The new and improved

Journeymen and masters in the pipe trades are notoriously skeptical when it comes to leaving the tried-and-true and jumping on the “newest thing around” bandwagon. The old adage about “once burned” has significant documentation in our trade. I don’t know if there is a book somewhere which lists all the new and improved products marketed to the pipe trades, and construction trades in general, which have failed to live up to their advertising, but there should be. It would make for interesting reading. Forget about product failure, poor availability, non-existent tech support, incomplete field testing and just plain bad ideas, the amount of time and money these failures have cost the average contractor in correcting the work after a new product failure is staggering as well. 

Journeymen and masters in the pipe trades are notoriously skeptical when it comes to leaving the tried-and-true and jumping on the “newest thing around” bandwagon. The old adage about “once burned” has significant documentation in our trade. I don’t know if there is a book somewhere which lists all the new and improved products marketed to the pipe trades, and construction trades in general, which have failed to live up to their advertising, but there should be. It would make for interesting reading. Forget about product failure, poor availability, non-existent tech support, incomplete field testing and just plain bad ideas, the amount of time and money these failures have cost the average contractor in correcting the work after a new product failure is staggering as well. 

From a purely empirical viewpoint, these products seem like a good idea. Sort of like replacing something that works with something that sounds good. In practice, however, believing in the advertising or the salesman is a dangerous game. It’s easy to understand, then, the reluctance on the part of tradesmen to embrace some new technology without a long list of supporting documentation. At the very least, a new product should be sanctioned by the building code where it is being used. Even then, one municipality might accept the product while an adjacent one might not (as an example, some years ago the City of Phoenix refused to allow waterless urinals while almost every other contiguous city did allow them).

With those facts in mind, it would not be fair to paint all the new materials and products out there with the same brush. There are many that not only make our work easier, but make it better as well. The advent of plastics has improved many aspects of the plumbing/mechanical trade, although in general they all dilute the expertise and craftsmanship required to properly install a system.
 

From then until now

Some examples are as follows:

There was a time when cast iron (XH and Service Weight) was the only option when working on a sanitary soil/DWV system. DWV copper tube was then developed for above ground work, while cast iron was still king in underground work. Lead and oakum joining (bell and spigot soil pipe) gave way to No-Hub connectors and then plastics (PVC and ABS) burst on to the scene with glue/weld joints and were used for underground and above ground sanitary soil/DWV installations, with certain limitations on where they could be used. 

Each time a new product was introduced, it ran the gauntlet of the doubting Thomas’s in the trades. Because each time a product was introduced that was better, in most cases it was also faster and required less skill to install than the older material. There is no comparison between the skill level needed to install hub and spigot cast iron, no-hub and PVC piping. Each step along the way eroded the skill level of the people needed to install the material and so craftsmen were more skeptical of every new thing that hit the market.

Potable water piping is another area where the newer materials have become the standards and the older materials and technology have begun to be used less and less. For many years, galvanized iron pipe was the only material approved for use in a potable water delivery system. Red brass came on the scene briefly, but its cost was prohibitive so it was not used as extensively. Then copper tubing arrived and, mostly, replaced galvanized water piping. Although the galvanized pipe was less expensive than the copper tubing, the handling and installation time for the copper was less, and it had the advantage of being easier to adapt at the point of installation. The skills required for working with copper were greater or equal to cutting and threading galvanized, but the speed and adaptability made the material more desirable.

While copper water piping is still used extensively in commercial projects, plastics have become the norm for potable water in most residential installations. These materials need even less expertise to install, and they are superior in almost every way to the metallic piping. Most of you know about PVC, CPVC as well as the short, and less than stellar, performance of polybutylene (PB) piping, and now the latest new and improved material, PEX. PEX has unique properties which allow it to be stretched, curved, heated and frozen solid without doing any damage to the conduit qualities it possesses. What’s not to like about a product like that? It’s really great, unless you make a significant amount of money handling freeze-ups (PEX won’t burst) during the winter months.

It’s not hard to see the evolution of the materials and the skills, or lack thereof, required to install them. We can’t stop progress or turn back the clock, so it is best to embrace the future rather than fight it. The IAPMO guys and the municipal code writers are still the best way to vet new materials. Our job as masters and journeymen is to keep the old traditions of craftsmanship, quality, pride in tradecraft and skills alive while passing the torch to the apprentices we train today. After all they will be taking the trade into the future.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at[email protected].

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