Improperly installed ultra-thin gas lines have left thousands of central Indiana homes in danger of fuel-fed fires if struck by lightning, but the state has made no concerted effort to warn homeowners, a report issue on Sunday, September 7 said.
State officials have known for at least three years that corrugated stainless steel tubing that has become the preferred choice for contractors is more likely, if not grounded properly, to be breached by lightning than the traditional thicker, black iron pipes, The Indianapolis Star reported.
At least 35 homes in Boone, Hamilton and northern Marion counties have burst into flames in the past five years after newer lines made of the tubing were breached by lightning, the newspaper said.
Fishers Fire Chief Brian Lott is so concerned about such fires that he plans to lobby state lawmakers in their upcoming session to ban the use of corrugated stainless steel tubing, also known as CSST. Half of the lightning-related fires fought by the Fishers department can be traced to damaged CSST, said spokesman Ron Lipps.
The state has twice revised its building codes since 2005 to make new homes safer, but those changes apply only to new homes and not to thousands of homes built before the code changes.
“The walls of CSST simply aren’t thick enough to withstand the energy of a lightning strike,” said Oklahoma attorney Bill Cathcart, who has litigated several CSST-related cases.
In 2007, electricity from a lightning strike melted a hole in a gas line in Coby Maxwell’s Zionsville home, starting a fire in his basement. Repairmen have since replaced the damaged CSST lines, but Maxwell fears it could happen again.
“We’re always a little more nervous now when there are lightning strikes nearby. It seemed like a freak accident at the time, but we know now the gas lines played a role in the fire. It could easily have been a much larger explosion,” Maxwell said.
CSST is 0.008 inch thick; black iron gas pipe is 0.12 inch thick, or 15 times thicker. When lightning strikes the CSST, it is more easily pierced and can spark a fire, making it imperative that the material is grounded and bonded with an electrical connection between the pipe and a grounding electrode.
“The flex pipes need to be grounded to the manufacturer’s specifications,” said Garry Harling, a Westfield Fire Department division chief, “but a lot of the ones we see either aren’t grounded at all or aren’t grounded properly.”
Chris Dattilio, a former sales manager for Omegaflex, pointed to Florida as a state with a high number of lightning strikes but few CSST-related fires. The reason, he said, is the state’s bonding and grounding requirements.
“Throughout the industry, everyone’s installation guides specifies CSST must be bonded to national electric code. But we found, after looking around, that some people don’t do that,” Dattilio said. “When they do install it correctly, we haven’t found any problems at all.”
In 2005, Indiana changed its code for new homes to require bonding and grounding procedures. Then, in April, Indiana officials revised the code to require at least a 2-inch gap between the CSST and any other kind of metal to prevent arcing, which can cause a fire.
But that change came after two years of discussion, and in the face of opposition from manufacturers.
“For state government, it takes awhile for things to get passed,” said Rachel Meyers, a spokeswoman with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, which includes the state fire marshal’s office.
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