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December 18, 2014

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Pipe work begins in homes involved in Kitec lawsuit

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Keith Shimada / Special to the Home News

Eduardo Vuniea and Gary Leigh, standing, of Repipe Solutions work on the plumbing in a Silverado Ranch home.

Kitec repairs

A Silverado Ranch home shows signs of plumbing work in progress. Launch slideshow »

Hundreds of homes in the Silverado area are undergoing repairs in a preemptive strike against faulty plumbing that's at the heart of a multimillion dollar class action lawsuit.

Repiping began this month on houses built by Richmond American Homes, which last summer became the first builder to settle its claims in the Kitec lawsuit.

The Denver-based builder contracted with four repiping companies to install new water lines in nearly 1,200 homes in the valley.

But that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 30,000 houses built between 1995 and 2005 in the valley with the Kitec fittings that corrode and break. There are about two dozen additional builders still involved in the lawsuit.

For contractors like Gary Leigh of Repipe Solutions of Nevada, the full extent of the lawsuit means his crews could be working steadily for the next decade.

"There is so much here," he said.

That's because when Kitec brand manufacturer IPEX released the system in 1995, plumbers hailed the plastic tubes as a significant upgrade to copper because they were more flexible and durable, said George Anderson, owner of the plumbing company MasterServ of Nevada.

The polyethylene pipes contained a thin layer of aluminum that held its shape as plumbers twisted and bent it. Plastic pipes without the aluminum require more anchoring because they spring back to a straight line.

The pipes aren't failing though. It's the brass fittings that connect the pipes to copper fixtures on valves, water heaters and softeners.

The problem is a chemical reaction known as dezincification, which accelerates corrosion in brass fittings when they are exposed to oxygen and moisture. Brass is an alloy primarily composed of copper and zinc. When dezincification occurs, zinc leaches out of the fittings, leaving a blockage of zinc oxide that leads to leaks, restricted water flow and breaks.

MasterServ is not one of the contractors Richmond American hired, but has performed hundreds of replumbs throughout the valley, Anderson said. He said he follows the protocol set by the class action attorneys so his customers can remain in the lawsuit to be reimbursed later.

Anderson said he passed on using the Kitec system because he wanted to wait and see how it would perform over time. He doesn't blame contractors for using it though, because no one could have predicted it would fail.

"No one goes into business saying 'I want to make a bad product and get sued 10 years down the line,'" he said. "It passed all the tests. It was certified."

Still, plumbing systems shouldn't fail after just 10 years.

Anderson and others can only speculate that the Kitec system was never tested using Southern Nevada's hard water, which IPEX attorneys blame for the failure of the brass fittings.

Richmond American agreed to replumb its homes at a cost of more than $10.2 million. The deal was announced in March 2008, about six weeks from when the company was added as a defendant.

Homeowners cannot seek monetary damages from the company but can remain in the suit against IPEX and several other defendants.

IPEX has reached a preliminary $90 million settlement and a hearing is scheduled for Jan. 30.

Richmond American denied any wrongdoing and settled to avoid a trial, according to court documents.

A spokeswoman for Richmond American responded to a request for an interview with an e-mail that read, "Richmond American Homes is committed to product and service quality. While we do not comment in the media on customer issues, we have been working directly with the homeowner's representatives to address this matter."

The homeowners won't see a penny from the builder but also shouldn't have to pay any out of pocket costs unless they want to upgrade beyond what the settlement covers, Leigh said.

The costs to replumb depend on the size of the house and the number of plumbing fixtures, but a typical two-story home in Silverado costs about $7,000 on average.

Richmond American thoroughly vetted the four contractors, which have been working with the class action attorneys for more than year to ensure the repiping is a long-term solution, said Mike Mahony, vice president and chief financial officer for Dynamic Plumbing Systems Inc. of Nevada.

Mahony's company is repiping about 300 Richmond American homes at a pace of 20 per week according to the terms dictated in the contract.

Some homes throughout the valley need to be repaired a second time. In some cases of leaks, plumbers replaced the fittings with Kitec again.

Mahony said repiping companies have worked together to find the best solution possible.

"They started having meetings out here just on the Kitec within the building, plumbing trade trying to figure out what everyone's doing because everyone was so different on the fixes initially," he said. "Richmond and other major builders started calling us having problems and so we had done quite a few of them trying to figure out the best way to do it."

Plumbers are using Uponor PEX plumbing systems in the Richmond American homes, though tradesmen still use the company's former name, Wirsbo. The system uses more plastic fittings and polyethylene tubes that mold to the connectors to prevent leaks.

The settlement requires a complete repipe, which means Kitec pipes are removed and Wirsbo pipes are fed through the ceilings or attics to each water fixture instead of patching leaks or replacing just the brass connectors.

In one home, opaque tarps taped to the ceiling hung like curtains separating the living room from the work areas. Square holes punctuated the ceiling and walls behind appliances, under kitchen counters and in bedroom closets.

The house resembled those from the horror stories buyers tell after touring foreclosed properties that previous owners vandalized in their rage over the housing market fallout.

It's part of the process of rerouting water lines to kitchens, bathrooms and water heaters. But contractors say the process is so streamlined that the water is turned back on the same day work begins so there is barely any disruption to homeowners.

The entire process takes about a week. Homes in unincorporated areas, like Silverado, can be done in four days because the county requires fewer inspections than the cities, Leigh said.

All of the contractors interviewed for this story said their work is covered by warranties and they don't leave until the homeowner is happy.

"Our goal is to make it look like we were never here," Leigh said. "We try to make it as easy for the homeowners as possible. Of course, what we're really providing is peace of mind that this will never happen again."

Jeff Pope can be reached at 990-2688 or [email protected].

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