Lightning strikes occur approximately 25 million times each year in the U.S., as reported by the National Severe Storms Laboratory. As summer approaches, storm producing lightning strikes could threaten millions of homes nationwide, according to Jim Narva, executive director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM). That’s because millions of homes built in the 1990’s contain yellow corrugated stainless steel (CSST) tubing.
Narva said that since the mid-2000’s, codes and standards which govern how a building is built and how it is maintained have changed in recognition of this issue with lightning. In addition, manufacturing installation instructions also changed in response to the hazard.
The tubing is used for gas delivery, whether natural or propane, in residential settings. He explained that it is used in place of black iron pipe and presents a fire hazard if the yellow CSST wasn’t bonded properly during initial installation. Nearby lightning strikes could result in a power surge. If that happens, arcing could cause a small perforation in the corrugated steel tubing. There is a potential for a fire if it is perforated, he said.
The CSST industry and the NASFM urge building owners to ensure that the gas piping systems are bonded to the electrical grounding system of the building, recommending that the bonding jumper or wire be connected to the CSST piping system at the entry point of the natural gas or propane piping and run directly to the electrical grounding system.
Bonding provides a path for the energy from an indirect lightning strike to run back to the ground, he explained.
“So what happens when it arcs with this CSST, is its very thin walls so if metal is close…you can equate it to a static electricity charge only hundreds of thousands of times more powerful,” he said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the top 10 states with the most cloud to ground lightning strikes per year, include: Florida, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Arizona.
The association began a safety campaign four years ago that focuses on increasing awareness of the potential problem.
“Going forward, what we’re trying to do with this campaign is there’s approximately seven to eight million homes that have the product that was installed before the codes and standards or the manufacturer’s instruction indicated the need for bonding the product,” Narva explained.
As a result of the campaign, the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal J. William Degnan, issued a safety news alert in 2012 regarding the product.
“There have been at least eight fires in New Hampshire since 2008 resulting in moderate to severe structural damage related to yellow coated corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST),” Degnan said. “The danger arises when this tubing is not properly grounded, allowing it to become energized if lightning strikes near a building.”
At the time, Degnan said the tubing can be identified by its yellow coating, but he noted it may be used in inaccessible places. It can range from one-half in to two inches in diameter. It is flexible and easy to install and may have been used in renovations, gas piping system replacement or upgrades, or new appliance installations.
A few years ago, AmeriGas issued a safety warning to its customers which noted that yellow CSST tubing was typically installed inside a home or business, within the walls of the structure or through or by floor joists in a basement or on top of ceiling joists in an attic.
Most recently the city of Lubbock, Texas, imposed a state-wide ban on the installation of first-generation CSST tubing, according to an industry alert issued by the law firm Cozen O’Connor. The authors of the June 7 alert, Mark Utke and Anthony Morrone, explained that the ban was in response to a death that occurred in a home in 2012, as a result of a violent explosion caused by indirect lightning near the home which perforated the CSST tubing. Both lawyers are responsible for the only two verdicts against CSST manufacturers on subrogation claims to date.
Alternatives to using the yellow CSST include a new generation of black CSST that has been built to address the issue of direct lightning.
Narva said that adjusters handling claims where they suspect there may be an issue with yellow CSST piping can first check to see if the insured has gas service. If gas service is confirmed, an adjuster may be able to check the gas meter outside to see if the yellow CSST piping is visible. If a fire occurred as a result of a lightning strike, the fire department can do a pressure test to see if the yellow CSST can still hold gas. He said that a forensic investigation will still need to be conducted to confirm the cause of fire and/or damage.
*This story appeared previously in our sister publication Claims Journal.