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Hawthorne is a gentrifying area in southwest Los Angeles County, where there are about 84,000 residents. More residents are arriving every day.
It’s close to the beach and the Los Angeles International Airport. It’s near major freeway routes. And, it’s next door to thriving business areas like El Segundo and Torrance. Which means there’s a growing need for more housing.
So, to Sam Amerian and his Mega Commercial Construction team it seemed like the perfect place to build their latest residential apartment building.
Their project features three floors of apartments over a first floor parking garage. It's 106 units in a very small footprint, which is pretty typical for Southern California (SoCal). Property costs are so high that every square foot of space has to be used efficiently. And, building costs are high as well.
Careful analysis is required to make the most of every dollar in the budget. It takes hours of planning. It takes careful study.
The exception was when Amerian was project leader and had to decide between black pipe and CSST for the gas lines. That decision was made a lot quicker.
According to veteran plumbing pro, Joe Inzalaco, from Valencia Pipe Company’s HOME-FLEX, “I gave him my spiel and he said, ‘no debate, let’s go with CSST’—in minutes!”
CSST versus black pipe
Black pipe is the standard way to run a gas line. Its price per foot is unmatched, and it’s a proven way to get the job done. Every plumber is comfortable and knowledgeable in using it.
But, it might be the right time to reconsider this point of view.
The longest black iron pipe available is 21 feet. Every time it has to change direction, the pipe has to be cut and threaded. Even though most plumbers will try to prefab the whole batch beforehand, they know from experience there are going to be mistakes made that will have to be fixed on-site.
Especially since prefabbing means they have to take the plans and measure the lengths of every run and then factor in the kind and number of fittings.
We all know that all kinds of discrepancies can creep in, from plans to the actual job site dimensions and conditions. So, there’s bound to be some waste in precut materials.
Another drawback to black pipe is it’s heavy. Getting the pipe to where it needs to be is going to take some sort of powered assistance, such as a crane or forklift. With three stories, it gets even more challenging.
Finally, a ¾-inch black iron pipe is only ¾ inches for its Inside Diameter. The outside is bigger. The bigger it is, the harder it is to feed through holes in the framing studs.
So, usually the studs are notched out, the black iron is put in place, and then somehow the studs have to be reinforced later to maintain structural integrity. That can be another entire step in the installation.
The advantages of CSST
According to Inzalaco, “The major cost of gas line installation is always labor. And the simple fact is that you can install five or six lines of HOME-FLEX CSST in the time it takes you to install one line of black pipe. That is a huge savings. Usually about 40 percent.”
Here’s another way to look at it, if it takes your crew two weeks to install CSST, it would take you 10 or 12 weeks with black pipe.
CSST is finished with a polyethylene cover that’s slippery and makes it easy to pull through holes in the studs. And the holes can be smaller, because with CSST ¾-inch pipe really is ¾ inches.
Flexibility is what CSST is all about. Inspired by changes made in the construction business in Japan to cope with earthquake related fires, CSST allows gas lines to bend with seismic activity instead of breaking at the fitting joints.
That same flexibility gives CSST “pullability.” The ability to be threaded easily through holes. And to make all kinds of direction changes with simple on-site bending.
So, CSST can be routed in ways that black pipe installations wouldn’t even consider. You can run CSST the most convenient route imaginable and never have to cut an elbow or thread a fitting. They’re just not necessary.
For the Hawthorne building, Foreman Aaron Moradian, chose HOME-FLEX 250 feet reels. This let them make every run without additional couplings.
The resulting installations were very simple and clean. And much easier to install.
What about crew training?
CSST is fast becoming the industry standard. But, that doesn’t mean every crew member is up to speed. So, Mega Commercial requested special training from HOME-FLEX.
“To be honest, I like getting out of the office,” said Jon Eggly, technical consultant at Valencia Pipe Company. “And, Hawthorne has some great lunch places.”
To get every pro totally up to speed with CSST, Eggly led a one to two hour seminar at the job site. And within a few days every plumber was NFPA-certified to use the HOME-FLEX system.
Every CSST system uses different fittings, and HOME-FLEX features male and female couplers in ½, ¾, and 1 inch sizes, and T connectors.
“I think we have the easiest to use fitting system, just a brass retainer ring and a single non-metallic. Period. And that makes it real easy to teach. And real easy to use out in the field,” Eggly said.
Eggly added, “And for sure we have the easiest certification process. Just go to our website and you can do it all online. We find that works even better than making you attend another class in person.”
From where to where?
Each of the unit’s gas service would start from individual gas meters on the exterior of the building then run to a 1-inch trunk line mounted in the ceiling of the subterranean parking garage.
From the trunk line each apartment unit would get three drop lines of ¾ inches each running to water heater, furnace and cooktop.
The result required a minimum of couplings and straightforward runs to stubs. As Inzalaco puts it, “The best installation is the one with the fewest couplings. Less chances for something to fail, less work to install, less hardware to carry around.”
What about grounding?
Ease of grounding has been cited as a reason why some plumbers say they prefer black iron. Which is why some plumbers have delayed the switch to CSST from black iron. Black iron is easy to ground by simply running a wire to a handy cold water pipe.
But, grounding CSST lines is not a complicated procedure. The Mega Commercial team had a choice of installing a 6-gauge copper wire on the black iron fitting just before the CSST line, or on the CSST line coupling itself. Then, they simply ran the grounding wire to the electrical service box.The advantage of this set up is if there is an incident, it instantly shuts down the electrical system and let’s you know that it is working properly. You will know that an arcing or sparking incident has taken place.
With black iron grounding, you don’t know if it’s working. If an incident occurs you remain unaware. If it’s a repeating phenomenon, you just won’t know.
Furthermore, since grounding can be done anywhere the plumber finds it convenient, there’s no one place to look to see if it continues to be grounded. The grounding connection may even be hidden out of site in drywall.
The bottom line is all gas pipe has to be grounded, black iron, CSST, even LPS equipped pipe that says it doesn’t require grounding. Some localities require grounding in two different places.
Black iron is a generic product. It’s hard to keep track of who manufactured all the pieces and parts. So, if a plumber wants to offer a guarantee, in effect he or she is the warranty. You’re putting your skills up as a guarantee the job was done right.
CSST on the other hand is backed by the manufacturer. HOME-FLEX, for example, comes with a one-year limited warranty against most manufacturing defects.
When working with CSST choosing pipe diameter is a crucial aspect of the job design. Choosing between ½ inch, ¾ inch and 1 inch sizes is based on a variety of parameters specific to what’s planned to connect to the gas line.
As Inzalaco points out, pipe size selection requires plumbers to evaluate how much gas is available at the meter utility, the length of the pipe envisioned and the maximum draw at the other end.
At the new Hawthorne apartment building, each gas line was to service water heater, cooktop and heating units.
That’s a lot of total draw. With long runs, there’s a lot of resistance in the gas flow. (The longer the run, the more resistance, and the less gas coming out of the other end.)
Here’s a theoretical example. Let’s say you need to run 50 feet of line and your total max draw is 200,000 BTUs. With a ¾-inch pipe, you get 224,000 BTU—just perfect for your needs. But with ½-inch you only get 75,000 BTU—not nearly enough. What about 1-inch pipe? It gives you a total draw of 400,000 BTUs—that’s overkill. Far more than you need.
Eggly points out that all this information is available for reference on the new HOME-FLEX website. Just refer to the system design and installation manual for a complete guide to every parameter, whether you’re using natural gas or propane.
Still a good decision?
Amerian made a quick decision to go with CSST instead of black pipe. What’s his opinion now that the 106-unit project is nearing completion?
According to Eggly, “Sam is happy with the results and believes he made the right call.”