Establishing The Hard Undisputable Facts Toward A Successful Case
As we have stated to our clients many times over, “The deterioration of a piping system after 75 years of service is an expected and unavoidable physical act of nature. That same level of deterioration in 2-1/2 years is someone’s fault.” In a growing number of examples, premature piping failures are being looked at from a litigation viewpoint; with massive financial losses common due to replacement costs, lost tenant confidence and revenue, and water damages if incurred. Piping failures are clearly on the rise due to a large number of contributing factors well documented throughout this Internet site.
Financial losses of over $10 million are not unrealistic for a large scale piping failure. The failure of a single 2 in. galvanized steel pipe fitting caused one Philadelphia building property over $8 million in water damage alone. To one New York City property – a $1.1 million loss after a condenser water piping failure flooding 10 floors that was in fact predicted to occur. And to a large Texas facility, more than $20 million in losses.
While there are clear examples of fault, such as the deliberate substitution to a thinner pipe schedule or lower quality foreign piping products contrary to design specifications, many examples of pipe failure exist in the more blurry and more difficult to define realm of multiple causes and contributing factors.
Where a failure has occurred and the problem pipe removed, metallurgical testing can sometimes define the specific cause of the failure and resolve the issue. A single weld failure due to poor workmanship is one such example. Metallurgical testing may answer the question entirely, or instead may point to many other possible initiating causes.
Widespread internal corrosion may have been caused by poor clean-out and passivation of the metal, the lack of chemical water treatment the first few months, as well as the actions or inactions of the building owners and operators, water treatment contractor to maintain the chemical feed equipment. Such a large volume of factors typically influence a corrosion related piping disaster that upon first inspection, it is virtually impossible to assess cause and therefore direct fault and responsibility.
Rarely One Simple Answer
Different piping systems are impacted by entirely different corrosion issues and causes. Internal corrosion issues are completely separate from external corrosion events. Corrosion activity at domestic hot and cold water systems can vary greatly. Dry fire pipe corrosion is a completely separate entity from wet fire sprinkler systems. Hot water heating and cold water pipe, often grouped together in the HVAC role, have completely different vulnerabilities. In fact, a simple failure at a condenser water system has many potential causes and issues to address:
- Was the piping system chemically cleaned, fully flushed, and effectively passivated?
- Was chemical treatment provided immediately and monitored effectively?
- Was the pipe added to an existing system of older piping?
- Has the pipe been drained for freeze protection?
- Are dead-end, crossover, and low flow zones present to the piping layout?
- Did the failure occur near a low flow area?
- How well have chemical records been maintained?
- What is the source country of the pipe?
- Is threaded schedule 40 pipe installed?
- Is seamed pipe involved? And is the seam defective or incomplete?
- Is unproven and questionable corrosion control technology involved?
- Does the ASTM stamp on the pipe match the design specifications?
- Is water filtration provided? And if so, is it properly installed?
- Is there a galvanic issue involved?
- Are the inappropriate piping materials installed for the service?
- What corrosion monitoring has been performed? And how often?
- Have corrective actions been taken?
- And the listing continues…
Interests Change Perspective
Assigning responsibility for any piping failure is always a complex issue often related to the individuals performing the investigation or repair, and their own potential interest in the final results. Many contractors will gladly change out pipe upon each failure without recommending and investigation to the cause of its failure. A piping design engineer creating multiple future dead end and low flow areas for particulates to settle is likely to blame the chemical treatment provider, while the chemical treatment provider will cite the filtration unit as unsatisfactory to capture rust particulates. The water filtration representative may site the need for larger filtration units to capture more iron oxide corrosion by-product, rather than investigate the cause of a high iron oxide load.
The new chemical treatment provider is typically blamed for prior years of corrosion control, or lack of it, from other vendors possibly decades before. The supplier of ERW welded seamed pipe will blame water filtration and corrosion control for its premature failure, while the chemical treatment provider will in turn cite an incomplete and defective manufacturer’s weld seam.
Its often an endless conflict based upon generally inaccurate assumptions and erroneous data provided by experts paid to produce findings in one direction or another. In the worst examples we have seen, individuals having nothing whatsoever to do with an issue have been pulled into conflicts quite unfairly, and based entirely upon defective argument. As effectively as a proper piping failure investigation can direct blame, it can also provide substantative evidence to the lack of any culpability.
Where To Start
A thorough review of all known hard facts relating to the issue, and a critical review of all available diagnostic testing or laboratory reports is certainly a first step to any successful legal case.
With so many different contributing causes of a corrosion problem and resulting piping failure, a most important next step is to perform a thorough and complete ultrasonic based investigation. Where a specific failure has occurred, metallurgical testing is unquestionably the best first investigative tool. After that, ultrasound will define whether the problem exists elsewhere, and to what severity.
Ultrasound will define specific areas for further metallurgical analysis; providing far greater relevance to a corrosion problem than where pipe is cut out randomly, where the pipe is easiest to access, or based upon some other speculative basis. A finding of widespread corrosion loss throughout a large condenser water system would dispel argument made by the chemical treatment provider to a filtration problem alone, or a contractors suggestion to the failure to install dielectric fittings at 2 in. brass strainer blowdown valves. Since wall loss is directly proportional to the size and volume of internal rust deposits and tuberculation, ultrasonic testing can precisely direct a remote video inspection of the pipe to provide incredibly illustrative visual proof to the corrosion damage incurred.
Ultrasound is accurate, reliable, cost-effective, and if performed property, will produce a clear piping assessment. It will define if a problem is localized due to a low flow condition, or widespread throughout the facility. An ultrasonic test report which provides a spreadsheet of numbers for someone else to decipher and analyze is rarely of any benefit – even to most mechanical consulting engineers.
An ultrasonic thickness report producing results completely outside the realm of possibility, as we have seen in many examples, is far worse and greatly detrimental to any case. In contrast, it is the ultrasonic test results in combination with an investigator also well familiar with corrosion, plant operations, the inherent vulnerabilities of different piping systems, specific corrosion issues, and common piping failure mechanisms, that greatly amplifies its value.
Defining a corrosion problem or piping failure event that is proven ultrasonically is a major benefit in most beginning litigation cases. Often, it is necessary to further discount other potential contributing factors in order to accurately and precisely focus blame. Presenting investigative findings with evidence that is beyond any possible argument or opposing rebuttal often results in settlement.
A final written report analysis is submitted, along with any appropriate recommendations likely to benefit building operations.