King County jail lost water 16 times since 2018

The building has been plagued with water failures stemming from Aquatherm pipes.

Inmates, staff and residents of the homeless shelter at the King County Correctional Facility have been without water 16 times within the past year and a half following significant failures in the piping system.

The county’s downtown Seattle jail, housing more than 1,000 inmates, has experienced ongoing system failures with its Aquatherm pipes, which were installed in 2012 and marketed as having a 60-year lifespan. However, by 2015, the jail’s water service was regularly interrupted by major leaks that left everyone in the building without water. When major leaks happened, the entire system would be shut down to make repairs, said King County’s director of facilities management Anthony Wright.

“It kept failing and probably for the first five or 10 [leaks], we were negotiating with the manufacturers and they were covering them under warranty,” Wright said at a July 23 county budget and fiscal management meeting.

In the face of ongoing leaks, the county filed a lawsuit against the German-based manufacturer Aquatherm this spring, at which point the company stopped providing repair services. Since then, the county has secured another contractor for repair work. King County Executive Dow Constantine is asking for $23.5 million to completely overhaul the jail’s piping system and for the county to declare an emergency. This ordinance will appear on the July 24 King County Council agenda.

Some leaks have caused damage to flooring and cabinets as well as drip damage and, in some cases, flowing water. One picture presented at the meeting showed 180-degree temperature water jettisoning from a pipe onto a mechanical panel.

“When it’s doing that, we have to shut the water down to the system,” Wright said. “The whole complex either lacks cold water or hot water or both, depending on which pipe has failed.”

These failures left inmates, visitors and everyone else in the building reliant on using bottled water for drinking, flushing toilets and other essential uses at times. While the water system was shut down when large leaks broke out, Wright said the leaks on their own could create pressure loss on the upper floors of the buildings. In previous coverage, King County Council member Kathy Lambert said most repair work was done at night.

Wright said the jail has around 4.5 miles of piping that will need to be replaced, likely with a stainless steel system. There is no timeline for when it could be completed. And while the county is asking for $23.5 million, Wright said the total project cost may come in under budget.

King County sued Aquatherm in March to recover damages associated with replacing the system and damage to the facilities. The lawsuit, which names Aquatherm and several of its U.S. subsidiaries, as well as local contractors, alleges the problems are not unique to the jail.

“(The) unfair and deceptive acts were part of a pattern or generalized course of conduct, have been repeated and have the capacity for future repetition, and have injured other property owners in exactly the same fashion as King County,” according to the lawsuit.

Aquatherm pipes are made from a material called polypropylene-random (PP-R), which Wright said usually works well in places that have hard water unlike Seattle.

The Seattle Times reported in 2018 that the Via6 apartment project installed Aquatherm pipes during construction that had been deemed complete in 2013. The apartment complex has two, 24-story towers and 654 units. By 2018, the building’s management displaced tenants for a month to replace the piping after major water leaks and flooding. The building’s owners sued Aquatherm last year and litigation is ongoing.

The Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland also installed Aquatherm pipes in recent years following renovations that were completed around 2013. By summer 2018, the federally-owned building began experiencing leaks, said property manager Chad Hutson with the General Services Administration (GSA).

“GSA is currently investigating the root cause for leaks with the assistance of the third-party consultant with the goal of permanently correcting the issue,” Hutson said in an email.

If the emergency ordinance is declared by the King County Council, the county could begin the process of replacing the pipes at the correctional facility immediately.

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