Every plumbing contractor has to start thinking about green building and green plumbing. While the green building movement is politically correct, it can also be pragmatic when you think in terms of our children's future.

Most of you have heard or read about the green building movement, but you may not may not have considered the full impact that it has on plumbing systems. Green building installation for plumbing includes the additional savings of water and the lowering of energy demands for operating a plumbing or mechanical system. Other green building initiatives are the reuse of storm water and recycling of gray water. All of these concepts make sense, even though they may increase the cost of installation.

There is another side to the green building movement that occasionally rears its ugly head, adding ambiguity to the entire discussion. This involves the actual material used in construction, including plumbing materials. Is the material environmentally friendly? Are we using recycled materials? Are we preventing the depletion of our natural resources?

You may have never considered this when installing a pipe, fitting, fixture, or faucet. However, this is a very integral part of the green building movement.

These questions that the "greenies" raise regarding all building materials used in green buildings can result in a bias between different materials. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer when comparing materials. Some have accused the greenies of being anti-oil or anti-plastic when evaluating building materials.


Plumbing Materials

Let's consider the most common material used in plumbing fixtures, vitreous china. Vitreous china is nothing more than mud or clay that is made into a fixture, glazed, and fired in a kiln.

You would think that this material would be the definition of, "green." But, the mud uses precious natural resources. We don't recycle our vitreous china. When you take out a water closet, you smash it with a sledgehammer and throw it into the landfill. This is wasting valuable landfill space. On top of that, to make a vitreous china fixture, you have to fire it in a kiln for 12 to 24 hours, and it takes a lot of energy to operate a kiln at high temperatures.

You see the way an argument can be twisted around when considering the total environmental impact of a building material? Nowhere in that argument did you hear any discussion of the high level of sanitation that a vitreous china fixture provides to the public or how the plumbing industry saves modern civilization by insisting on a high level of sanitation and clean potable water.

We can get bogged down in insincere discussions if the entire picture is not examined when evaluating building materials. By the way, I have not heard of any discussion opposed to vitreous china. I just use this as an example of the types of discussions that have been raised regarding other building materials.


Green Piping Material?

The debate among some greenies has revolved around piping material, specifically cast iron, PVC, ABS, and copper. Which material is more environmentally friendly?

It is unfortunate that the greenies have pitted the material manufacturers against one another. The cast iron industry can claim that cast iron is made with recycled materials. You always see an old car engine block being dropped into the smelter at the cast iron mill. PVC and ABS are using our valuable natural resources since this pipe is made from oil. Copper is also made with recycled materials.

When you look at the other side of the discussion, cast iron uses a tremendous amount of energy to melt the iron and form it into pipe and fittings. The plants add greenhouse gases to the environment. Copper also uses energy and adds greenhouse gases. Copper is in limited supply, as is iron. There is only so much in the earth.

PVC and ABS come from the ground. How can that be unfriendly? Oil is extracted and used for many valuable benefits to mankind. Less energy is required to make PVC and ABS pipe than other metallic piping materials.

Some of the greenies in New York City went even further to say that PVC and ABS pipe offgas nasty plastic fumes into the environment. Therefore, the materials are less friendly. It didn't matter that they had no scientific data to support this claim. It also didn't matter that, if there was any truth to the off-gassing claim, most plastic pipe is located behind gypsum walls without any exposure to the breathing environment.

This discussion got so carried away that the U.S. Green Building Council prepared a paper on the difference between piping materials for drainage, waste, and vent systems. Many expected the paper to slam plastic pipe. There is a segment of the green building professionals that are anti-plastic based on their personal views regarding oil. The paper did not slam plastic.

Actually, the draft paper that I read was very thought provoking. It basically rated cast iron, PVC, and ABS to be on an approximately equal footing, "green"-wise. It should be noted that they did not include copper tubing because they did not consider it to be a common material for drainage, waste, and vent systems.

In the order of environmental friendliness, they rated the pipes PVC, cast iron, and ABS, in that order. However, before you take that to the bank, there were qualifications that ended up saying there is no difference.

Basically the report applauded the efforts by the U.S. pipe manufacturers in dealing with environmental issues. Cast iron mills operate much cleaner than 50 years ago. The plastic mills have addressed pollution and ground water contamination.

The winner in this discussion was the plumbing industry. As much as we have been cursed and screamed at, we have responded to every issue better and faster than other industries. We have taken care of pollution; we have cleaned up the environment. And most importantly, we have maintained the sanitation of a nation.

That doesn't mean we are off the hook. The latest environmental attack issue is that we still have too much lead in our plumbing products. To some, any lead is too much lead. While we review this every day, politicians looking to make a name for themselves scream about lead in plumbing products.

The requirements in the plumbing codes are very stringent regarding lead in plumbing products. The only fault that can be drawn is that the test methods for lead exposure can be confusing to the uninformed. The test laboratories use the most aggressive water available attempting to extract lead. When a number shows up, the politicians scream. In reality, the water we drink isn't as bad as the stuff that's used for testing. Thus, the lead that could possibly be extracted is close to zero.

Rest assured that the plumbing industry is not sitting still during these attacks. Various experts in our profession are discussing lead in drinking water on a daily basis. Every problem that is identified is quickly analyzed to determine the cause, problem, and solution. This information is forwarded to various committees to change requirements regulating piping material.

Thanks to the diligent efforts by the plumbing contractors and the plumbing manufacturers, we have the cleanest water of any nation in the world. We also have one of the most environmentally friendly industries. Of all the building trades, we do more on a daily basis to protect the health of the nation than all of the other trades combined.

Imagine the environmental hazards if we didn't connect water closets and urinals to a piping system that transports sewage to a safe place of disposal. This has become so commonplace that the world forgets to thank the plumbing industry.

In other words, while the green movement is new, the plumbing industry is not. We simply need to publicize that we are addressing environmental concerns; we are addressing health aspects; and we are always looking at the impact piping material has on the system.

This is something that you need to promote to your customers. Consider yourself an environmentally friendly plumbing contractor. Identify yourself as truly a part of the green building movement.

As for piping material used in the trade, it almost goes without saying that if the piping material is in the code, it is acceptable from a green building, environmentally friendly standpoint. Furthermore, no one piping material trumps another material in green building design. So, the next time you install any piece of pipe, realize that the pipe is environmentally friendly.


"This article was originally posted on ww.reevesjournal.com."