Fire marshals around the country are sounding the alarm that a form of flexible piping used to deliver natural gas or propane to a home, when combined with severe weather, could ignite a flame.
That could put families in millions of homes across the United States in the line of fire.
The corrugated stainless steel tubing, or CSST, has been manufactured by numerous companies and was installed in many houses built or remodeled since 1990.
A recording of a 911 call in Lubbock, TX, captured frightening moments in August, as a devastating blaze burned through an area home.
"We have quite a bit of black smoke visible," a firefighter at Station 16 said.
According to a 911 emergency dispatcher, the home was struck by lightning.
The mother, father and two children who lived in the house managed to escape the flames, but a houseguest did not survive.
The families of the victim and survivors have filed a lawsuit, alleging the fatal fire was caused by "a catastrophic failure of CSST."
Documents filed in Lubbock County court argue an electrical current from "the lighting strike created holes in the CSST resulting in a natural gas-fed fire."
CSST-related fires have been on the radar of electricians, fire marshals and private fire investigators like Robert Wysong, president of ACS Investigative Services, Inc.
During a meeting at his Lake St. Louis, MO, office, Wysong told KCTV5 he has reviewed between 15 and 30 cases alleging similar CSST failures.
Among them was a $1 million home in Missouri that was completely destroyed by fire.
"We're not looking at lightning attacking the CSST and we have an explosion," Wysong said. "This is just a hole in the line that allows fugitive vapors to come out."
A fire can spark when those escaping natural or propane gas vapors run into an ignition source.
"Unless it's detected in an early time or proper time, it can burn a place to the ground," Wysong said.
J. William Degnan, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, points out the lightning doesn't need to hit the CSST tubing for this kind of damage to occur.
"It can be a direct strike onto a home," Degnan said, "or it can be a strike in the vicinity of the home."
However, Degnan said fire investigators have discovered the CSST fires are happening in homes where the yellow tubing was installed without the bonding wire needed to prevent energy arcs.
"The common denominator that was found was that none of these systems were bonded," Degnan said. "So that stray current needs a place to go. That's where having your electrical system bonded with the CSST allows it to go to ground."
Most houses built or remodeled since the 1990s will likely have some CSST tubing distributing gas throughout them. But they may not have included that bonding wire. The requirement to add the wire was only formally added to national gas codes in 2009.
Despite the additional rule, electrician Mark Morgan said he doesn't have any CSST in his house.
If he did, Morgan, who also sits on the board of the Lightning Safety Alliance, said he would remove it.
"There just hasn't been any independent data presented to a large enough body of people that can scrutinize it," Morgan said.
Morgan was part of a national committee formed to explore CSST damage and installation methods.
He is not convinced bonding and equal protection grounding provides enough protection.
"It's totally uncertain how to make this product safe in a house," he said.
According to Craig Barry, vice president of marketing for Titefex, one of the companies making CSST, nothing is 100 percent safe.
"But if they bond it, it is a lot safer than un-bonded. It is safe when, like I said, when it's installed to our local codes and to our Gastite installation design guide," Barry said.
Larry Larsen, a consultant for OmegaFlex, a CSST manufacturer, said the flexible piping was developed in the 1980s as a superior alternative to black iron pipe.
"[It] is 14 times less likely to leak and cause a fire than traditional rigid piping," Larsen said.
However, back in Texas, Lubbock investigators discovered the CSST in that fatal home fire had been installed according to code, was bonded and grounded.
That discovery is creating more questions about the safety of the yellow-coated gas tubing.
The biggest question for homeowners is how to figure out if they have CCST tubing installed.
Not seeing it doesn't mean the yellow tubing is not present; it could be hidden behind the sheet rock or in the ceiling. A licensed plumber or electrician will be needed to determine if CSST is present.
Missouri and Kansas rank in the top ten states for cloud to ground lightning strikes, but there is no way to know how many CSST-related fires have burned in either state.
The U.S. Fire Administration does not specifically identify CSST as one of the possible causes in its reporting system.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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