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Sunday, May 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ask the Builder: Plumbing technology has come a long way

This looks like an ordinary 1/2-inch copper 90 bend for a water supply line. It’s got cutting-edge technology inside. (Tim Carter)
This looks like an ordinary 1/2-inch copper 90 bend for a water supply line. It’s got cutting-edge technology inside. (Tim Carter)
By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

This is the first column in a series in which I’d like to share with you how technology has helped improve building products. I’ve worked in the residential construction industry for decades. In that time, I’ve gotten a firsthand perspective on new products.

Not all of them have worked out so well, and sometimes it takes several permutations until a manufacturer gets it right. The same thing goes for techniques. Early in my career, I spent years taking apart 100-year-old houses and was able to see how the old-school craftsmen built.

Some of their methods are far better than the way things are done today. I’ll share much of that with you in this series that will unfold as the year progresses.

Today I’d like to dive into plumbing. It’s a system that causes consternation with many consumers because repairs can be costly. You might imagine that not much has changed in plumbing, given that pipes and fixtures are pretty simple, but you’d be wrong.

Let’s start with simple advancements in drainage and water supply piping. Go back in time, and plumbers used cast iron, galvanized iron and copper for drain lines.

In rare instances, they’d have to use a lead pipe to make certain drains work. The old cast iron was susceptible to leaks and cracks because of how it was made. Galvanized iron pipes would corrode and start to choke off with deposits causing clogs.

Today’s cast iron is spun cast and has a uniform wall thickness. You create leakproof joints in seconds with rubber gaskets and stainless-steel band clamps. It’s the perfect material to use for vertical stacks in your home to prevent noise caused by water cascading down large-diameter vertical pipes.

The plastics industry exploded in the 1960s, and codes permitted plastic drainpipes. Plastic drain lines perform well; I’ve installed miles of it. Not long ago, it experienced another technology jump when it was made lighter than the first-generation plastic. You can buy foam-core plastic drain pipe now.

Water supply lines many years ago were made using galvanized iron. These would suffer from corrosion and choke off, too. Copper became the standard, but here, too, plastic muscled its way into the marketplace. Imagine installing plastic water lines in a new home that have no joints or fittings.

It’s installed much like an electric cable. That’s what I did at my daughter’s new home. The only joints are in the mechanical room at a distribution manifold and the shut-off valve under a sink or where the pipe connects to a shower or tub valve.

I installed all the water supply lines to four bathrooms, a kitchen and five outdoor hose bibs in less than four hours. Using traditional copper with hundreds of fittings, I might have gotten part of one bathroom done in that same amount of time.

Copper water lines also have seen tremendous technological advancements. In a recent column, I shared with you the new fittings that require no solder. You can create a leak-proof joint in less than five seconds using fittings that contain a rubber O-ring. You can’t imagine how much time these save. The best part is you never have to wonder if a soldered joint will leak.

Accessory plumbing products also have seen changes. For years, the plumbing vent pipe flashing up on your roof has been made with a standard rubber that gets destroyed by the sun in just a few years and then starts to leak. You can now buy a vent-pipe flashing that has a superior siliconized rubber boot that might not be destroyed by the sun for five or more decades.

Water supply lines that connect sink faucets, toilet tanks and washing machines to the water supply have seen changes. Not very long ago, plumbers had to bend soft copper tubes to make connections. Washing machines used old rubber hoses. Now you as a DIYer can use flexible hoses protected by braided stainless steel wire to make leakproof connections in seconds.

Faucet manufacturers continue to make improvements with the cartridges that control the water flow when you turn a handle. I remember years ago having to change rubber washers inside faucets to stop drips.

It used to take skill to change a washer to stop a faucet leak. Now you can stop faucet drips without calling a plumber. With the plethora of how-to videos on the internet, you can switch out a faucet cartridge faster than you might read this column.

My advice to you, if using a brand-new product, is to read the installation instructions and be sure everything is being done correctly. Also, keep in mind that the first generation of new products might not have all the bugs worked out.

If you’re installing a product that’s going to be hidden behind walls or under slabs, think about using one that has been around for several years so you don’t become a statistic. Go with proven technology in these situations.

Subscribe to Tim Carter’s free newsletter and listen to his podcast at askthebuilder.com.

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