerned. Many have reverted to using black iron pipe. For those who continue to use the product, they certainly risk liability for continuing to use a product that they now know has a track record for failing under expected conditions.  Simply relying on the manufacturers’ claim that the product is safe may not be enough to avoid this liability.

Through the years, the manufacturer’s installation instructions have changed and the concepts of grounding and bonding have become more significant. Similarly, the newest codes have entire sections devoted how to bond CSST.   The reason these newest sections are devoted to only CSST is that other types of gas piping simply do not have same problems handling lightning. Yet, in homes with bonding and grounding, these losses are occurring. These losses raise the issue of whether bonding and grounding is enough. Or, perhaps, the gas lines, while bonded, were not bonded effectively. What constitutes an effective bond continues to change as much as anything. It would not be much of a surprise if bonding requirements change again in the next round of code updates. In short, all this means is that there are a lot of new homes out there that have gas lines in them that may not be safe and neither the contractors or the CSST industry are alerting the owners of these homes to the problems they have created. 

Nobody wants an indoor barbeque. It’s just not safe.