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Inga Saffron
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Developers worry Philadelphia's new plumbing board will clog housing pipeline

Bringing Philadelphia's plumbing into the modern era is as much about politics as technology.

Matt Butterly, a master plumber and president of Big Dawg's Plumbing & Heating, (wearing overalls) listens to a speaker at the first meeting of the revived Plumbing Advisory Board in Philadelphia.
Matt Butterly, a master plumber and president of Big Dawg's Plumbing & Heating, (wearing overalls) listens to a speaker at the first meeting of the revived Plumbing Advisory Board in Philadelphia.Read moreInga Saffron

After years of pitched debate over how to modernize Philadelphia's plumbing code, former Mayor Michael Nutter quietly signed an executive order in 2008 disbanding the union-dominated Plumbing Advisory Board. Last summer, Mayor Kenney quietly revived the group with his own executive order and instructed members to bring the rules for installing pipe into the modern age.

The new board held its first meeting Thursday, and it was clear as soon as the first words were spoken that the issue that divided the city a decade ago remains the same:

Cast iron or plastic?

Unlike most American cities, Philadelphia still requires cast-iron plumbing pipes in any building over three stories. That has rankled developers and builders who say that labor-intensive, cast-iron fittings are a major contributor to Philadelphia's high construction costs. Cast-iron pipes take about three times longer than PVC plastic pipes to install, according to James Maransky, president of Philadelphia's Building Industry Association. They also require the use of toxic lead to create seals between the pipe segments.

Developers here are eager to see Philadelphia join other cities in adopting the latest version of the International Building Code, which permits the use of PVC pipes in most construction projects. But most union plumbers, as well as some mechanical engineers, believe that cast iron is safer and more durable, and therefore should remain the standard. PVC pipe has been found to emit chlorine fumes in fires.

"We are a unique city, and we have to continue to be a unique city," argued Matt Butterly, president of Big Dawg's Plumbing & Heating, one of several dozen master plumbers who turned out for the board's inaugural meeting. The plumbers urged the board to adopt a modified version of the international code.

When Kenney issued his order to revive the board, he tipped the balance of power to the trade unions by assigning plumbers four seats on the seven-member board. Still, they won't have the final say. Before the new code is sent to City Council for approval, the Department of Licenses and Inspections and Board of Building Standards will have the right to tweak the draft.

"We should be a modern city, and the modern trend is toward plastic," said L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss. But she also noted that "the goal is to have a collaborative process that results in a code we can all live with."

The materials question is not the only one the new plumbing board must wrestle with as it begins the difficult process of updating the city's guidelines. In the 10 years since Nutter eliminated the plumbing board, industry standards have changed dramatically to incorporate energy-efficient and water-saving technologies, such as waterless urinals.

In 2006, the old advisory board attempted to block the use of those urinals, which require less pipe, in the Comcast Tower. They relented only after the project's developer, Liberty Property Trust, agreed to embed a full array of pipe in the walls as a backup, in case the waterless urinals proved problematic.

As housing construction has boomed in Philadelphia, developers have become increasingly frustrated with trade unions setting the rules — and costs — for construction. They have linked the issue with the debate over affordable housing. Advocates complain that the costs associated with cast iron complicates their efforts to solve Philadelphia's homeless problem.

"What makes Philly so unique that we can't use plastic pipe the way other municipalities do?" asked Maransky, whose company, EBuilt, specializes in green construction.

There are still a handful of big cities that limit the use of PVC pipe, including New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington. But all of them, except for Chicago, permit PVC pipes in midrise buildings.

Walt Krzyzanowski, the master plumber appointed by Kenney to chair the new board, promised that the members would take a serious look at all the new provisions in the international code and try to adapt them to conditions in Philadelphia.

"Plumbers are not opposed to responsible use of plastics," he said.

Plumbers are not the only ones who are skeptical about the innovations in the international code. So are home builders. Since 2009, they have fought to keep Harrisburg from implementing the international code statewide because it requires sprinkler systems in residential buildings as a safety measure. As a result of the standoff, the state legislature had to pass a special measure allowing Philadelphia to update the building code just for the city.

Rewriting the city's plumbing code is going to be a "Herculean task," Michael J. Kokayko, a mechanical-engineering consultant, told the board Thursday.

That comment was the sole point on which both developers and plumbers were in agreement.