By Charles Wardell
Special to CONTRACTOR
In 1954 a faucet was a simple affair consisting of a screw valve and a washer in a chrome-plated or galvanized steel housing. The valve delivered hot or cold water, period.
There were two plumbing showrooms in New York City — with products from Kohler and American Standard. Most plumbing manufacturers were small, family-owned businesses. Moen’s catalog was about three pages long.
That same year, Alex Manoogian incorporated the ball valve into a successful single-handle faucet design for the kitchen. Single-handled faucets weren’t new — Al Moen had invented the first one in 1937 — but Manoogian’s design included a new triangular cam, from which the faucet got its name: Delta.
Fast-forward 50 years. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a two-handled kitchen faucet. Gaskets have been replaced by ceramic disks that will last the life of the kitchen. Showerheads save water without sacrificing comfort and also protect against accidental scalding. Fixtures in general have become fashion statements, with plasma vapor deposition, or PVD, finishes that mimic polished brass, nickel or gold.
Plumbing is known as a relatively conservative industry. There’s no equivalent to Moore’s law — the computer industry axiom that processing power doubles yearly while costs plummet — and that’s just as well. After all, while most people can put up with computers that freeze up for no apparent reason, it’s another matter when the toilet won’t flush. As a keeper of the public health, the plumbing industry is held to tougher standards than software giants.
But as the above examples show, the last half-century has seen big changes. The plumbing industry has been spurred on by the same trends that have driven every industry: affluent and demanding consumers, more government regulation, foreign competition and low-price retailers. While these have created an increasingly tough business climate, those companies that have adapted have been rewarded with unprecedented business opportunities.
Demographics as destiny
The engine behind many of these trends has been the baby boom generation. To see it at work, just look at its effect on the humble bath vanity.
Gary Uhl, director of design at American Standard, says manufacturers settled on the 31-in. standard vanity height during the ‘50s. It was a compromise to accommodate the baby boomer children and their parents. But now that the boomers are sprouting gray hairs and complaining of back pain, fixture heights are adjusting. Vanity and pedestal heights have grown from 31 to 36 in. so boomers won’t have to bend over so far. The boomers are also the reason that toilets got higher and faucets sprouted levers, Uhl says.
“As we grow older, we don’t want anything that reminds us of that fact,” he says. “Plumbing companies have been quietly making changes to accommodate boomers and to make them feel like they have their old flexibility back.”
Uhl predicts this trend will accelerate, creating lots of opportunity for designers.
“We’re going to need more and more products that help accessibility but that don’t advertise the fact,” he says. “It will be a great design challenge.”
Growth by design
Of course, design challenges are nothing new. Fifty years ago, the plumbing fixture was a utility no one thought much about. Today, it’s so much a design statement that some companies partner with famous designers — for instance, Hansgrohe with Phillippe Stark and Antonio Citterio, and Delta with Michael Graves. This mimics trends in other industries.
“The emotions invoked by a product have influenced the design of cars and clothes for a long time,” says Chris Marshall, president of Hansgrohe USA. “Now it’s the same for bath, kitchen and shower products.”
Recent decades have also seen a breathtaking proliferation of new plumbing products, with Moen’s three-page 1954 catalog growing to more than 200 pages. And with consumers’ design tastes changing faster and faster, product lifecycles have become shorter and shorter.
“In 1954 you didn’t think in terms of when a product’s lifecycle would end,” says Rick Reles, vice president/ global faucets at Kohler. “You just put it out there and thought it would last forever.”
Having product information online has made consumers more demanding than ever.
“The influence of the Internet continues to grow,” Reles says. “Consumers are researching their choices. They know what they want, and they can talk intelligently about things like technology, finishes and design.”
Behind the walls
Some of the biggest changes in the last 50 years have happened where customers seldom look: behind the walls. Before World War II, copper accounted for an insignificant share of water supply pipe. During the ‘50s and ‘60s it grew to 90%, says Andy Kireta of the Copper Development Association.
And then there came plastic.
“What changed the industry the most was the invention of PVC drainpipe,” says Ed Del Grande, a third-generation plumbing contractor from Smithfield, R.I., who recalls melting lead in his teens to seal cast-iron drainpipe. “In the ‘40s and ‘50s plumbing was a hard dirty job, but as soon as PVC came around, my father started encouraging me to go into the trade.”
He believes that PEX piping will lead another revolution. It’s already popular in places such as Las Vegas, where “aggressive” water — with low pH levels, dissolved carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide from decaying plants — can corrode copper pipe. But it’s also making inroads elsewhere.
“I tried it on my own house and fell in love with it,” Del Grande says. “It actually makes plumbing fun. PEX will do to copper what PVC did to cast iron.”
Not surprisingly, the copper people are a bit less enthusiastic. Kireta counters that PEX doesn’t have copper’s track record.
“Copper doesn’t fail, the workmanship does,” he says. “The plastic people say it has been tested, but we’ve seen plastic fail.”
Only time will settle the issue.
A tougher business
Just as important as trends in design and technology have been changes in how business is done. These have affected everyone from manufacturers to contractors.
As with cars and electronics, American plumbing manufacturers have had to face increasing foreign competition. Dornbracht, Jado and Hansgrohe began targeting the U.S. market as early as 25 years ago. Hansgrohe opened a manufacturing facility in the Atlanta area in 1994, as did Toto USA in 1996.
American-grown companies have fought hard to defend their turf. For instance, Marshall says that while Hansgrohe’s sales have increased an average of more than 30% per year, breaking into the distribution channels dominated by the big U.S. companies has proved difficult.
“They’re good competitors,” he says. “They have the history and brand recognition among the major consumer markets.”
Manufacturers are also facing challenges on the home front. Historically, each plumbing manufacturer has had its geographic strongholds, but consolidation among home builders has started to weaken these. It’s not happening overnight, since national builders’ regional and local managers often specify product for their market, based at least in part on input from plumbing contractors and relationships with suppliers and manufacturers. But that’s changing too.
“Although builders value the plumbing contractor’s input,” says David Lingafelter, Moen’s vice president/marketing and product development, “there’s a definite movement toward builders telling plumbers what to use.”
Perhaps one of the biggest business trends has been the growth of “big-box” retailers The Home Depot and Lowe’s, which now control half the potential market for plumbing fixtures. Pressure to meet the boxes’ low-price targets has increasingly led manufacturers to look for overseas suppliers.
“We’re more dependent than ever on the global supply chain,” Reles says.
He notes that Home Depot and Lowe’s are demanding in other ways besides price, and that meeting these demands forces manufacturers to become more efficient. For instance, he says that doing business with Home Depot has required Kohler to streamline its processes and systems and to get better at managing information and forecasting consumer demands. He thinks this has made Kohler a more responsive company overall.
“It has improved our customer service,” he says.
Constantly improving service is really what the industry is about. Fifty years ago, most people were just grateful to have indoor plumbing.
“Back then, you bought a faucet and hoped it didn’t leak,” says Peter Warshaw, a retired Delta executive who marks 50 years in the industry this year.
Today, most people consider clean drinking water, sanitary waste disposal and the ability to take a hot shower every day to be basic rights. Whether these innovations have been driven by competition, regulation or consumer demand, the industry has risen to the occasion.
As Uhl puts it, “Give American Industry a problem that needs to be solved and some time to do it, and it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”
Charles Wardell is a free-lance writer who contributes to Popular Science and other publications.