When I first started in the trades, I missed the lead-wiping joint requirement on my Journeyman’s test by just one year. Although lead-wiped joints had been out of use for many years, the skills required to assemble suitable wipe-joints were deemed necessary to pass muster. A part of me regretted the passing of that skills test, while another part was relieved. I’d heard plenty of stories about unpleasant burns received while making those joints.
Not too many years later, I found myself arguing for the use of rubber gaskets for the below-grade sewers we were installing. My two bosses were convinced that oakum/lead joints were the only suitable method for joining bell-and-spigot cast-iron joints.
No manner of begging, pleading or cajoling gained their attention until the day when I borrowed another plumber’s tools to graphically demonstrate the ease and speed with which we could join cast-iron joints using rubber insert gaskets. Time = money, and those sewer jobs were already bid and won. To seal the deal, I offered to give them a week’s free labor if we didn’t complete the work in less time than what they’d bid. I kept my paycheck!
Then along came ABS, PVC, no-hub and Fernco couplings for DWV work. CPVC, PB and a seemingly unending variety of products appeared on the potable water side of the aisle. Each one resulted in a change of required skills (typically reduced), and each one was met with reluctance from code bodies, architects and trades people.
I recently attended ISH, the International Sanitation & Heating trade show held in Frankfurt, Germany, every two years. I was awed by the myriad of piping methods available to our European counterparts. They’ve reached a point where they could literally toss aside their torches, flux, solder, pipe wrenches, glue and primer — almost.
Virtually every imaginable type of plumbing, heating and venting for flue gas applications enjoys multiple offerings of systems designed with gasketed joints. The gasketed joints are squeezed, compressed or tapered to ensure leak-free joints with reduced labor costs and fewer required skills.
Imagine taking a first-day apprentice and assigning the task of joining 4-in. copper joints after just a few minutes of training — no sweat. Or stainless steel potable water systems without welding. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret that I was witnessing the passing of skills, not unlike the lead-wiped joints of old.
In Europe, evidently dozens of companies are offering systems such as Ridgid’s ProPress compression tool that uses 35,000-lb. of force to compress the copper or bronze fitting, squeezing the EPDM O-ring and thereby ensuring a leak-free joint, and taking just four seconds. It was a pleasure finding the Ridgid booth among so many unfamiliar names and being treated to live hands-on demonstrations of the ProPress system.
Plastic DWV systems with gasketed joints that come in all the hues of the rainbow! Pre-formed, thin-walled blankets of insulation are available for quieting the DWV lines in Germany due to noise levels between apartments being regulated and inspected. Straight lengths of insulation are designed to slide over pipes while fittings receive sound deadening “diapers” with Velcro strips.
Flue pipes having gasketed joints plus elbows and tees that come equipped with gasketed access doors for ease of inspection!
I was skeptical about gasketed flue piping for anything in excess of condensing boiler exhaust temperatures until I visited the wood stove hall, which like all of the other halls, was larger than most city blocks. In almost every booth there was at least one wood stove radiating heat from a wood fire that, in most models, was viewable via a glass door. I followed the gasketed flue piping from that first stove’s exhaust to find the hall’s entire exhibit spaces conjoined into one large central collection flue that increased in size as it ran horizontally around the exhibit hall. In all its several hundred feet, with a multitude of gasketed joints and fittings that included access doors, not one single wisp of smoke was to be seen. For that matter, the odor of burning wood was absent from the indoor air unless a booth attendant was opening a stove to add more wood.
Here at home, I sometimes find myself gazing at the plumbing work from generations past, contemplating the skills and physical requirements long gone and wondering what will be said of our work one day. I can’t know the answer, much less if the work we’re doing will stand up to the test of time, but I’ve resigned myself to accepting the need to embrace new piping technologies. The dearth of apprentices entering the trades will mandate our acceptance of methods that reduce labor costs, require fewer hours of training and fewer skills.
Funny how the wheel always seems to turn full circle. I know now just how my bosses of old felt about abandoning technologies that they’d long been accustomed to and comfortable with.
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].