Scott Friedman, NBC 5 Investigates
New interviews and documents obtained by NBC 5 Investigates raise more questions about how much a manufacturer-recommended safety measure really prevents lightning-related fires involving flexible gas lines used in millions of homes.
New interviews and documents obtained by NBC 5 Investigates raise more questions about how well one manufacturer-recommended safety measure prevents lightning-related fires involving flexible gas lines and questions how often those fires happen.
Earlier this year, an NBC 5 investigation into the safety of yellow corrugated stainless steel tubing, or CSST, showed how some fire investigators said energy from lightning has punched holes in the tubes, releasing gas and starting fires.
For years companies that make CSST, which is used to pipe gas to appliances mostly in newer homes, have said most lightning fires can be prevented if CSST is connected or “bonded” to an electrical grounding system in the house.
But, experts who have examined fires, including one independent expert who has not testified for or against the manufacturers in lawsuits, said they continue to see fires in homes where CSST was bonded and grounded. Even in cases where the home did sustain a direct lightning strike.
Meg and Ross Rushing escaped the fire that destroyed their home in Lubbock. But their friend Brennen Teel who had been visiting for the night did not.
"It has been really, really rough," said Meg Rushing.
Brennen died in a fire and explosion minutes after a flash of lightning.
The local fire marshal believes lightning energy traveled through electrical wires in the attic and jumped or “arced” onto CSST, punching holes in the stainless steel tubes filled with gas and creating jets of flames.
“Your home is supposed to be your safe spot. Your comfort zone and that is, I mean, we don't feel safe yet,” said Meg Rushing.
Lawyers for Titeflex, the company that made the CSST in the house, claim damaged electrical wiring and foam insulation started the fire before leaks ever developed in the CSST.
Titeflex has turned down requests for an interview.
Mitch Guthrie is an engineer and a member of the National Fire Protection Association's Lightning Protection Committee who has not testified for or against the manufacturers.
Guthrie thinks grounding and bonding is a step in the right direction, but said it won't prevent all incidents.
He said fires he examined in both North Carolina and South Carolina happened in homes with bonded and grounded CSST and sometimes lightning did not even hit the house directly. Guthrie said he’s even seen a CSST fire in home with a complete lightning protection system installed.
“I just want to know the solution to finding the problem because the problem is out there -- it's still out there and we'll probably continue to see fires,” said Guthrie.
NBC 5 Investigates also interviewed Michael Stringfellow, an engineer who has worked for CSST companies defending them in lawsuits.
“Even if you got rid of every inch of CSST in the country, those lightning fires are not going to go away,” said Stringfellow.
Stingfellow has argued that CSST is involved in only about 30 lightning-related fires a year, far fewer he said, than the number of fires caused by lightning damage to electrical wiring.
Some of his conclusions are drawn from data in the National Fire Incident Reporting system. But NBC 5 Investigates discovered that reporting system does not ask fire departments whether CSST caught fire. The reports do collect information about whether fuel gas was the first thing ignited in a home but no specifics about the type of fuel gas piping in the house.
Stringfellow estimates the number of CSST fires based on all lightning-fuel gas fires and the number of homes in the U.S. with CSST. But during an interview with NBC 5 Investigates he acknowledged the number may be higher than 30 per year – perhaps more than double that number. It’s tough to quantify, he said, because evidence is sometimes damaged by the fire.
And, just because there are holes in a piece of CSST, Stringfellow argues that does not mean it was the first thing in the house to catch fire.
NBC 5 Investigates requested reports from 22 fire departments in the DFW area, including suburbs with new construction where CSST is more common.
Four departments told us they either do not track CSST fires or have a way to search their records for CSST.
The others sent us a combined total of about 30 incidents that mention lightning and damage to CSST over the last 12 years; 16 of those were in Frisco.
The city declined requests to talk about those cases.
Rockwall Fire Chief Mark Poindexter said his department investigates CSST, but some departments stay away from mentioning CSST in reports for fear of getting dragged in to lawsuits.
“If they determine it's an accidental fire, a lot of them stop at that point and say, ‘OK, this is for insurance companies to deal with. Our job is done,’” said Poindexter.
The Texas State Fire Marshal said he wants the National Fire Incident Reporting or N-FIRS to add a place for departments to report CSST.
“We will certainly advocate for that because it would help us in our analysis so we know exactly the scope of the problem in the state,” said Chris Connealy, Texas State Fire Marshal.
An N-FIRS representative told NBC 5 Investigates they are open to suggestions, but the agency did not respond to specific questions about CSST.
“I'm not saying it's going to solve the problem, but the more data you have you can actually better define the problem and I think we're still struggling with defining the problem,” Guthrie said.
Stringfellow believes the United States needs tougher building codes requiring grounding things like metal chimneys that can bring lightning energy into the attic.
He believes CSST is often a victim of other flaws in construction.
“Everyone's pointing at CSST as being the only villain in town and to me it's the minor villain you know; there are a lot bigger problems,” said Stringfellow.
Both experts interviewed believe there are multiple ways CSST can fail after a lightning strike and more research is needed to understand all of the ways it can happen. They also agree that all the lawsuits surrounding the product are preventing more open sharing of information that might lead to additional solutions.
Meanwhile, the Rushings want other families to beware of what can happen in a lightning storm, even if the CSST is bonded and grounded - as it was in their home.
Even though there's dispute over what started the fire at the Rushing’s home, both fire investigators and the manufacturer’s attorneys, acknowledge the CSST developed holes during the blaze that ended Brennen Teel's life. However, experts hired by the manufacturer argue the fire was already burning by the time that happened.
“Nothing's going to bring him back,” said Meg Rushing. “It's absolutely devastating.”