Feds relent on wiring in Chinese drywall homes

dmarsteller@bradenton.comMarch 19, 2011 

MANATEE -- For more than a year, two federal agencies have urged homeowners with Chinese drywall to replace all electrical wiring when fixing their homes.

On Friday, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development altered course -- lending credence to a homebuilders group’s protocol, conflicting with a court-monitored national remediation program and drawing criticism from some quarters.

The federal agencies revised their drywall remediation guidelines to say that some, but not all, electrical wiring and components must be removed. The change stems from additional laboratory testing of electrical components that found long-term exposure to hydrogen sulfide -- the primary gas emitted by the tainted drywall -- did not always substantially worsen the risk of smoke or fire.

“In general, residential electrical system components appear to be relatively tolerant of the corrosive environment created by problem drywall, if the system is installed properly,” a commission report said.

The commission and HUD also added 2009 to the range of years in which the corrosive drywall was installed in U.S. homes. The previous ending year was 2008. Drywall installed in 2009 was imported two to three years earlier, the agencies said.

The drywall, mostly imported from China, has been blamed for emitting sulfuric gases that corrode electrical and metal components, produce noxious odors and cause health ailments such as runny noses and headaches.

Concerned that corroded electrical wires could lead to a higher risk of fire, the commission hired Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to conduct long-term testing. The lab purchased electrical outlets, circuit breakers, wiring and other electrical components, then subjected them to eight weeks of testing that simulated 40 years’ worth of corrosive conditions that could be found in homes with the problem drywall.

Their findings: Some components corroded faster than others, depending on how often they were used, how well they were installed or connected, and other factors. Based on that, officials revised the guidelines to recommend replacing the following items that tend to corrode faster:

n Fire-safety alarm devices, including smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

n Electrical distribution components such as receptacles, switches and circuit breakers.

n Gas service piping and fire-suppression sprinkler systems.

Other electrical wiring, such as that behind walls, also can corrode but not severely enough to always warrant their automatic removal, the agencies and laboratory said.

But that recommendation was heavily qualified.

“While no fire, smoking, or other safety events occurred during the course of this experiment, CPSC staff and Sandia are mindful of the limited scope and controlled conditions of this experiment,” they said in a 89-page report of their findings. “The experiment does not, and could not, possibly capture every permutation of conditions, wiring, installation, brands, environmental conditions and other possible confounding factors that are actually present in the affected houses.”

That concerns Mike Foreman, a Sarasota construction consultant who has been researching the corrosive drywall for more than three years.

He said the lab results are incomplete, noting testing was limited to 110-volt outlets and wires with PVC insulation.

Further testing needs to be done on 220-volt outlets and wires with other types of insulation for starters, Foreman contends.

“It’s nice that they came out with this information, but it’s lacking detail,” he said. “All it does is just add confusion.”

By revising their guidelines, the agencies now differ from those issued by a federal judge who is overseeing a consolidated court proceeding on Chinese drywall.

In a pair of rulings last year, U.S. District Court Judge Eldon Fallon said all electrical wiring should be removed as part of any repairs done under the court case. A drywall manufacturer now is following that standard as it fixes 300 homes in a pilot program that could lead to a national settlement.

Several attorneys in the case said it’s unlikely Fallon will change his requirements, which can cost $100,000 per home to implement, as a result of the agencies’ revision.

But the agencies now are more in-line with recommendations the National Association of Home Builders issued earlier this week. Some have criticized the builders’ protocol because it does not recommend the removal of all wiring.

“Now, we have complete alignment and a sense of relief for homeowners and builders that, if there is no corrosion in the wiring, it doesn’t necessarily have to be removed,” said Katherine Cahill, product risk services managing director for Marsh Risk Consulting, who helped develop the NAHB’s standards.

Duane Marsteller, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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