Despite more than a decade of educational efforts and nearly $1 billion in repairs in the United States, many East Valley homeowners are still unaware they had faulty water pipelines put in their homes between 1978 and 1995.
A deadline to file claims to replace polybutylene, or PB, pipe is 10 months away and officials overseeing home replumbing are making a late-hour push to increase homeowner awareness of the problem and deadline.
"We've been trying to get the word out, especially in the Southwest through ads and television commercials," said Tim Taylor, general manager of the Consumer Plumbing Recovery Center in Plano, Texas. "And, although we don't have the exact figures, we know there are many, many potential claims in the Valley."
He said the center has spent more than $25 million for public notices.
Free pipeline replacement began nationwide in 1996 and will end May 1, 2009, according to the center, an agency established to process replacement claims. The agency was created as part of a lawsuit filed in the early 1980s.
Polybutylene pipe was installed in homes and other dwellings across the United States during a building boom starting in the late 1970s. It was put in thousands of homes in the Valley.
As part of the court ruling, the Texas-based center sends out regular reminders to potential victims of leaking pipes.
However, Connie and Michael Rice learned about the free replacement - as did most other homeowners - by experiencing a leak and calling a plumber.
"Our first experience with the leakage was in our front yard," said Connie Rice, who bought her home on Arcadia Way in Chandler 13 years ago. "We called a plumber and discovered the line from our water meter to our home was PB. Our yard was filled with water."
Rice and her husband filed a claim with the center, which paid for the new underground pipe.
Several years later, however, polybutylene pipes inside her home began to leak, too. They refiled and, again, had the entire water pipe system replaced without cost.
The Rices are among nearly 30,000 Maricopa County homeowners receiving free replumbing in their homes, apartments and yards since 1995 when the $1.1 billion PB pipe Settlement Fund was established. Thus far, more than $976 million in replacements have been completed for more than 330,000 property owners nationwide, according to the center.
In Arizona, 37,891 replumbing claims have been approved, including many in the East Valley.
The deadline for filing replacement claims for mobile homes using polybutylene pipe and underground waterlines serving homes or apartments was July 31, 2005. Pipes inside single-family homes are eligible for claims until the May 1 deadline.
The center's Taylor said most experienced plumbers are aware of the lawsuit and potential for replacing PB pipes.
"Most of the early projects in the East Valley involved mobile homes," said David Standish, owner of Quill Plumbing in Mesa. "And, through the years, I've discovered that a lot of homeowners who experienced leaks didn't know how to go about filing a replacement claim."
Standish said excessive heat, especially on polybutylene underground lines, is a source for leakage after the buried pipes begin to deteriorate.
Jeremy Frederick, 30, repiping director for Delta Mechanical of Mesa, one of several plumbing contractors recommended by the center, began learning the trade at 14 with his father, Jerry Frederick.
"I was just a kid when I was collecting work orders for my dad from owners of older homes, mobile trailers and hotels and apartments in Mesa and Apache Junction where PB pipes were bursting," Frederick said. "We're still getting them, but no longer for mobile homes since they were eliminated from claims three years ago."
He said homeowners can determine if they have PB pipes by carefully wiggling the pipe under a sink, for example, but, he warned: "Don't wiggle it too hard. If it feels like it's flexible, chances are it's PB pipe."
Having PB pipes in a home, however, does not guarantee a free replacement. They first must leak.
Polybutylene in the 1970s was used in the homebuilding industry because it was less costly than copper or polyvinyl chloride or chlorinated polyvinyl chloride products. The pipes carry pressurized water to sinks, toilets, tubs and other facilities.
PB pipes are more flexible than PVC, copper or CPVC and are usually gray or black and joined by plastic or metal fittings held in place by aluminum or copper bands. They were made from polybutylene resin produced by Shell Oil Co., which stopped making the resin for pipes in 1996.