Brass fittings installed by residential developers in the 1990s as part of plumbing systems in new homes built in California, Arizona and Nevada could be highly susceptible to immediate, material disintegration, resulting in extensive and costly damage to homes.
The problem is linked to developers who began to use a substitute for copper piping, called, informally, the PEX system—an acronym for cross-linked, polyethylene water supply piping. The new piping system used essentially plastic piping to carry water into and through the new home. To connect the plastic (PEX) piping, the piping system also notably used brass fittings and couplers.
The cost saving to the developers was great: less use of expensive copper for the piping. The problem for the new homeowner was also great: the brass fittings and couplings created problems that could be extremely costly to repair.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
Most folks who buy a new home have a lot of worries: principally, how to furnish the brand new residence and at what price such furnishings may be obtained. The last thing on their minds is the color of the brass couplings and fittings that connect their plumbing pipes. Why could or would that be important?
- When some brass compositions are exposed to water, the zinc is leached out of the alloy.
- This is called de-zincification.
- It leads to a brittle and porous component that will fail.
- Embrittlement can lead to cracking.
- De-zincification also produces zinc-rich deposits called “meringue.”
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH PEX?
The principal problem is the use of the brass fittings and couplings. Is the use of brass couplings and fittings always bad? No, not if the amount of zinc used to make the brass is less than 15%. If the brass couplings and fittings have more than 15% --say 30% to 33% -- of zinc, then the brass—in the presence of water flow suffused with sulfates, carbonates, chlorides, fluoridates and dissolved oxygen -- begins to literally disintegrate: i.e., the walls of the brass couplings and fittings—especially on the “hot-water” side-- begin to lose their zinc. The process is called “de-zincification.”
Zinc is a highly reactive metal with weak bonding properties. The brass walls begin to lose their zinc atoms as the zinc atoms are carried away from the walls by the water flow. The zinc is then deposited –in the form of a crusty, salt-like, granular deposit often found at the exit mouth of the couplings and fittings.
The zinc atoms, formerly a constituent part of the brass couplings and fittings, have now combined to form a granular deposit called a “meringue,” –that crusty, salt-like deposit that serves to occlude, or block, the flow of water in the piping, much like the fatty deposits or “plaque,” that collect in human arteries and serve to inhibit efficient blood flow to the heart.
THE MOVIE “MOONSTRUCK” TAUGHT A LESSON ABOUT COPPER
Perhaps the movie –Moonstruck—may prove instructive. The film, released in 1987, was wildly popular, featuring Cher, Nicholas Cage, Olivia Dukakis, Danny Aiello and Vincent Gardenia. It was a love story—about older and younger people—and it was also a story about plumbing.
Plumbing? Yes, plumbing. Cher’s father in the movie (played by Vincent Gardenia) is a plumber—Cosmo Castorini. In the movie plot, Cosmo explains to his “girl-friend,” during a clandestine date unbeknownst to his wife (Olivia Dukakis), that he always recommends “copper plumbing” to his clients, no matter what.
Yes, Cosmo patiently explains, it is more expensive—but though you pay more up-front, you then don’t pay later. Cosmo’s “girl-friend” –utterly smitten with his aura of technical plumbing expertise --proclaims him absolutely brilliant. Cosmo then proceeds to beam, as he basks in the ever-warming, eye-embrace of his date-mate.
WAS COSMO CASTORINI –THE PLUMBER-- RIGHT?
Yes, he was right. Cosmo would have never used PEX piping.
WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD ABOUT THIS PROBLEM OF “DE-ZINCIFICATION” BEFORE?
Well, you would probably not have heard about the de-zincification problem in reading the residential home developers’ glossy brochures promoting the leisurely, worry-free, lifestyle that the developers so blithely had promised would-be homebuyers.
However, on October 16, 2006, a Canadian manufacturer named IPEX was first sued in Clark County, Nevada, in a state-based, class-action lawsuit pertaining to the use of the Kitec fittings that had allegedly failed. (Kitec was a plumbing system that had enjoyed great popularity among developers in the mid-1990s.) One of many specification documents that had been obtained during legal discovery in that lawsuit revealed that certain of the brass fittings of the Kitec Composite and Fitting System contained more than 32% levels of zinc.
It was alleged that the zinc component had leached out of the fittings, imperiling thereby the bond integrity of the brass fittings, and ultimately leading to the brass fittings’ failure. The lawsuit involved an estimated 31,000 homeowners. In November of 2009, the State of Nevada District Court (the Honorable Timothy Williams, Judge Presiding) approved a partial settlement of $90 million in favor of the homeowners).
WHAT IS IT ABOUT BRASS FITTINGS AND COUPLINGS THAT HAVE CAUSED THIS PLUMBING PROBLEM?
Brass is an alloy, a composite or “mixture” of certain pure metals, like copper and zinc, frequently with a certain presence of lead. Copper is superb as a metal conduit for water; brass is cheaper than copper and more malleable, although brass contains mostly copper.
Because brass is more malleable than copper, it can be fashioned more easily into manufactured shapes. As you add more zinc into the brass alloy, the brass becomes softer and ever more malleable than copper. As you add more zinc to the brass alloy, the color of the brass alloy also changes—from a reddish copper coloration to a pale yellowish tinge. What is oftentimes called “yellow brass” is simply a brass alloy that has 30% or higher zinc content. What is called “red brass” is a brass alloy that contains 15% or less zinc in content.
Yellow brass is highly susceptible to de-zincification: the chemical process that allows water –especially hot water –to leach away the zinc from the walls of brass fittings and couplings and to deposit that same zinc at the mouth of the brass couplings and fittings—deposits that simply sit at the opening of a brass fitting and serve only to block the further passage of water to its destination.
So, therefore, two things are happening when you have de-zincification: 1) you witness the leaching of zinc atoms from the wall of the brass fitting or coupling; and 2) you witness the deposit of those same atoms of zinc where you do not want them, at the opening of the brass fitting through which you would have preferred that water alone would pass—unimpeded.
DOES THIS PROCESS CALLED DE-ZINCIFICATION MANIFEST ITSELF IN MORE THAN ONE FORM?
Yes, it does. There are two obvious ways: 1) first, the uniform, or at least broad-surface, leaching of zinc atoms away from the brass tubing wall proper, and 2) second, a “plug” type of localized leaching whereby the leaching of the zinc atoms occurs not in the broad-surface manner, but rather, in localized fashion (specific spots) whereby the de-zincification occurs as more of a deep, “pitting” manifestation. The latter, or second, manifestation will also result in the deposit of so-called “meringue” corrosive product found to occur at the “threads” of the couplings and fittings.
WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THE AESTHETIC APPEARANCE OF CERTAIN GRANULAR DEPOSITS AT THE THREAD CONNECTORS OF THE COUPLINGS AND FITTINGS? ISN’T THIS JUST AN AESTHETIC MATTER ALONE?
Unfortunately, not. This is not a “designer” issue; it’s a functionality issue. How much of the hot water that you desire to feed into your kitchen and bathroom would you like to actually receive? Most of it? All of it? Or merely some of it? That is the point: it‘s your water, and your water bill, and eventually, your plumbing bill.
While you are deciding the answers to the above questions, perhaps you might also wish to ponder what is happening to the interior surface of the tubing walls of your brass fittings and couplings.
You already know that the granular meringue deposits are blocking the flow of water through the fittings and couplings. The deposits are only forming because the zinc atoms are now being depleted from the interior surface of the brass tubing: as the zinc atoms float away, the tubing interior surface wall is weakened and embrittled. When the interior wall becomes embrittled (i.e. less flexible), cracking will occur because of the inherent diminution of tensile strength and flexibility.
The newly made porous regions of the interior brass surfaces present themselves as weakened, and leaks will inevitably occur at those very same porous and weakened areas of the interior brass tubing.
YOU HAVE MENTIONED RED BRASS AND YELLOW BRASS. ARE THERE OTHER KINDS OF BRASS I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT?
Actually, yes, if you are curious. We have observed that Red Brass typically contains 15% or less zinc. Red Brass is therefore highly resistant to de-zincification. Red Brass is categorized as an Alpha Brass. Red Brass contains both copper and zinc whose respective grains retain a nominally similar composition.
We have also observed that Yellow Brass contains approximately 33% zinc. This percentage approaches an upper limit beyond which the grains of zinc and copper may no longer continue to retain the same composition. Yellow Brass is notably vulnerable to de-zincification.
We then come to the category known as Duplex Brass. When Yellow Brass contains more than 33% zinc, it is often called Duplex Brass. Here, then, is a convenient dividing line: in Duplex Brass, not all of the grains (copper and zinc, respectively) are of the same composition; they have changed in form. What you see is that some of the grains retain their Alpha character: i.e., about 33% zinc. The other grains are called Beta grains and these grains contain about 45% zinc.
In addition, the copper and zinc atoms in the Beta grains are organized differently than they are in the Alpha grains.
The Beta Brass atoms are more inefficiently packed together than would be under the Alpha category. Why? Because of the introduction of the number of additional zinc atoms beyond an approximate 33% ceiling level assigned typically to Yellow Brass. Hence, the zinc atoms within the Beta brass structure are more vulnerable to bond-breaking. They are therefore more susceptible to leaching from a brass tubing wall surface. Let us take a look at a series of simplified graphics that display Red Brass, Yellow Brass, and Duplex Brass (as a combination of Alpha and Beta Brass). The black dots signify zinc atoms; the white dots signify copper atoms. The results are visually simplified but easily understood:
WHY WAS THIS SCIENTIFIC PHENOMENON ABOUT THE DE-ZINCIFICATION OF BRASS FITTINGS AND COUPLINGS NOT KNOWN EARLIER?
Well, the short answer is that the phenomenon was known— and has been quite well known -- among British maritime engineers since WW I. Britain had boasted of its Dreadnought-class of battleships since the first H.M.S. Dreadnought was commissioned by First Sea Lord, Sir Jacky Fisher, and King Edward, on February 9, 1906. The British had come up with the most dominant design of battleship then produced. [See Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War, (Random House, N.Y. 1991)]
One of the flaws that could not be addressed at that time – notwithstanding the armor-plating and size of the gunnery of the then-state-of-the art-design for the battleship class -- was the condensers. It has been asserted that the Dreadnought-class used a 70% copper / 30% zinc tubing in their condensers. [A classic blend of yellow brass.]
It has also been claimed that these same condensers often failed because of the chemical process of de-zincification. [The slang word –condenseritis-- had thereafter come into vogue among British seamen to indicate a lack of verve or élan (on the captain’s part) to get the ship underway and to engage the enemy without further ado. Briefly, the phrase implied that when the captain of a ship did not wish to put out promptly to sea (presumably to meet the enemy, as in the alleged case of Sir John Jellicoe, concerning the Battle of Jutland), the captain would therefore plead a case of condenseritis.]
British metallurgists purportedly claimed to have solved the problem in later years by adding arsenic to the yellow brass alloy, resulting in the subsequently coined phrase “admiralty brass.” See Building Science Insights: Arrhenius and the Mayor -- Dezincification, 2-19-2010, by Joseph Lstiburek @buildingscience.com. (The latter article is a provocative, and somewhat caustic, but most colorful, review of how the City of Las Vegas, its then mayor and her demand for recirculating hot-water systems, the Colorado River, the brilliant Swedish scientist and 1903 Nobel Laureate -- Svante Arrhenius, and the process called dezincification all somehow collide together, with unexpected and unintended consequences for all).
HOW WOULD I, AS A HOMEOWNER, KNOW WHETHER I HAVE YELLOW BRASS FITTINGS AND COUPLINGS?
Short Answer: You would not know off-hand. You would need the assistance of a knowledgeable inspector to determine whether your home has yellow-brass fittings and couplings.
WHY IS THE KASDAN SIMONDS FIRM PARTICULARLY EQUIPPED TO HANDLE PROBLEMS PERTAINING TO BRASS FITTINGS?
Kasdan Simonds Weber & Vaughan has been actively pursuing the issue of “de-zincification” since the firm first began to investigate, entirely on its own, significant plumbing problems for a Scottsdale, Arizona-based, luxurious, condominium project in late 2007. That condominium project was, and remains, one of the most currently desirable and appealing condominium developments in which to live. But there existed a demonstrable lack of hot water (water that was to be delivered to the various condominium units), and this physical condition would soon prove not simply problematic, but immensely and immediately irritating to the condominium owners.
Kasdan Simonds had initially been approached by the particular Board of this Condominium Association to investigate the causes of the plumbing deficiencies. It became clear, however -- following an intensive, forensic investigation-- that de-zincification had indeed occurred, and that this chemical process had served to occlude the openings of the various brass fittings.
But this particular forensic discovery carried no special surprise for our firm: we had already discovered certain systemic, interior, electrical lighting problems for the Homeowners’ Association’s Board of Governors.
The de-zincification discovery had been born of, and was consistent with, the methodical manner in which the Kasdan Simonds firm always addresses any form of claim of defect or deficiency: first, get the top forensic persons to investigate and to evaluate objectively so there that there may be no doubt—none—about the nature and extent of the construction claim or deficiency.
Kasdan Simonds first investigates problems—very intensively, before accepting client invitations to represent them in legal matters. We do not wish to presume problems where none exist.
Our hallmark is to pursue matters with great dedication and determination—but not until we have first made a considered, probing investigation. Based on such testing, we then determine that important, and perhaps even systemic, defects have been precisely identified for a home, a condominium, a church, a school or a municipal structure. Integrity begins with investigation, not later.
Because our firm proceeds only upon the basis of a focused, first-hand, forensic investigation of alleged construction and plumbing problems, we first must detect, then identify and isolate, the problems associated with “de-zincification.” We work very closely with our team of forensic experts—from day one on all of our projects.
Our primary focus is to identify construction and plumbing deficiencies and to diagnose the causes thereof. If our prospective clients wish to retain our firm following investigation, that is all to the good. Our initial purpose, however, is to investigate, identify, diagnose and advise.