- The national standards body wants to update plumbing for safety and efficiency.
- Plumbing issues include water cleanliness and energy efficiency.
- Standards date back to research pioneer Roy B. Hunter, who studied usage and wrote formulas we still use.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released a new “technical note” of highest priority research areas for plumbing codes based on where technology has lagged. The agency says existing plumbing standards are modeled on 80-year-old ideas drawn from 100-year-old data. To find a new way forward, scientists must strike a very fine balance.
Describing 100-year-old plumbing sounds damning, for sure. But like any infrastructure, plumbing is something in continuous use on a massive scale, and making any changes to that infrastructure takes incredible planning and logistics. Plumbing is considered a human right by many standards, and the law in most states requires any landlord to ensure access to working plumbing.
The aging concept at the core of this paper is Hunter’s Curve, an idea introduced by plumbing revolutionary Roy B. Hunter. Hunter’s game-changing research took place between the 1920s and 1940s, and he developed a mathematical formula for calculating how much water capacity a particular building needs based on the number of fixtures inside. For apartments and other rental properties, this value is set with little chance of change—tenants aren’t crashing through the walls to install new toilets, at least not usually.
At the time, broad access to plumbing, period, outweighed specific limits of Hunter’s Curve. But even before his work stopped with his death, Hunter knew there was nuance missing from his model. That work continued to be postponed: a water issue for a rainy day that never came. And the missing pieces fall into a category called performance standards, which includes everything from how mechanically well a backflow preventer works to the biological dangers of standing water in an overlarge, underused pipe.
This is where NIST enters the picture. Performance doesn’t mean much if it can’t be quantified in a larger context. What does “underused” mean when there’s just one datum? “The Foundational Measurement Science needs include topics such as metrics, test methods, and data that are critical to understand and characterize the physical, chemical, and biological performance of plumbing systems,” the report explains.
With a full set of standards in place, organizations for plumbers and builders can begin training on those standards as part of certifications and inspections. “The primary concerns that motivated this effort to identify premise plumbing research needs are water quality, water efficiency, and energy efficiency,” the NIST says. And evidence of failing standards gives tenants rights and housing advocates something to take into negotiations or even class action suits.
Lead contamination is probably the biggest issue plaguing aging plumbing infrastructure, in terms of its direct harm to residents and the multiple ways lead is entrenched in existing plumbing standards. The NIST explains:
“Lead [...] was banned in 1986 as understanding of the dangers of lead exposure increased. However, lead persists as a problem, partially due to the inability to remove lead from existing infrastructure, and partially due to the limited technical understanding of how lead leaches into water.”
Identifying critical areas for research will mean more investment of scientific and financial resources—with improved health and quality of life outcomes in the future.
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