Why are there plumbing standards?

Why are there Plumbing Product Standards?       By: Ron George, CIPE, CPD, President,  Ron George Design & Consulting Services



Imagine yourself in Baltimore, Maryland, at 10:48 in the morning of Sunday, February 7, 1904 standing in front of the John E. Hurst & Company building that stood on the south side of German (now Redwood) Street between Hopkins Place and Liberty Street.


One of the most important lessons about standardization was about to occur. It was the great Philadelphia fire and conflagration of 1904. There had been other big fires or conflagrations in the past, but none of them was quite like the 1904 fire because of the high winds and the many wooden structures that had been built so closely together. The scope, magnitude and rapid spread of this fire led the Baltimore Fire Department to very quickly call for mutual aid assistance from a variety of cities and states. Response was excellent given the circumstances, but operations became difficult because of the different sizes and shapes of fire hose couplings, some of which simply would not fit any hydrants or other fire departments hose threads. The fire departments also learned how quickly a conflagration could spread through combustible buildings in a downtown district which featured many close combustible exposures.


According to newspaper reports after the fire, an alarm went immediately from the automatic box attached to the outside wall of the building. This brought response from Baltimore's Engine 15, a steam pumper and hose wagon (both pulled by two-horse hitches), Truck Company 2, the Fire Insurance Patrol and District Chief Levin H. Burkhardt.


Responding firemen started attacking the basement fire, but within seven minutes it spread rapidly up through an unenclosed well-hole in the 6-story brick building, bursting explosively from the top floor and involving nearby buildings which had unprotected window openings. For the next thirty hours, this conflagration burned completely out of control, destroying 155 acres (eighty city blocks), and 2,500 buildings, putting 50,000 people out of work, and causing an estimated financial loss of fifty million dollars in 1904.


As the fire progressed through the city, desperate calls for assistance were sent to Washington, Philadelphia, New York and other municipalities. Each of those cities sent horsedrawn apparatus on railroad freight cars. Apparatus and manpower from Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, arrived in about two hours after being called. The New York train made a record run in a little over four hours. Washington, which first heard about the fire at 11:40 a.m., sent two engine companies, Nos. 3 and 6, by a special Baltimore and Ohio train which arrived about 1:30 in the afternoon. (Running time of this train was reported as 38 minutes just two minutes slower than the record train run for this distance.) Later Washington sent Engines 2 and 8 and additional manpower which totaled seventy-five men including Chief Engineer William T. Belt. Other cities sending apparatus and manpower included Chester, York, Altoona, Harrisburg, and Phoenixville, Pennsylvania; Annapolis, Sparrows Point, Relay and St.

Denis, Maryland; and Atlantic City, New Jersey.


Total manpower at the fire included 1,700 firemen of which 400 were unattached volunteers. When they first arrived, out-of-town fire companies were delayed in attacking the fire partly because of the general confusion, and also because the many sizes and shapes of fire hose couplings just would not fit the hydrants. Because of the incompatible hydrant hose threads, about forty fire companies went to the dock area and were able to draft from the waterfront. Others fire companies used barrels and wooden horse troughs set against hydrant openings, with the hydrant pouring into the barrels and troughs so their pumpers could draft water from the miniature reservoirs that were formed. What generally stunned the fire departments and other persons who saw the fire was the rapid spread from building to building and intense heat development even within fire-resistive structures. Weather conditions were normal with low winter temperatures but a strong wind blowing from 20 to 30 mph. The fire started in the heart of the business section, but because of wind direction and general lack of exposure protection, it spread easily from building to building.


Hose streams from fire apparatus were practically useless against the intense heat. An NFPA report issued a few months later had this statement:

In contradiction to ordinary fires in individual buildings which usually spread vertically from floor to floor, this conflagration was essentially a horizontal fire as regards its attack and progress in each building. As a rule, every story was ignited simultaneously through the exterior windows and the fire swept across the building and out at the opposite side. Under these circumstances, the protection of floor openings will avail but little if the windows are unprotected.


In a desperate attempt to halt the violent spread of fire, city officials authorized the dynamiting of structures. Two fire officers were designated by the mayor to select buildings that were to be demolished by explosives. Local building contractors were selected to carry out the demolition.

Explosive charges were placed inside of buildings at the base of supporting columns and detonated by an electric "hot box." These tactics, however, did not stop the spread of the conflagration since even the largest charges of explosives failed to flatten or crumble a building. The heat of the fire was estimated at 2,200 to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and a shower of hot embers and radiant heat contributed to the spread of the fire.


Typical of newspaper descriptions of this famous conflagration is the paragraph below, taken from the Leslie's Weekly Newspaper February 18, 1904 issue:

[…]The night was black with the smoke and red with the flames as far as the eye could see. The furious gale tossed millions of great flaming cinders into the air. The panorama changed rapidly. Suddenly a great office structure would become brilliant, the light glaring through the windows as though every electric bulb and every gas jet in the building had been lighted at once. Then the dense, billowing veils of black smoke would hide it for a minute. Shortly a crashing sound would rise clear and distinct above the clamor and din and roar that were everywhere; and great leaping 'flags of flame would burst through the veil of the smoke, and float exultantly, it seemed, from the very top of the vast kettle of fire. In a few minutes more the building would be dark, and you would know that only the crumbling skeleton of it remained. You had seen a "fireproof" building burned out in half an hour! Then a new flame in a new quarter would arrest your attention, or the terrific heat would drive you from your post. The conflagration finally, died to controllable size when it reached Jones Falls, a 50-foot Wide canal, in eastern Baltimore. Here about forty Pieces of apparatus finally made an effective stop. One of the amazing features of this conflagration was that no one was killed, although forty firemen were injured. Much hose and minor pieces of fire equipment were damaged but only one piece of apparatus was lost, Engine 15's pumper.


It is well known that the Baltimore conflagration focused national attention on the need for standardized fire hose couplings and screw threads. This fire demonstrated the need for standardization of fire hose threads because of a lack of standard fire-hose couplings. The fire also provided a renewed emphasis on standardization. When firefighters from Washington and as far away as New York arrived to help douse the fire, few of their hoses fit the hydrants. The National Bureau of Standards (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technologies or NIST) had beenestablished a couple of years prior to the fire to standardize units of measurement for commerce and industry. At the time of the fire the National Bureau of Standards had been working on standardizing the measurement for a U.S. gallon for uniformity of weights and measures and they were working on units of measurement for electricity and calibrating electrical metering devices for the new and emerging electrical power generation industry. Members of the National Bureau of Standards collected more than 600 sizes and variations of fire-hose couplings in an investigation and, after the Baltimore fire, the NBS participated in the selection and development of a national standard for fire hose threads. Since then many standards writing organizations have been established. There are several of these standard writing associations that are developing standards for plumbing products. The organizations are: 

● The American Society of Sanitary Engineering (ASSE)

● The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)

● The American Society of Testing & Materials (ASTM)

● The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)

● The Canadian Standards Association (CSA)

● The International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials (IAPMO)


Recently the American Society of Plumbing Engineers started developing plumbing system design standards, but these standards are limited to system designs and they do not address product standards. 


There are numerous standards writing organizations with lots of working groups and task groups developing standards for the industry and that can be a bit overwhelming if you try to keep up with them all. I have been very active with the American Society of Sanitary Engineering serving on dozens of plumbing product standard working groups and as a member of the ASSE Seal control board and as a member of the main plumbing product standard committee. For about the last ten years I have been attending many of the plumbing product standards meeting for the above organizations mostly paying my own way. I have found there is basically very little input from design professionals and people who are not manufacturers or representatives of manufacturers at the standards meetings. I have often been the lone non manufacturing person on a working group and this puts me in the minority. There are code consultants, lab representatives, manufacturers and occasionally a retired engineer that do a great job of keeping the consensus standard development process working. However, none of these standards are worth the paper they are printed on if they are not submitted to and accepted by the local or model code that is enforced by a given jurisdiction. 


Within the townships, villages, cities, counties, states or governmental jurisdictions throughout the United States and Canada there exists two model plumbing codes and a wide range of local or regional plumbing codes. Some codes are home grown by a city like Chicago or Boston or a state like Illinois or Wisconsin and they have been developed locally over the years with local code change processes. Other states and jurisdictions have elected to follow an easier and less expensive process of adopting model codes instead of spending the money to develop and maintain their own codes.


The inspectors in each these jurisdictions are required to enforce the plumbing code and these inspectors must follow the text in the code. The plumbing code is an extension of the laws of the jurisdictions after the jurisdiction adopts the plumbing code as part of their local ordinances. This makes the job of the inspector easy if the code covers the subject in detail and with mandatory language. If a code uses vague and non mandatory language or permits a lot of inspector interpretations, then it can create confusion, for engineers, contractors and manufacturers because of inconsistent and unequal enforcement between jurisdictions. 


The people on the standard working groups or task groups strive to develop language that will provide a minimum level of health, safety and performance requirements for a given product. I find it awkward and frustrating when the chairman of a standard committee or work group is employed by the manufacturer requesting the standard to be written. It seems the comments on the negative ballots always get deemed “non-persuasive” because it could affect that manufacturer’s ability to pass the test or it could cost more for manufacturing a better product. In a recent standard committee where the chairman was a paid representative of the manufacturer that was requesting the standard, the chairman drafted an outline standard with tests that were so easy that if the device was not even installed on the test stand during the test it could pass the test. I sent in a negative ballot pointing out these deficiencies and suggesting a series of tests that were realistic and in line with the intended application for the product. The procedures for developing standards require the chairman to address every negative comment on a given ballot. The response to my comment was simply “non-persuasive” without any other explanation. I’m pretty sure if the consultant was not working for the manufacturer he would have agreed with me. But on this day, I didn’t persuade the chairman because the tests I proposed would have probably made it harder for his client’s product to pass the test. I felt like the guy in the fable who said “I don’t see the emperor’s new clothes” I have experienced this same attitude in another plumbing product working group where the chairman was working on behalf of a manufacturer and trying to push a product through the meat grinder as fast as possible so they can start making widgets. After being involved in plumbing product standards development for about ten years now I see a need to have a staff person for the standards organization or someone other than the manufacturer requesting the standard to serve as the chairman of the standard working group or task force to serve as chairman. At a recent standards committee meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio this issue came up and a representative from a testing laboratory volunteered to take on the chairman’s position. I feel that was a good thing for the industry for him to step up and take the chairmanship position. I hope to see more non-manufacturers serving as chairman. 


Typically design engineers, design professionals and  members of the public do not get paid or reimbursed for expenses to be at the standard development meetings so it is understandable to see mostly manufacturers in attendance. In the end, I see a need for a neutral chairman or someone other than the manufacturer that is seeking the development of the standard serving as chairman. 


I have seen a lot of new technology being developed for products that do not meet the basic intent and health and safety principles in the model plumbing codes. The manufacturers of these new products are pushing forward with the development of new standards with their consultants leading the charge through the standard development process. They will most likely get their standard developed and bring them to the model codes for acceptance. The real test will be is the standard for the new product something the model codes will accept. There can e a problem since there is only two minutes of testimony and one minute of rebuttal testimony allowed at the plumbing code hearings when a new standard for a new product is proposed for acceptance in the codes. That is not very much time to explain how a new widget works and it is not enough time to allow an opponent to discuss the potential and inherent problems with a new product. If the people on the plumbing code committee do not get the standard and read and understand it, it is possible that the standard could get accepted without the code committee understanding what they are accepting. It seems that some code committee members are only concerned with was the standard developed in a consensus process. They need to step back and look at the health and safety aspects also. 


After a standard is accepted and becomes part of the plumbing code it has the force of law when it has been adopted by ordinance by the jurisdiction. Every referenced standard then becomes part of the plumbing code by reference. 


Inspectors must interpret and enforce code language and the referenced standards in the plumbing code. For new products, inspectors can also approve the use or installation of new products or materials in their jurisdictions. Most code officials do not have the facilities for testing these products; nor do they always have the funds to have them tested by independent laboratories. As a result, many problems face a manufacturer who wishes to introduce a new or improved product without a product standard. Some jurisdictions will accept the product if it has been tested by two or three recognized laboratories. Some will accept the test of individual laboratories to which manufacturers send their products. Some will not accept the product without  years of tested proof if there is no standard. 


The nature of some new products is such that only time testing under many environmental conditions can prove adequate capabilities of a product. Consequently, the introduction of a new or improved product can become a very time-consuming and expensive proposition because the manufacturer must send personal representatives to each locality to convey information of the product’s characteristics and capabilities for performing its intended function. Introducing a new product in this country is very expensive these days. If a standard does not exist and testing is not performed or a sales engineer is not out promoting a product, the manufacturer may be limited in production or may have to develop many special models acceptable to various local jurisdictions; a course of action which reflects increased cost to the manufacturer and, ultimately, to the consumer. The development of consensus standards assists the approval process for inspection authorities who are responsible for reliability and safety in plumbing systems. This is why we have plumbing product standards.◦