Papal permit trumps plumbing code

Feb. 1, 2010
Dave Yates on the drain-to-earth requirement for church plumbing

Hey Gene, I need half a plumbing permit for a double-bowl sink!

Gene was Eugene Witmer, the York City plumbing inspector at the time, and we were installing a special plumbing fixture. I wanted to give my friend Gene a bit of a hard time — in a friendly manner — about this fixture. Two drains for two bowls in a single fixture, but drains that were required to be totally separate with one headed to the sanitary sewer and the other terminating directly into the earth — not septic — straight onto the ground under an exterior concrete-encased stairway!

Gene always reminded me of an Irish leprechaun, but he was a wiry fellow and, as you’d expect for an Irishman, had a temper best left at rest.

Gene, I’m only going to pipe one-half of the double-bowl sink into the sewerthe other half I’m going to let run outside on the ground. “What are you talking about? You can’t do that!” Oh yes I can. “No you can’t. I won’t pass it for the inspection.” Hah! I haven’t picked up the permit yet, so if you’re going to act like that, well then, maybe I won’t bother getting a permit. “You can’t be running around the city working without a permit.” I don’t need a permit from the cityI have authority from a higher authority. All I’m saying is half a permit is better than no permitright? “It won’t pass inspection. I don’t care who said that’s OK.” Fine, I’m not telling you where the job isyou’ll have to catch me. “Yeah, it’ll be fine alright — as in a big fat fine if I catch you!” And so on, and the rest of the conversation had words laced into it that can’t be printed here!

Gene, it’s a sacristy sink and it would be sacrilegious to have the blood of Christ (left-over Communion wine or grape juice) drain into a sewer line. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust kind of thing and that bowl must have its drain terminate in earth. And, this is serious business because that bowl comes with a lockable lid with a brass cross attached on its surface to prevent inappropriate use of that bowl’s drain. “I’m still not sure I can OK that as being legal and in compliance with the city’s plumbing code.” Check your code books Gene and if you tell me you’re willing to accept the installation conditions, I’ll pick up a permit. But, if you decide it can’t pass inspection, I can’t pick up the permit. Call it a religious dispensation, but this one has to be by the book: Not the plumbing code book, the Good Book! I believe that trumps the plumbing codes in this instance.

I’ll confess I too was more than a bit curious about the drain-to-earth requirement, and totally ignorant of the doctrine dictating where the drain must be terminated, but it certainly made sense when you stop to think of a Deity’s blood being mixed with the contents in a sewer system. I sought out the Catholic priest. Father, if you have a moment…

As it turned out, this practice was not limited to liquids from Communion, but also to rinse-water when the altar’s rubrical cloths (there are three of them) are washed, which must be done no less than once a year. And, when I thought back over the years, I’ve witnessed nuns carrying rinse-water outside and pouring it on the ground. Not on macadam, mind you, and that’s why our Sacristy Sink drain had to be terminated under the stairwell onto the earth — the only place nearby that wasn’t covered by macadam.

Gene retired long ago, but his good nature, quick wit, sense of humor and, more importantly, his depth of plumbing knowledge (because he had been a plumber) is sorely missed. Gone are the days, for the most part, when plumbing inspectors came equipped with an intuitive understanding of the practical application of plumbing that guided their interpretation of what’s written between the lines in our code books. Not that there are not good plumbing inspectors today, it’s just that it takes so darned long to train them once they’re turned loose with a book and a badge. Seems like it’s always a love/hate kind of relationship, but if you are lucky enough to have a PI with a sense of humor, you’ve found the leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Gene did OK the application and my half permit, and the half-an-inspection fee was not cut in half as I’d suggested would be the right thing to do, which seemed to give Gene great pleasure and a sly chuckle, but this was a case where church and state came together in full compliance with both sets of laws.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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