Out of the Past

Jan. 1, 2004
BY CHARLES WARDELL Special to CONTRACTOR For most magazines, a 50th anniversary is a time to lean back and reflect on the past. CONTRACTOR wanted to kick off the year by looking ahead. So we posed a question: What will the plumbing and heating business look like five, 10 or even 20 years from now? Interviews with a range of industry leaders brought a surprisingly quick consensus thats best summed


For most magazines, a 50th anniversary is a time to lean back and reflect on the past. CONTRACTOR wanted to kick off the year by looking ahead. So we posed a question: What will the plumbing and heating business look like five, 10 or even 20 years from now?

Interviews with a range of industry leaders brought a surprisingly quick consensus that’s best summed up with one word — more. More electronics. More product choices. More environmental pressure. More demanding customers. In short, a more complex business requiring greater sophistication from everyone in it.

What follows is a set of snapshots gleaned from those interviews. It’s far from comprehensive, and it focuses more on plumbing than on heating. But it matters little whether you install boilers or bathtubs, and whether you work in homes or office buildings. The same trends will affect all trades. Our aim is to give you a taste of what will likely be on your plate.

More electronics

The main course will likely be the marriage of plumbing and electronics. Attendees at the ISH North America show in Las Vegas in October got a sampling of this new world with the “SmartHouse” concept bath. A mockup of a futuristic bathroom, it included toilets and sinks that moved up and down to suit individual users. Were this an actual house, the shower and tub would automatically give each user the amount and temperature of water he or she liked, along with additional goodies such as aroma or color-light therapy. The home’s data network would link everything to a central controller.

Gimmicky? We thought so too —that is, until we asked our industry leaders to describe their visions of the future of plumbing. Nearly every description sounded like some variation of the ISH house.

“We take it for granted that everything is loaded with electronics,” says Rick Reles, vice president/marketing for Kohler Global Faucets. “And though you don’t see it in the bath yet, you will.”

In fact, manufacturers have a slew of fixtures with electrical and electronic controls under development, and the day will come soon when no fixture will lack some type of power supply, whether low- or high-voltage. Plumbers won’t have to run wires, but they will have to cooperate more closely with electricians and electronic integrators.

A lot of this wiring will be connected to sensors, and the farther in the future you look, the more sensors everyone predicts. Companies around the world are creating concept homes replete with sensor technologies.

At Matsushita’s “Panasonic House 2010” in Tokyo, for instance, sensors in the bathroom mirror analyze your skin, then adjust the water’s ion level to best suit you. The toilet measures urine sugar and other health indicators, and warns you when it senses a problem.

At the Fraunhofer Institute’s “inHaus” home in Duisburg, Germany, the bath can be filled by remote control to any temperature or water level, and it will make noise to tell you when the bath is ready. Voice-controlled faucets let you speak a command to raise and lower water temperature, or pour just enough water to fill a glass.

Opinions differ on whether to expect this level of sophistication in 10 years or 30. While most of the technology is available now, manufacturers have yet to make it easy to use and inexpensive.

But many manufacturers aren’t waiting until the technology is perfected to move ahead with electronic fixtures. Toto’s Neo Rest toilet already uses sensors to raise or lower the seat, or to decide how much water the flush needs. Company spokeswoman Lenora Campos says that’s just the beginning, and she expects sensors to proliferate in the bath space.

“Our ultimate goal is a hands-free environment that can be configured to the user,” she says. Today, the company’s Washlet technology will clean and dry your butt. Tomorrow, you can expect the same service for your whole body. “If you build in a drying unit in the shower, there’s no need for towels,” she says.

Not all electrical and electronic innovations will be hygiene-driven.

“People want the process of bathing to be fun,” Reles says. And he’s not talking about shower surrounds with built-in TVs or radios. “That’s not what people want. They want a personalized environment. They want to be able to regulate the pressure and sequence of the shower jets to their liking.”

Fixtures that let them do so are already for sale overseas.

“We have showers in Germany where the user can push a button and bring up a program that regulates the water temperature and gives them a timed shower,” says Chris Marshall, president of Hansgrohe USA.

Electronic technology also has potential for saving water. Staying with the example of showers, a tremendous amount of water is wasted bringing the water up to temperature. In a shower controlled by a microchip, however, once the user sets the desired temperature, the plumbing system could begin recirculating the water, and not turn it on until it’s hot enough.

As for toilets, Toto already makes commercial urinals that use fuzzy logic to predict how many users are in line, and adjust water use accordingly. (If five people approach it in three minutes, it takes this into account and meters down to a half-gallon of water per flush.) Toto engineer Fernando Fernandez expects to see this technology on other types of toilets, both residential and commercial.

Electronics will dominate wet systems outside the kitchen and bath as well. At least two companies make valves that automatically shut off the water supply if there’s a leak. It’s a small step to connect those devices to the Internet, so they can alert the homeowner, building manager or plumber.

Indeed, the Internet plays a role in almost everyone’s vision. Researchers at IBM’s Advanced Technology Lab in Austin, Texas, have developed a prototype lawn sprinkler system that uses weather forecasts from an online Doppler Radar service. It won’t begin watering if rain is predicted. Users can water particular zones at particular times, by pointing to icons on an interactive screen. And because it’s Internet-connected, the system can be operated from anywhere.

“It’s a great example of pervasive computing,” says lab director Bill Boden. “We’ve given [the system controller] an IP address, so we can operate it from a cell phone, a PDA or any other connected device.”

More product choices

As pervasive as electronics will become, it’s not the only thing that will proliferate. The manufacturers we spoke with say that the sheer variety of products and new designs will continue to expand.

“Look for wider variation in faucets,” says David Lingafelter, Moen’s vice president/marketing and product development. “The faucet has been growing as a decorative item, and that trend will continue. The plumber will continue to see more variety in the faucets they’re installing, with more electronics.”

At the same time, he says that manufacturers realize they have to be easier to install, more reliable and easier to service.

You can also count on more customers going online, or turning to designers, to educate themselves about these product choices, especially in high-end markets. Because of this, Marshall advises plumbing contractors to develop stronger relationships with showrooms, retailers and even architects.

“These tend to be the educators for the buyers,” he says, “and so have a great influence on the contractor.”

Customers will also want fixtures that are easier to clean and maintain, and manufacturers will respond. In Japan, Campos notes, you can already get self-cleaning tubs. A whipped soap mousse is dispensed into the tub and agitated. Fernando says to expect more use of ionized water, as a way to kill bacteria and creating a more hygienic space. (Free ions create a hostile environment for bacteria.)

More environmental pressure

With a large and growing green building community, pressure to conserve water can only grow stronger.

“There’s always someone pushing the bar,” says Marshall, who expects manufacturers to step up and meet the challenge. “We now have a massage that works well at under 1 gal. per minute, which was unthinkable five years ago. The important thing is to have a water conservation consciousness.”

That consciousness is leading a drive to create even more miserly flush engines. The current mandate is 1.6 gal. per minute, but some toilets do better, and there’s already a movement in California to mandate a 1-gal. flush.

“The ultimate goal [of environmentalists] is a zero discharge to the sewer,” Campos says.

It may not be that farfetched. She points out that in Sweden there are already vacuum-assisted units that separate liquids from solids and send them to different places.

Of course, low water use has big implications for plumbing engineering design.

“You will see drastic changes there,” Fernandez predicts. “The transport of water and waste through the drain to the sewer can easily be 60 to 100 ft.”

A half-gal. flush makes that seem like a long way. The system has to be able to carry it smoothly with the reduced flow, Fernandez says. How this will be solved remains to be seen.

More demanding customers

It better be solved somehow, because signs are that customers will have an ever-diminishing patience for callbacks.

“There has been a raising of the bar of quality expectations in our society,” says Dean Potter, director of quality programs at the National Association of Home Builders’ Research Center. “Just look at cars. Twenty years ago, if you bought new car, you got a 12,000-mile warranty. Now it’s up to 100,000 miles.”

Dean says he sees these expectations catching up with contractors.

“The customer wants you to do the job right to start with, and they become unhappy when you have to come back to make repairs,” he says. “And unhappy customers drive lawsuits.”

Contractors who work for large home builders can expect growing pressure to do commercial-quality work. JD Power has taken on an influential role in the home-building industry, and some builders are competing fiercely to increase their customer satisfaction scores. These builders will place more demands on subcontractors — and refuse to do business with those who don’t measure up.

Demanding owners and builders should create a boon for quality certification programs. Potter oversees a program developed by the Research Center. Its “Certified Trade Contractor Quality Program” takes the principles of ISO 9000 and simplifies them for the trades. Participating contractors have to submit to quality inspections and must have a documented, systematic plan for reducing construction defects.

One of the first companies to get on board was the Las Vegas division of Executive Plumbing and Heating. Division President Robert Blazek has nothing but good to say about the program’s impact on his company.

“We had some things in the field that weren’t being done correctly,” he recalls. One example was sewer cleanout covers in front yards. The program helped them create a procedure for making sure they were correctly installed and protected from vehicle damage. “It has saved us time and money. We can fix problems before they get to the builder’s quality control list. We turn a better house over to them.”

Once programs like this achieve critical mass, contractors who want to stay in business may have no choice but to participate. That’s already happening in Las Vegas, where Potter’s program has certified 100 companies. KB Homes recently signed up for the program, and now requires all its Las Vegas subs to be certified.

That, of course, ratchets the bar of expectations even higher. But the trend seems inevitable. If our predictions hold true, more complex installations and more demanding customers will challenge contractors to give their workers more training and to manage their businesses with more care. The best companies will welcome those challenges.

Charles Wardell is a free-lance writer who contributes to Popular Science and other publications. He lives in Vineyard Haven, Mass.

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