A six-month-long NBC 5 investigation into flexible gas line tubes known as CSST, corrugated stainless steel tubing, has prompted action that could help protect people who are buying homes across Texas.
Home inspectors throughout the state are now looking at better ways to let homebuyers know if the product is in their home.
NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered dozens of fires that involved CSST and lightning in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
CSST is used to pipe gas to furnaces and appliances in many newer homes and is found in millions of homes across America. But a lightning strike on or near a house can turn them into a blowtorch causing a house to catch fire.
"We just knew there was a big flash and a boom,” said Paula Muller, a homeowner from Argyle whose house caught fire in a lightning storm in 2012.
At first the Muller’s didn’t see any flames or smoke, but there was a fire burning inside the walls of their daughter’s bedroom as she slept.
Muller said firefighters told her the fire was burning behind the wall like a blowtorch, right behind her daughter’s head.
“It terrifies me every time I think of that, that it could have been so different, and that’s why we want people to know,” said Muller.
Fire investigators found a damaged piece of CSST in the wall next to piece of electrical wire that was also damaged.
Many fire experts believe lightning energy sometimes runs through the wiring in a house, then jumps or arcs on to CSST where it punches holes into the tubes, releasing gas and setting it on fire.
“We didn’t even know what CSST was,” said Muller.
When the Mullers bought their house, they don’t remember anyone telling them it had CSST or a home inspection report making mention of it.
Even worse, their CSST was not properly grounded, which made it more susceptible to lightning damage.
If the Mullers had lived in Oklahoma their home inspector would have been required to make note of it in their home inspection report with the following statement: “Manufacturers believe the product (CSST) is safer if properly bonded and grounded…" which an electician can verify.
But in Texas the law is not that specific. The amount of information a buyer gets really depends on the inspector.
“Quite frankly, most inspectors can’t even identify it,” said Paul Roebuck, president of the Texas Professional Real Estate Inspectors Association.
After his group saw NBC 5 Investigates’ reports on CSST, they held more training sessions to educate inspectors about the product.
“We’ll bring out samples of the tubing to show them what it is. We’ll show videos, like your newscast, we showed at the class in San Antonio this past weekend,” said Roebuck.
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The current inspection report form that Texas home inspectors use does not mention CSST by name. There is also no required warning language like there is in Oklahoma or North Carolina, where inspectors are advised to tell buyers of the “potential for lightning strikes” to cause fires involving CSST and the need to have it checked.
“It’s a good message to have, any time of additional safety is a good thing for the consumer,” said home inspector Brian Murphy, who heads the state committee that helps write the Texas home inspection rules.
After seeing the NBC 5 investigation, he raised the issue again with the committee. But at a meeting in April in Austin, members refused to change the rules.
Some committee members were concerned that adding CSST language to the inspection form might force them to add many other products.
Others argued the current state regulations already tell inspectors to note gas piping that is not properly grounded and committee believes that extends CSST even if the inspection form doesn’t specifically mention it.
Other inspectors at the meeting were angry with the decision.
“We need to have state mandated language at a minimum that informs the consumer,” said home inspector, Mark Eberwine.
When asked if he was happy with the outcome of the meeting committee chairman Murphy told NBC 5 Investigates, “ The committee has spoken, so whether I’m happy with it or not the voice of the committee is the voice.”
Murphy and other committee members insist in their own home inspection businesses they voluntarily give consumers special notices about CSST. But the group did not feel the state should mandate that every customer should get notice.
Eberwine left the meeting feeling like they didn’t do enough to protect customers.
Even two of the largest CSST makers have said they would support a rule in Texas.
“I think its good practice,” said Dave Oehlers, vice president of Titleflex.
Oehlers said the product is safe when installed correctly. But many homes with CSST were built before building codes required CSST to be bonded to the electrical grounding system in the house.
“It’s quite common for inspectors to go into a home and take a look at all these systems, so if they notice that why not share the news,” said Oehlers.
But for now, the state leaves it to home inspectors to educate each other hoping they will inform buyers.
The Mullers want the state to take away the guesswork.
“They need to let people know in clear language what to look for and what the danger is,” said Muller.
Experts told NBC 5 Investigates that homebuyers should ask their inspector to look for CSST and if they find it to call an electrician to check it out.