News Story

The Fight Over Plastic Pipes in Michigan

New bill would require them to be considered, but locals want control

In cities across Michigan, local ordinances and contracts restrict or prohibit the use of plastic or PVC piping to transfer water. A new bill would eliminate those restrictions and require municipalities to consider all piping material that meets certain standards. But local governments say this would be burdensome and cost too much.

Senate Bill 157, sponsored by Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has passed a Senate committee and is awaiting consideration by the full body. Jones said plastic pipes can be used safely and can be more cost-effective than iron and other metal materials.

“The proposal is not a mandate that cities, counties, or township use a certain material,” Jones said. “It simply requires them to consider materials that meet high standards. ... Cities with competitive bidding with plastic have found that their bids for iron and concrete pipes went down.”

A fiscal analysis of the bill says it would “prohibit a public entity from adopting or enforcing an ordinance that restricted or prohibited the evaluation, comparison, or use of certain pipe and piping materials that met current American Society for Testing and Materials, American Water Works Association, or NSF International standards.”

But some local governments and engineers say the state requirement would be too restrictive and limit the authority of people working on specific projects. They worry that it would require them to do multiple design standards for each project and take out bids unnecessarily.

“Our communities are not opposed to PVC or plastic pipes,” said John LaMacchia, a spokesman for the Michigan Municipal League. “In many cases the same standards allow for PVC or plastic in the system. For us, it’s about where is it appropriate to do that. We think it is important for local governments to maintain the ability through their engineers to develop those standards. In a lot of ways that can ensure quality, safety, and uniformity.”

LaMacchia said local governments are always looking to save money and in no way are they biased against plastic piping.

But supporters of plastic pipes say the law is needed. Bruce Hollands, executive director at Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, says that studies show that cities can save money by using more open bidding, either with lower-cost plastic pipes or bringing down the bids for other piping materials.

“There are many communities in Michigan (including Flint) that do not allow other piping materials except iron, which is more costly and prone to corrosion,” Hollands said. “To ensure best value for taxpayer dollars, all piping materials which meet current standards and technical specifications should be included in bidding processes for water and sewer projects, which provides more options, spurs innovation and lower costs. Senate Bill 157 aims to do this.”

Though plastic piping has been relatively slow to catch on in Michigan, it is used widely in many southern states in the U.S. as well as much of Canada.

Steven Folkman, a professor of mechanical engineering at Utah State University, has studied piping materials in North America. He said that plastic piping has a lower break rate when compared to ductile iron, cast iron, concrete and steel pipe. Metal piping installed prior to the 1970s is particularly apt to fail since it did not use corrosion protection. Folkman believes PVC can be used longer and more effectively.

“When PVC pipe was first developed, it had an anticipated life of 50 years. This was a very conservative estimate. ... Simply put, we have PVC pipe that has been in use for over 50 years and tests done on dug-up samples show that they meet all the quality control tests of new PVC pipe,” he said.

Folkman added that while many cities like iron pipes because they can be “bumped with a backhoe and not break,” in states with highly corrosive soils, like Michigan, metal pipes need corrosive treatments and are more likely to break.

Many municipalities in Michigan, such as Burton, just outside Flint, are embracing plastic piping. But questions remain over state legislation that would encourage their use.

Senate Bill 157 moved through committee rapidly, but is on hold on the Senate floor. Amidst concerns from local governments and other piping materials manufacturers, five senators who previously co-sponsored the legislation pulled their support according to Gongwer News Service.

“There's no reason [plastic] cannot be used in Michigan,” Jones said. “I believe there is absolutely no excuse for these archaic rules that some cities have requiring iron pipes. Obviously the iron pipe companies and the ironworkers would like to retain those laws, but if we're going to have a competitive future and fix our infrastructure, we need to have more open bidding.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.