BY STEVE SPAULDING
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF

IRVINE, CALIF. — This city, in the heart of Orange County, has a lot going for it. Irvine is consistently rated one of the safest cities in America, is headquarters to several Fortune 500 companies, boasts excellent public schools, and is home to slugger Mark McGwire, actor Will Farrell and — since last year — the Marquee Towers residential high-rise.

The condominium complex's twin 18-story towers (connected by three levels of parking) are the tallest structures in the city's history, and the first urban development project of its kind that Irvine has seen in the last 30 years. The 236 high-end condos are priced from $500,000 to more than $1.5 million dollars and offer the best of everything: custom flooring, exotic wood cabinetry, luxury appliances and fixtures.

For the entire plumbing installation, the owners went with Quality Mechanical, a firm based in Redding, Calif. The company serves the entire state, said Randy Elledge, the company's president and founder.

"Most of our work has been down in Southern California," he said. "I live in Northern California, so it's been a commute every week. But then, Northern California is a nice place to live."

Quality Mechanical specializes in high-rise construction. "We started out in hospitality and it was a natural transition, what with the current market, into high-rises on the residential side," Elledge told CONTRACTOR. "The systems are relatively close to what the big hotels are. You've got a central plant that you run off of. Most of them have vertical stacked heat pumps — very typical in hotel construction."

Quality Mechanical employs about 30 workers but had to bring on extra help when it won the Marquee Towers job.

"We built a good relationship with the owner, who was from the San Diego area," Elledge said. "It was our first project together, but I probably called on them a year and a half before we got the project."

Quality Mechanical installed a domestic hot water system with a more than 4 million Btuh capacity. Powering the system is a series of natural-gasfired Riverside Boilers, manufactured by a subsidiary of Texas-based PVI Industries. Siemens controls keep the entire system running smoothly.

"They're a pretty nice little unit," Elledge said of the boilers. "Round, about the size of a 100- gal. water heater, so very compact. The venting is nice on them because you can sidewall vent them if you're close enough to the outside wall, which was a big plus. Typically, they put the mechanical room underneath the pool areas, and it's not very easy to get the venting out."

One of the more interesting challenges of the jobs was complying with a special request from one of the owners: Each unit needed to have a central, one-point water shut-off.

"If that's what you want, there are two options," Elledge said. "You can run it overhead with copper pipe, and traditionally you have to support all that underneath the slab, which is considerable time and effort. The other way was to do the job with PEX."

Using flexible PEX tubing would mean eliminating many of the joints necessary in rigid plumbing systems — but such a use was not allowed by the city of Irvine's plumbing codes. A variance was granted, however, after an extended application was filed and several meetings were conducted.

"PEX tubing has never been used on a project of this magnitude in Irvine," Elledge said, "even though it had been used with great success on small-scale residential projects here. In a way, we were setting a precedent."

The variance only extends to the one application on this one job. All main piping running from the central plant to the individual condos was done with copper, but between 6 in. and 12 in. off the 8-in. thick concrete floor the piping transitions to PEX and runs through the floor, sleeved in a larger polyethylene pipe, until it reaches the cut-off panel.

All in all, Quality Mechanical installed 50,000 ft. of 1 /2-in. Aquapex tubing manufactured by Uponor. Quality Mechanical's end of the project took 1 1 /2 years to complete and billed out at about $10 million.

"Because the system required fewer fittings, we saved as much as 20% on labor and materials cost over copper," Elledge said.

"The hardest thing with the project was doing two towers at once in one location. We had to run it almost as if it were two independent jobs. We really ended up building two crews; typically one crew was two floors behind the other tower as they went up."

It's a problem the company plans to overcome soon. It is starting work on the display suite for the next phase of Marquee Towers, which is scheduled to break ground in May or June — and the new phase involves a total of four towers.