Cracking the Code


PIPE's Carl Triphahn says he doesn't understand why everyone's so upset with the way the code-writing process went, pointing out that the meetings were open to the public.

Barely. Many say the commission meetings were designed to keep outside input to a minimum.

The meetings were held in a hot, cramped room at the Industrial Commission in downtown Phoenix. David Mann, building code administrator for the city of Tucson, who was not on the commission but attended meetings, complains that instead of meeting at length once a month, the commission met more briefly once a week--a move he felt was designed to thwart comments from people outside Maricopa County, who are among the biggest naysayers.

Mann and others also say the meeting process was unfair. Agendas were so long and all-inclusive that it was almost impossible to know what would come up at a meeting. And public discussion before the commission took place at the very end of the meeting, after the issue at hand had been voted on.

The home builders' Tom Simplot, who wound up being the commission's vice chair, echoes Mann's sentiments.

"They [commission non-members] had no input at all. Of course we'd have a call to the public at the very end of the meeting and they'd say, 'I don't like what you voted on at the very beginning of the meeting.' But of course at the end of the meeting at a call to the public, we can't respond anyway."

Even more disturbing is Simplot's assertion that the rules were already written before the commission met, a possible violation of the open-meetings law.

"All the decisions were made beforehand. No doubt about it," he says.
"They were talking about detailed plumbing issues that you or I, we'd just get lost on," Simplot, a lawyer, says. "So for a majority of the things, it's like, 'I don't even know what you're talking about. But I know this: If people are this upset about it, something's wrong.' That much I knew as a layperson."

The expected outcome of a code written by the plumbers' lobbyists would be that it looks out for plumbers' interests. Does the proposed code reflect a bias?

Depends upon whom you ask.
PIPE's Triphahn says the draft code is fair.
"Here is an opportunity to put into place some minimum standards for product and installation which will enhance public safety and health, make it better for the end user and actually produce some value for dollar spent on the part of the homeowner, and we have a bunch of public employees trying to derail it. It just amazes me," he says.

Meanwhile, those public employees are amazed that anyone could call the proposed code consumer-friendly.

The City of Tucson has complaints about the outlawing of "air admittance valves," which prevent stinky sewer gas. The plumbers say they don't like the valves because they're mechanical, and thus subject to failure. But David Mann points out that the code allows for mechanical devices in other instances. He says the plumbers don't like the valves because they require only a third of the pipe otherwise needed to complete a job--which reduces plumbers' income.

The Department of Environmental Quality and many counties are opposed to the code because of provisions regarding septic tanks. Currently, the counties regulate septic tanks.

Under the proposed uniform plumbing code, some septic tank systems would no longer be allowed. That includes a high-tech system that many argue is the only kind that works in really bad soil. So if that's the only system that works, and it's illegal, that means if you own a nice piece of rural property with bad soil, you're, well, shit outta luck. It's hard to see how plumbers would profit from such regulation, but it's clear that at least some consumers would suffer from it.

Also, the code, as proposed, requires that anyone with a septic tank get a plumber's approval, which could cost up to $100,000, Mann estimates.

The city of Chandler is another opponent of the code, as written. The city's chief concern involves plastic pipes. The code requires the use of PEX, a new type of plastic pipe. Chandler prohibits the use of plastic pipe because of widespread burst pipe problems in Chandler homes built in the mid-'80s, using polybutylene, another kind of plastic pipe.

Judy Skousen, Chandler assistant city attorney, says, "A city needs to be able to say: Because of our climate, because of our soil or our water type, we need to be able to make an exception here, here and here. They didn't grant that authority here, and that's different from almost any other state that has done a uniform code."

Patrice Kraus, Chandler's intergovernment liaison, says she knows why: "The people on the commission mostly represent the plumbing industry, not the citizens of Chandler or any other city."

The uniform plumbing code has a final stop before becoming law: approval by the Governor's Regulatory Review Council (GRRC), scheduled to consider the draft code December 1.

Typically, GRRC doesn't approve controversial rules, and these are likely to get kicked back to the commission.

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