Julius Ballanco: The founding fathers of modern plumbing
Last summer, my beautiful wife, Judie, indulged me by allowing us to visit the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. We spent the better part of a day touring the 2,000-year-old ruins of one of the largest baths in Rome. In its heyday, the Baths of Caracalla could accommodate more than 60,000 people.
Retired PM Editor Jim Olsztynski used to like to write about the debauchery that occurred in these baths. The open orgy environment allowed the people to enjoy themselves while forgetting about the oppressive lives they were living under the Roman Empire. This is a part of plumbing history that PM has been famous for memorializing.
There is quite a bit of modern history in plumbing that we tend to forget or not realize. Modern plumbing history has seen significant changes in the last 50 years. There have been more changes in the last 50 years than in the previous 2,000 years. Many of these changes can be attributed to a few key individuals.
Most of the names you will recognize, including: Dr. Roy B. Hunter, Dr. Larry Galowin, Prof. John Swaffield, Bob Wyly, Herbert Eaton, John French, Tom Konen and Patrick J. Higgins. All but the last name listed are famous plumbing researchers. All these individuals have since passed away. I had the distinct pleasure of calling Galowin, Swaffield, and Konen my friends. I shared many meals and many technical discussions with these brilliant individuals.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Wyly at the National Bureau of Standards on a spring break trip my senior year of college. He showed us the plumbing tower and testing facilities at the National Bureau of Standards.
I could write forever about the impact these researchers had on the plumbing profession, but I would like to concentrate on the last name on the list, Patrick J. Higgins. Higgins was not a researcher. He wasn’t an engineer or scientist. Higgins was a plumber that changed the face of plumbing.
At a young age, he took the job as technical director of the Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC). I met Higgins in June 1977, when we were both young whipper snappers. Higgins always had the biggest smile, warmest greeting, and kindest demeanor. He was also an extremely hardworking individual who wanted to see change in the plumbing profession.
The changes had already started around us when, following the energy crisis of 1973, someone proposed regulating the shower flow rate to 3 gpm. The justification given for this change was to save energy by not having to treat as much water at the waste water treatment plant.
The first flow-restricted showerheads were nothing more than the available showerheads with a glorified washer installed on the inlet to reduce the amount of water that enters the showerhead. There were no standards for these flow-restricting showerheads, nor were there any testing requirements in any consensus standard.
Following Wyly’s death, Higgins was asked to take over the consulting that Wyly had been doing. So he started P.J. Higgins and Associates and was named chairman of the ASME A112 Standards Committee. These are the standards that regulate plumbing fixtures.
At the time, there were about a dozen members on the A112 Committee. Not much had been done in years. All of the activity had been completed by mail — what we now call snail mail, since there wasn’t any internet at the time.
Higgins decided to change all of that. He called me and asked if I would attend a meeting if he scheduled one. I responded, “Of course.” He called all the other members of the committee and received a similar response.
The ASME A112 Committee held its first meeting in years. Higgins started providing direction for the updating of the current list of standards. He then created a table of new standards that needed to be developed on plumbing products.
Higgins looked at the small gathering of people and said, “We need to add more people to this committee.” He set out to add more expertise that eventually tripled the size of the committee. He had Galowin become a member, and Konen. Swaffield contributed his research. The committee was on its way.
Higgins also worked in the plumbing-code arena. He is responsible for many changes and upgrades to all of the plumbing codes. Higgins not only worked on ASME standards, he was also involved with ASSE helping to write many backflow standards. He worked with NSF, IAPMO, BOCA, PHCC, SBCCI, and ICC.
I don’t think ICC even recognizes how much of an influence Higgins had in creating the organization. ICC started with plumbing. However, the three groups were at an impasse until Higgins said, “I want the three of us to write this code and get it completed.”
I was fortunate to be one of the three he mentioned. We sat down and worked late into the night, finishing after 1 a.m. with the draft of the first ICC code. That started it all. The finished draft received some additional tweaking, but it didn’t change that much.
Perhaps Higgins’ greatest accomplishment came in the form of shower safety. He knew that with the change in showerhead flow rate, the risk of scalding increased tenfold. He started work on mandating pressure balancing and thermostatic mixing valves for all showers.
You would think this was an easy task, but it wasn’t. He met opposition from some of the plumbing manufacturers, home builders and plumbing contractors. In 1988, he accomplished his goal of mandating safe shower valves for all showers. The rest is history.
Unfortunately, Higgins died of a pulmonary embolism at the young age of 50. His colleagues established an award in his name to honor the dedication he showed to the plumbing codes and standards profession. That award is the Patrick J. Higgins Medal, presented annually by ASME.
I had the distinct privilege of receiving the Patrick J. Higgins Medal recently at a meeting of the ASME A112 Committee. It is very humbling to receive such an honor. I want to thank my friends for even considering me for this great honor.
With the award comes a stipend of $1,000. I have donated that stipend to the Class of 1975 Scholarship Fund at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Higgins’ name. I could not think of a better way to honor him for all the knowledge he provided to our profession.
The next time you install a fixture, tip your hat to Patrick J. Higgins for all the work he did to provide outstanding plumbing standards and ensure you receive top-quality plumbing fixtures, every time.