For three months, NBC 5 Investigates looked at the safety of flexible gas lines known as CSST, corrugated stainless steel tubing. It’s a product used in millions of newer homes and is approved for use in national building codes.
But CSST has also been blamed for fires across the country where fire officials and insurance industry investigators have said energy from lightning jumped or arced onto the CSST punching holes in the tubes releasing and igniting gas.
“I never thought about piping never heard of it before until the fire department brought the piece of pipe down. He cut it loose and he brought it down and said this is what caused your fire,” said Nancy Bixby recalling the night her attic caught fire.
“Right there, there was a black spot growing right between the wall and the ceiling,” said Bixby.
When the smoke cleared, Bixby said Flower Mound firefighters showed her tiny holes in a piece of CSST, used to run gas to the furnace and fireplace.
Bixby said they explained that a lightning storm, which had knocked out her cable TV and phone lines, may have also sent lightning energy jumping onto the CSST creating tiny holes and small jets of flame.
Like a lot of homes with CSST, Bixby's house was built in the years before codes required contractors to connect, or "bond," the CSST to the electrical grounding system in the house.
CSST manufacturers said bonding and grounding minimizes the risk of damage from lightning — and the National Fire Protection Association said it provides a "reasonable level of safety".
Bixby had the CSST replaced and this time she called an electrician to bond and ground it. But when a storm fires up she still wonders.
“How safe am I with it grounded? Am I really safe? It has crossed my mind,” said Bixby.
NBC 5 Investigates wondered how the Texas State Fire Marshal, Chris Connealy, would answer that question.
Connealy said he's encouraging Texans to bond and ground CSST, but that does not mean he's endorsing the product.
“This is an issue that's evolving and I don't know how else to say and so we don't take a position on CSST whether for or against it, as far as the state fire marshal's office,” said Connealy.
Asked if he would sleep well at night with the product in his attic Connealy responded, “I would certainly have it bonded and grounded that's for sure.”
Connealy said he's keeping a close eye on research involving CSST and he's watching what's happening in Lubbock where the city has banned CSST after a deadly fire and explosion.
In late Aug., 2012, Brennen Teel died after a fire and explosion at a friend’s house.
The Lubbock Fire Marshal said lightning energy jumped arcing onto CSST and punctured the tubes. Investigators said the house was bonded and grounded according to the new guidelines.
Titeflex, the company that made the CSST in the home, denies their product triggered the fire. They they claim the lightning damaged electrical wires igniting foam insulation in the attic instead.
“If we can help people understand what they need to know, that is our goal,” said Becky Teel, Brennen’s mom.
In their first interview, Brennen Teel's parents told NBC 5 Investigates they would like CSST taken off the market.
But they also tell people with CSST in their home to call 9-1-1 if they suspect a lightning strike and have firefighters check the attic to make sure the CSST was not damaged.
The fire marshal believes their son died not knowing the attic was on fire.
“His incident may lead to save other lives and property, and I think that's a good way for us to remember him [Brennen],” said Ken Teel, Brennen’s father.
Mark Goodson, an adviser to the state fire marshal’s office, is one of the experts hired by the Teel’s attorneys.
Goodson thinks CSST is an unsafe product even after bonding and grounding and said he’s investigated hundreds of CSST fires, mostly on behalf of homeowners and insurance companies suing CSST manufacturers.
The latest research supported by the CSST industry said while bonding and grounding reduces the threat from a "nearby strike, " ... a direct lightning strike may carry enough charge to cause damage."
“Lastly it doesn't change the unsafe characteristic of the product, which is the thin wall,” said Goodson.
“We're aware of the problem. We understand the problem,” said CSST industry expert, Bob Torbin.
Torbin is an executive with Omegaflex, a major CSST maker that's not involved in the Lubbock case.
He travels the country telling fire officials CSST is as safe as anything in your home, if its bonded and grounded. He argues nothing in your house is designed to withstand a direct strike.
“And when big blue comes striking in your home, everything in your house is susceptible,” said Torbin.
Torbin spoke to firefighters recently in Dallas, but declined an on-camera interview with NBC 5 Investigates.
Since her fire, Bixby told friends and neighbors to at least call an electrician to check their CSST.
“I think the first step is letting everyone that's got it — be aware you've got it and get it grounded. And then think about other options if it makes you uncomfortable”, Bixby said.
In looking at Nancy’s home NBC 5 Investigates noted the CSST may still not be bonded and grounded correctly. She plans to have it checked again.
What can you do if you have gas lines in your home?
- First, look in your attic or crawl space to see if you have CSST. It’s easy to spot because of its yellow coating. The manufacturer’s name is printed on the side of the tubes. CSST usually runs along floor joists in the attic or inside the walls of the house. It is different from the smaller natural gas appliance connectors that attach an appliance from the floor or wall.
- Contract a licensed electrician and make sure CSST bonded and grounded in accordance with local codes and the manufacturer’s recommendations.
- If you want additional protection you can install a complete lightning protection system in your home, though that can be expensive.
- Some engineers advocate replacing CSST with black iron pipe. However CSST makers argue black pipe has its own risks including more joints that can develop leaks and cause explosions. And because black iron pipe is not flexible like CSST it can crack when a house foundation shifts or a tornado strikes.