Nationwide, water-loss claims continue to climb. In Californiaalone, such claims have risen dramatically, with the percentage ofhomeowner claims growing from 24 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in2001, costing insurers $1.7 billion. In a single year inCalifornia, between 2000 and 2001, claims rose $47 million. Forsome insurers, this meant that 40 percent of claim payments werefor water losses.

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The rise in water-related losses has been attributed to manycauses. Some studies point out that modern homes have much moreplumbing in them than older homes. In general, older homes do nothave as many bathrooms, while newer homes often have extras such aswet bars, icemakers, water filter systems, soft water systems, andresidential automatic fire sprinklers. Modern homes also are builtto be more airtight, thus tending to trap moisture more readily.Much of the increase in water-related losses can be blamed onmodern materials used in the manufacture of plumbing fixtures, aswell as poor construction methods.

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Plastic vs. Metal

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Plumbing fixtures, such as valves, waterline risers, toiletball-cock valves, and pipes themselves, used to be manufacturedfrom metals such as copper, brass, stainless steel, and galvanizedsteel. Today, many of these items are made of plastic materials.The plastics used are cheap, lightweight, readily manufactured, andeasy to install. The problems arise when plastics are used in thewrong applications, designed improperly, or installedincorrectly.

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One striking example of plastics gone awry was the defective ABSdrainpipe debacle that resulted in class action suits againstvarious manufacturers. The manufacturers had used defective resinin ABS drainpipes widely included in residential construction inthe last half of the 1980s. The defective ABS pipes broke at thejoints, causing leaks in walls and under slabs. These pipes arestill causing problems nationwide.

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In another case, a company designed, manufactured, and marketeda faucet water-line riser made from a polymer composite hose withmetal connector nuts on each end. Connecting the nuts to the hoserequired barbed inserts inside the hose that were held in placewith metal ferrule crimps. The inserts were made using nylon 6/6plastic, which is subject to hydrolysis in hot water, meaning thatthe nylon will absorb the hot water causing the long nylon polymerchains to break. Over a period of years, the nylon 6/6 becomes weakand brittle, and eventually breaks. The break causes the metal nutsto come loose from the composite hose, which results in flooding.

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Published engineering texts documenting the problems with nylon6/6, including water absorption, hydrolysis, and failure, did notdeter the manufacturer from choosing a plastic that was not suitedto the environment in a hot-water supply line. Failures from thesenylon barbed inserts have accounted for millions of dollars inproperty damage.

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Another type of plastic failure is the cracking of plasticcoupling nuts used in water-line risers to connect toilet ball-cockvalves to the right-angle standoff valves in walls. These couplingnuts are supposed to be hand-tightened only. If the installer usesa tool, such as a pair of channel locks, to tighten the nut, thenut can become over-stressed and crack. Eventually, the couplingnut will fail and hundreds of gallons of water will flow into thehome.

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Even if these nuts are installed correctly, some are made frompolyacetal resin, which is subject to chlorine attack even atconcentrations as low as one part per million. These nuts breakdown over a period of five to seven years and eventually fail bycircumferential cracking around the base of the threads. I haveanalyzed dozens of such cases in which no tool marks were found,yet the nut failed anyway after five or more years of service.

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Metallic Fixture Failures

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Plastics are not the only materials that can fail. Modernstainless steel braided water lines are an example of a goodquality material with an Achilles heel. Although stainless steel isremarkably resistant to corrosion, chlorine attacks it, causing itto corrode and become brittle. The stainless steel braided waterlines rely on the braids to contain rubber hoses inside, keepingthe hoses from bursting. If the braids fail, the rubber hose willfail as well, creating another water loss. These types of failurescan be avoided by keeping chlorine-based cleaning products awayfrom stainless steel water lines.

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Brass plumbing fixtures are not without problems, either. Manybrass castings have built-in flaws. I have examined dozens thathave cracked and caused costly leaks. Examination of the fracturesurface within these cracks usually reveals a bubble in the castingthat weakens the brass and causes crack formation. Often, thefractures are so small and unremarkable that the installer does notnotice them. Even when initially pressurized, the brass casting maynot leak. It is not until the crack grows that a leak isnoticeable.

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Corrosion of pipes is still commonplace. Even though most modernhomes include plumbing with copper pipes, these are not immune fromcorrosion. Dozens of copper pipes have developed pinhole leaks incrawl spaces and under slabs. These usually develop from the insideout, caused by small foreign particles in the water that settle inthe copper pipes. The particles interact with the copper, causingoxygen-depleted corrosion cells to form. The cells cause pittingcorrosion that, ultimately, forms a hole all the way through thepipe.

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Corrosion from the outside also can occur, usually due tocontact with corrosive soil. This can be avoided if the buildersurrounds the pipe with free-draining gravel above the native soilor wraps the pipe with a corrosion-inhibiting coating such asplastic tape.

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Water heaters corrode, as well. Usually, the tanks of waterheaters are constructed of steel with glass liners adhered to thesteel tanks. The glass liners serve as protective coating toinhibit corrosion. Despite the best efforts of the manufacturer,however, small holes or “holidays” occur in the glass, and areas ofsteel exposed by holes tend to corrode. To inhibit the corrosion,sacrificial anodes often are used inside the water heater tank toprotect the steel. The anodes do not have an infinite life,however, and eventually will corrode away.

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If the water heater is connected directly to a copper pipingsystem, the steel of the tank and the copper in the pipes can setup a galvanic corrosion cell that will cause the tank of the waterheater to corrode away rapidly. This always results in leaks. Toprevent the galvanic corrosion from occurring, it is imperativethat a dielectric coupling be used to electrically separate thesteel tank from the copper pipes. Failure to use such a couplingconstitutes defective installation of the water heater.

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Adjusting Water Loss Claims

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Defective plumbing fixtures and improper installation accountfor many of the water loss claims in the United States. Forensicengineers often investigate claims that arise from these defectsand subrogation can be pursued successfully. Careful analysis anddocumentation of the evidence can present a solid and convincingclaim against responsible parties, and insurance carriers canrecover significant revenues.

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Claim adjusters can do a great deal to document causes of waterlosses and help preserve evidence. For example, toilet overflowsand leaks cause millions of dollars of water damage each year and,yet, many of these losses are poorly documented, resulting in thefailure of the subrogation process. When faced with these claims,adjusters can take a number of steps to increase the chances ofsuccessful subrogation.

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It should be determined whether the toilet overflowed from thebowl or the tank, and this information must be passed on to theforensic engineer. An overflow from the bowl indicates a cloggedtoilet with an accompanying leak from the tank into the bowl. Atank overflow, however, signifies a malfunctioning valve in thetank itself or the improper sizing of the tank overflow drain.

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Photographic documentation is important. Several photos shouldbe taken of the toilet in place, including the condition of theguts in the tank.

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A forensic engineers should have the opportunity to inspect theentire toilet. If it is impractical to conduct the inspection inplace, the toilet should be shipped to the investigator as a unit.The adjuster should not attempt to determine the cause of thefailure and send only selected parts to the engineer, as this canresult in a report from the engineer stating, “No conclusion ispossible because insufficient evidence was available.”

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When dealing with the failure of a waterline riser, the adjustershould document the waterline in place with several photographs andnote the use of the waterline, as well as its age. The entirewaterline should be sent to a forensic engineer, not just thefailed part.

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Additional questions to consider include whether the waterlinewas used to connect to a faucet. If so, was the connection for coldor hot water? Was the faucet in a kitchen, bar, or bathroom? Italso should be ascertained who installed the waterline, and whereit was purchased. In the case of a failed stainless steel braidedwaterline, it is useful to know whether any chlorine-basedchemicals were stored near the failed waterline.

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Failed washing machine hoses also need careful documentation byon-scene adjusters. These hoses usually fail right at the ferrulecrimp. It is important, therefore, to check whether the hose wasbent at the crimp when in use.

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The age of the hose also is a factor. Had it been furnished withthe washing machine? If the hose were a replacement, when was itinstalled and by whom?

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Manufacturers often deny many hose failure claims by placingblame on improper use or installation of hoses. Carefuldocumentation at the scene can refute these arguments.

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Adjusters also can play a significant role in the investigationof water heater failures, many of which involve defectiveinstallation. In addition to documenting the installation detailswith several photographs, the adjuster should take close-up photosof the waterline connectors to the water heater. A forensicengineer should examine the water heater and the waterlineconnectors to determine whether proper dielectric couplings wereused.

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The insurance industry pays out millions of dollars per year inwater loss claims. Because many of these are due to defectivematerials or defective installation, they can effectively bebrought to subrogation, resulting in millions of dollars inrecovery. Adjusters, working in concert with forensic engineeringinvestigators, can play a key role in the subrogation process.

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Michael J. O'Connor, P.E., is a senior engineer for EFIGlobal, an engineering, environmental, and fire investigation firm.He is based in California and can be reached [email protected].

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