Looking at our trade from a strictly historic viewpoint, and disregarding the political and economic conditions of today, we see a steady if not always constant progression of improvements in the way it has grown and evolved.
From the early Roman Empire, whence the term plumber comes ("plumbum" meaning lead workers), through the dark ages, medieval times, the industrial revolution to the 21st century, our trade has been marked by a steady but constant tide of improvements and innovations.
Few could disagree that the pipe trades have been instrumental in safeguarding the health of our communities ever since the earliest civilizations. We have done battle with such enemies as Cholera, typhus, diphtheria and other virulent diseases. Even before we knew what germs were, we knew that handling and controlling water and waste products had a direct effect on the health of our communities. Notwithstanding the deleterious effect of lead in the water systems (which some blame for the downfall of the Caesar's, birth defects, mental degradation, etc.) piping water to, and removing waste from living areas can be seen as one of the cornerstones of evolving civilization. The American Standard Company's slogan "The plumber protects the health of the nation" is no hype…it's the truth.
The guilds of medieval Europe brought new stature to trades and craftsmanship. They codified procedures, trained indentured apprentices and kept the trades "pure." In fact the guilds were modeled on secret societies such as the Mason's where rites and rituals served to bond the members together. The members were bound not only to each other but to the economies of their respective towns, villages, states or countries. Trade guilds became one of the pillars of European commerce and expansion.
From that time until the present, the trades and craftsmanship have always been at the center of national development.
We've come a long way, baby
It might appear that we in the industry have been reluctant to embrace new technologies over the years. From an outside perspective, that seems to be a parochial, reactionary response to change, but is it?
Harking back to the guilds of medieval Europe, trade secrets (I bet you never thought about where that phrase originated) were closely held and guarded fiercely. There was no worse an affront to your guild than being found to have divulged a trade secret to a competing trade or (heaven forbid) to a lay person. Practices and procedures were developed to advance the craft and give its members an advantage over others in similar trades or the population at large. The logic was simple; if you showed someone how to do what you did, he didn't need you to do it anymore and you lost that much business.
As our trade evolved, these "tricks of the trade" were passed down from master to apprentice and from father to son for centuries. With the coming of the industrial revolution that filial line of communication and training had to be expanded because of the sheer volume of the population and the territory it covered. The 'father and son' aspect of the trade weakened and, around the end of the Korean War, it was finally swept away.
Every new material, procedure or method that we have adopted over time, has been tested by use in actual field conditions by tradesmen. Sometimes the ideas look good right out of the gate. Sometimes they are a little harder to see as beneficial or improved. Cost is a factor, it is true, but only one of many that we consider before adopting a new product or procedure.
Surely we can look at any number "new and improved" products introduced to the trade over the last 50 years that have fallen far short of what they were supposed to accomplish. PB piping and fittings leaps immediately to mind. While the concept was good, the actual field performance left a great deal to be desired. Thirty years ago, when commercial solar water heating came on the scene, a company produced solar panels made of a material called polysulfone that, according their lab tests, had a 25 year life expectancy. In actual use, in the Phoenix marketplace where sun is a way of life, the panels failed within a year or two. Ask the contractors who installed these products how quickly they would embrace any more “new” products of that ilk.
Notwithstanding the flubs, there are many new innovations and products that we have embraced after they proved themselves to our satisfaction. That satisfaction being gained by hard field trials, cost analysis and all of the other variables we use in evaluating additions to our craft. We are, after all is said and done, still members of that same fraternity that began way back in the mists of the history of human civilization and we have a noble, if not sacred, duty to our trade.
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].