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Newer = Better? (Or Not... )

July 18, 2023
Over the years we have been sold a bill of goods on products that have not performed as advertised, and the guys in the field get to hold the bag for the failures.

Doesn’t it seem that there is some new product that you just can’t live without being advertised every day? Whether it’s a new type of computer, cellular phone, interactive gewgaw or downloadable jimcrack, we are constantly bombarded and bedazzled with technological advances designed to improve our lives, engage our intellect, or amuse us. As an example, the venerable automobile has been “electronicized” to a fare-thee-well, to such a degree it is almost impossible for a non-mechanic to do anything other than lift the hood and scratch his head in dismay when something goes haywire. “Shade tree” mechanics are, for the most part, a thing of the past. The construction industry has been no less impacted by the advances in modern technology.

That’s How We’ve Always Done It...

As I’ve noted before, change in the industry is usually resisted by those of us who toil in the trades every day. The “we’ve always done it this way” mantra has served us well for a long time and blindly accepting some new product or method of installation is, by and large, like pulling teeth. There is a good reason for this attitude. Over the years we have been sold a bill of goods on products that have not performed as advertised, and the guys in the field or the shops they work for get to hold the bag for the failures in most cases.

When PVC/DWV and ABS/DWV came on the scene way back when (I’m talking the late 1950s and early 1960s) we were using Hub and Spigot Cast Iron with galvanized pipe for venting and small drains, occasionally we used DWV Copper. “Yarning” a joint and pouring molten lead into it was the tried and true (albeit slightly dangerous) method of putting two pieces or fittings together. Rubber joints (TySeal) were only marginally accepted over the old lead and oakum method. NoHub Cast Iron was highly suspect and many inspectors around during this transition gave the plumber a hard time at first when he installed that material.

I remember well the first time I installed schedule #40, PVC/DWV for a drain line. It was so easy! 20’ of pipe in one shot! No joints! Wow! It felt like I was getting away with something. Obviously, the plastic pipe was a superior product for many installations and it’s almost universal acceptance by building officials and testing agencies, as well as a long history of performance bears this out, but it was a hard sell at first because “we’ve always done it this way.”

New, Cheaper—But is it Better?

On the flip side though, that attitude didn’t save us from Polybutylene water tubing or Polysulfone direct hot water heating solar panels, among others. Products like those were instrumental in keeping the attitude that “newer isn’t necessarily better” alive when it came to having to warranty a bad product no matter what the code would allow.

As newer products come to market using space-age materials and micro-electronics, skilled craftsmen evaluated them on their merits, with a sharp eye out for defects and limitations in either materials or performance.

The flip side of that equation is that these products also allow the semi-skilled or unskilled person to install those products, diluting the skill level of the trade in general. Why is it necessary to learn to braze or solder copper tube when you can use PEX or press gasketed copper? Short answer? It’s not, unless you are working on an existing system and need to modify it with adapters.

It’s true, also, that the unskilled or semi-skilled worker does not have the knowledge to understand the whys and the wherefores of the system he’s installing, and many times the installation has systemic defects that the installer is unaware of (venting of a drainage system comes to mind). That said, however, the advent of newer, easier to install products is a boon to the modern contractor in terms of time, money and manpower.

Everything is "Green"

A previous column dealt with the “green” revolution and addressed skepticism on the part of those of us who have to put these products and systems together. Everything even remotely environmentally friendly (or touted as such) is now a new “green” product. It is specified and coveted by the agencies that have the power to dictate these things. Architects, engineers and every building professional you can think of love going green.

According to a friend, who is a manufacturer’s representative, the drive now is for more and more micro-electronic control of building and grounds environments. From electronically controlled flush valves, faucets and soap dispensers to paper towel dispensers, the push is to minimize the human factor and control the resource (water or conditioned air, etc.) when using plumbing or HVAC products. The market for retrofitting existing systems to comport with the “green” theme is one which can be very lucrative. Outside of major metropolitan areas, the drive to “go green” is intensifying.

Automatic lighting and exhaust fans are more prevalent as well, making commercial restrooms and kitchens practical testing grounds for a technology whose time has apparently come. So, as always, the craftsman will have to learn to install, repair and service this new group of products or fall behind the advance of modern technology.

Still a Place for Skepticism

In our hyper-competitive marketplace there is still a place for skepticism though. Just because the products are specified doesn’t mean that they will perform. The craftsman has a responsibility in this process of integrating new technology into the field. In fact, the guy doing the installation and having to deal with the fallout if the product fails to work as advertised, should be the final arbiter of what works and what doesn’t. Who better to tell the testing agency, administrative authority or the manufacturer of a product whether or not that product works as it is supposed to than the guy who has to install and service it?

The Brooklyn, NY-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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