During a recent car trip, “Once in a Lifetime” by seminal New York band Talking Heads came on the radio. I always liked their quirky lyrics and catchy rhythms, and played the song at a volume that could drown out my pathetic attempts of singing along. When David Byrne wailed, “You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?” it started me down a thought trail – “How did all of our stuff get here, in particular, all of the products used in our industry? Who sat down one day and decided we needed a pressure vacuum breaker or an automatic compensating valve or a water hammer arrester?”
The simple answer is that plumbing products were, and continue to be, introduced to address problems. If we look back to the earliest days of civilization, there wasn’t a real need for these products. Caveman Klug just bent down on one knee and scooped drinking water from a stream when he was thirsty and did his bathroom duties a suitable distance from his campsite in the woods. Everyone seemed happy with this arrangement until the population grew. When too many people began doing their business all over the place, including the stream, the water became contaminated and something had to be done. Perhaps this was when Klug suggested that bathroom breaks be taken in a place away from the water source and he dug the first pit privy. He may not have realized that by doing so he was protecting the health of his village. And so it goes …
You probably have at one time or another marveled at the amazingly modern-looking plumbing systems designed by the Greeks, Romans, and other early civilizations. There is evidence of efforts to separate potable and bathing water from that intended for drainage and waste removal, to flow water through enclosed pipes instead of open troughs, and to direct and control flow with valves as early as 4000 BC. At roughly the same time, the Egyptian pyramids were fitted with copper drainage pipes that look amazingly similar to those manufactured today. Around 1500 BC, Cretan King Minos directed his servants to make his personal toilet continuously flush, which hopefully was accommodated via connection to a stream and not through manual labor. About 900 years later, Roman King Priscus ordered construction of the Cloaca Maxima (Greatest Sewer), portions of which still survive and are recognized as an engineering marvel.
More recently in 1596, Queen Elizabeth I’s godson John Harrington took a break from writing poetry and invented the first modern flush toilet. Not sure if he wrote this, but he could have:
Take your time,
No need to rush.
When you’re through,
Just push to flush.
Elizabeth was so impressed that she ordered one for herself but was reportedly scared by the loud noises it made during flushing, so rarely used it. Mr. Harrington’s first name is why we sometimes refer to a lavatory as a “John,” a fact for which I am ever so grateful. Roughly a century later, Scottish inventor Alexander Cummings improved Harrington’s invention by adding a trap to keep sewer gases where they belong.
In 1810, the Regency shower was introduced in England. It recirculated shower water from a sump at the bather’s feet. While crude and not quite hygienic, it ushered in an era where bathing came to be seen as something that should occur more often than monthly, as was the standard practice at the time. Regency users probably thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could control the temperature on this thing?” Hmmm …
Back in the U.S., Boston’s Tremont Hotel became the first to feature indoor plumbing in 1829. Guests flocked to the hotel to use the new conveniences. In 1833, the White House finally got indoor plumbing, but only on the first floor. Andrew Jackson was undoubtedly thankful to see his presidential outhouse retired. Two decades later, the upper floors of the grand home followed suit. By 1856, an epidemic of waterborne disease inspired Chicago to build the first fully integrated water, sewer, and drainage system in America, a feat that was soon after undertaken by all major US cities.
In 1906, a group of enterprising plumbing inspectors met in Washington, D.C. to discuss standardizing plumbing practices. They formed ASSE, whose motto, “Prevention Rather Than Cure,” still resonates.
The following years would see all sorts of products developed for convenience and safety – new taps, shower heads, toilets, mixing and temperature limiting valves, and myriads of other flow control devices. During World War II, the demands of manufacturing military supplies resulted in a global metal shortage. This started an infusion of new plumbing product designs that featured alternate materials of construction, most notably plastics. Around this same time, modern backflow prevention products were introduced. Addressed with simple flapper checks in previous decades, the growing size and complexity of water systems necessitated testable assemblies, such as double check and reduced pressure zone valves, to prevent cross connections.
The last half of the 20th century until the present time has witnessed our industry place an even greater emphasis on maintaining public health and safety and conserving natural resources. Laws have been passed that mandate reductions in exposure to chemicals that might leach out of plumbing system components, while others specify energy and water conservation directives. Backflow programs continue to be put in place all across the globe. These laws and programs, used in conjunction with certified products and certified installation and maintenance professionals leave us today with the safest, most reliable, and efficient plumbing system ever seen. Unfortunately, this fact is often taken for granted. Most plumbing is out of sight and thereby out of mind.
What do I foresee in our future?
• Just as has been the case with Mr. Harrington’s toilet, manufacturers will continue to make improvements to existing technologies. In general, products are being made more reliable, with more features, easier to install and maintain, and, where appropriate, smaller and lighter.
• Push and press connection systems will continue to grow in popularity due to their ease of installation over threading, brazing, or soldering. Adhesive joining methods may also make a resurgence.
• Engineered plastics will continue to supplant other traditional plumbing materials.
• A whole new sub-segment of our industry will emerge to help address the rising waters in coastal cities due to global climate change.
• Internet of Things (IoT) technology will become much more prevalent in our industry. Plumbing devices will communicate with one another and facilitate real time data collection. The future will find us working smarter, not harder.
I have had the great honor of serving as the Manufacturers’ Representative on ASSE International’s Board of Directors and also on the Products Standards Committee for many years. I can unequivocally state that I am continuously impressed by the innovative products brought forward by our listees, as evidenced by the thousands of patents they hold. Manufacturers will continue to introduce new products to address the new challenges of our ever-evolving planet. What a great time to be alive!