In the season of staged water losses, preserved tangible physical evidence can support a claim denial in the absence of any other indicator of fraud. When dealing with staged water losses the pipe and/or fitting tell the whole story.
Most residential homes use one of three types of pipes – copper, PVC, or PEX. Each type of pipe uses a different type of fitting, has different failure methods, and the tampering of which produces different physical and chemical evidence.
Copper piping relies often upon soldering. With this method, the pipe and the fitting are connected through the heating of a low melting point metal such as a tin and copper alloy. This alloy is then drawn into the gap between the pipe and the fitting. When allowed to cool, the alloy creates a waterproof seal between the pipe and the fitting.
Depending on the temperature of the water in the pipe, these joints are rated to withstand more than 3,000 psi for a minimum of 2.5 hours. To put that into perspective the human jaw creates 70 psi, and the bite force of a dog is between 800 and 1,200 psi. For this reason, it would be highly unusual for a soldered copper joint to fail in a residential setting.
Further, the process of soldering requires heating and cooling of the pipe and its fitting. This process alters the molecular structure and causes other changes unobservable to the eye. If a fitting is heated, cooled, and then reheated again to allege the failure of the solder joint, this second heating is detectable by a metallurgist.
PVC piping, also known as polyvinyl chloride, replaced copper as the most widely used system in residential construction. Lightweight, non-corrosive, and does not require heat to make connections, PVC piping has become ubiquitous. Most importantly for this article, PVC is joined by the dissolving of the top layer of the pipe with a chemical weld.
When two partially dissolved layers of PVC are placed into contact with each other, they bond at the chemical level, becoming indistinguishable from each other. This means that unless cut, PVC pipe, and fittings do not separate from each other. While a PVC joint can fail due to improper application of a chemical weld, such failure is apparent quickly after the system is put into use, absent high temperatures and/or physical impact.
In this failure mode, one or more insurance policy exclusions, such as workmanship or failure to maintain, will save the day. Otherwise, it is extremely unlikely a PVC pipe and fitting will fail without human factors.
The last and most recent system is PEX, also known as polyethylene piping. Flexible, smaller, and lighter than PVC, PEX is becoming the standard for new home builds. The majority of PEX fittings use a crimp/clamp ring, cold expansion, or push fittings, which are also known as a “shark bite”.
Typically, crimping or clamping rings around the outside of the pipe lose strength over time, leading to slow and small leaks. Cold expansion fittings are inserted into a temporary expanded PEX line and set with a barb. Over time the PEX line contracts around the fitting to strengthen the fit. While not used at pressure over 100 psi or temperatures above 180 degrees, these fittings are considered the most reliable, having a near-zero failure rate when used as designed.
The last type is known as a push or shark bite fitting. These fittings are inserted into the PEX piping, push outward and “bite” into the inside of the pipe. The “bite” leaves an impression on the inside of the PEX pipe, creating an almost fingerprint-like impression. Due to the soft and impressionable nature of PEX pipes and fittings, tool marks and other signs of tampering are extremely evident on visual inspection. The findings from forensic examination of PEX pipes and fittings are fertile grounds for policy exclusions.
Armed with this new knowledge, the next water loss claim you receive this fraud season should tickle your curiosity and provide you with a starting point for your investigation. Retain a forensic engineer to inspect the scene with or before your water remediators begin their work. And remember that basic fire investigation methodology will assist in detecting and combating this new form of fraud.
Nicholas W. Siewert is a member of Plunkett Cooney's Product Liability, Torts & Litigation and Construction Law practice groups. His experience includes handling matters involving premises liability, product liability and ...
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