The ISH show is advertised as the world’s largest sanitation, heating and air-conditioning exposition; you won’t hear any arguments from me.

For years I’ve read about the ISH adventures of Jim Olsztynski and Dan Holohan. Presented with the opportunity to go to ISH 97, I had certain trepidations. Did my colleagues do too good a job building up the show? I thought of my disappointment with the movie The English Patient. My wife and I were the last two people on the face of the Earth to see it. When we finally went, we didn’t like it. It wasn’t the movie itself as much as that it didn’t live up to all the expectations our friends gave us.

Well, ISH is no English Patient. Jim and Dan have been understating how phenomenal ISH is. The Germans certainly know how to throw a good party. The show is advertised as the world’s largest sanitation, heating and air-conditioning exposition; you won’t hear any arguments from me. Imagine combining the NEX, ASPE, ASHRAE, NKBA and Home Builders shows, then multiplying by three. You might come close to how big this show is.

ISH occupied 10 very large buildings with as many as three floors full of products. Some exhibitors even set up their booths outside in circus-sized tents. The first day, I laughed at the site of shuttle buses transporting people from one end of the fair to the other. By the end of the day I was no longer laughing. I think I walked between 10 to 15 miles a day trying to view everything.

Technology Exceeds USA: As a proud American who gloats about how our country leads in technology, I was shocked to find the areas where Europeans are blowing us away. One German manufacturer commented to me that, “You Americans come to ISH to see what you will have available in the United States in two years.”

Two years! Some of the technology may take 10, if ever, to reach our shores.

Being an engineer, one of the products I admired most was the Oras intelligent plumbing system from Finland. Oras has taken electronic plumbing many steps beyond what we have here. The intelligent sensor does more than turn the faucet on and off. The system can be connected to a computer and control every part of the water distribution system. It can instantly change the distance your hands need to be, the temperature of the water, the flow rate, and the maximum amount of water that will discharge before it automatically shuts off. The computer can also monitor any leaks and set up a maintenance schedule depending on the use of the faucet or flush valve. Some of the big U.S. manufacturers spent considerable time with Oras and showed an interest in the technology. If there was a theme at ISH, it had to be “shower doors.” I have never seen so many different shapes, sizes, types of openings, you name it. The shower doors are far better than any of the doors we commonly install. One detail that they pay closer attention to is drips and leaks. The doors were more elaborate, with gutter systems that keep the floor dry.

They also displayed a new glass that stays clean no matter how many showers are taken. They called the glass Cleartec and Magic Plus depending on the manufacturer. If U.S. manufacturers use this glass, they certainly don’t promote it the way they do in Germany. With the use of the glass came many clear shower enclosures. The walls were all glass with shower tower arrangements for the shower valve. I especially liked some of the tracking systems for the higher end shower doors and enclosures.

Whirlpools Everywhere: Like Americans, Europeans have fallen in love with the whirlpool bathtub. One entire hall was dedicated to nothing but. Are they different from ours? Again, yes, and the differences are impressive. Just about every whirlpool on display had built-in touch controls with more individual settings than U.S. models. Having to walk the show every day, one of my favorite designs was the foot massage. At the end of the tub, small jets were in the shape of your foot. You could place your feet against the tub and get a foot massage.

What was very noticeable was some of the names of the whirlpools. When European makers wanted to identify a top of the line tub, they used very American names such as the Dakota, Utah, Hawaiian Duo, Nevada, and Colorado. I had to laugh thinking that when we name high-end products, we use European names such as San Moritz, Riviera, Monaco, and Monte Carlo.

The whirlpools also had a more complex support structure underneath the tub, designed to make the installation easier on the plumber.

Steam units were also a big hit. I admired one design that had ergonomic seats very comfortable to sit in. The seats were formed into modular units that allowed the steam unit to be any size with any number of seats. As the agent said, “We can go from one seat to 99.” I asked when the units would be introduced to the U.S. market. The agent said Americans don’t know the wonders of steam. Of course, if we had these units available, we’d learn very fast.

When I found out that my hotel had one of these steam units, I had to try it out that evening. It was fantastic. I could easily get used to enjoying steam every evening.

Wet Head Heaven: Since I was in a Wet Head’s paradise, I thought it might be fun to keep my eyes open for a scorched air guy. I finally found one exhibit with an individual who looked as lonely as the Maytag Repairman.

He commented that life is much easier in America. We understand how easy it is to heat air. In Europe, 95 percent of the homes are hydronically heated. After looking at his scorched air device, I couldn’t find any burner. That raised the question, “How do you heat the air?” He said you can either use an electric coil or a water coil. So I continued my questions, “That means that you need a boiler beside this unit.” He said, “Well of course, every house in Europe has a boiler,” giving me this look of what’s the matter with you, stupid.

There was no shortage of boilers at the fair. Nor was there a shortage of anything related to hydronic heating. The Europeans have converted hydronic heating into an art form. Radiant floor heat — the heating of choice for most German homeowners — received plenty of emphasis.

I marveled at the Velta exhibit displaying a new grid system for installing underfloor heating systems. The system consisted of a foam plastic (Styrofoam) insulating board with a plastic grid on top. The board is laid on top of the plywood subfloor. The pieces can be easily cut with a razor knife. Each section is interconnected with the adjoining section by the grid on top of the Styrofoam. PEX pipe can then be placed in the grid in whatever pattern you want. Once the pipe is popped in the grid, it stays in place. Concrete or Gypcrete can then be poured over the grid system to finish the floor covering.

It was amazing how fast this grid made installation. I asked the representative why a system like this has not been introduced in the U.S. He said Americans don’t do much floor heating. I responded that if we had this system we would do a lot more. Heck, this grid makes it cheaper to install floor heating than a ducted scorched air system. Perhaps one of the American manufacturers will pick up on this grid concept.

In with the hydronic displays was what I call a new piping material. It was copper tubing with a PVC covering designed for underfloor systems. It is the copper industry’s attempt to compete with PEX pipe. Copper tubing did not hold up very well in many concrete installations, however, the plastic covering will extend the material life significantly.

I Love Tools: If you’re like me, you could have gotten lost in the tool hall. Three floors with every plumbing tool known to man. Popular at this year’s show was freezing equipment for repairing water lines. Each manufacturer was claiming to have super fast freezing systems.

I admired some of the bending tools, especially the portable electric bending tools. You couldn’t make a mistake bending pipe with these tools. Why don’t we have it? Again the claim was that Europeans bend more pipe than Americans. One of the simplest tools that I found fascinating was a combination pipe cutter/crimping tool. With one tool you could cut PEX pipe and crimp the connection.

In addition to hand crimping tools, there was an abundant display of power crimping tools. The tools were both electric plug-in and battery powered. The only tool that I have seen similar in the U.S. was the Vanguard Robo-Crimp power tool. However, that tool was designed for 1-inch pipe only.

The power crimping tools had different heads for each size pipe. The heads were easier to change than a drill bit. The plug-in crimp tool could make a joint in 3 seconds, while the battery-powered tool took 7 seconds. If the crimp was not made properly, you could not detach the tool. A neat safety feature for making a good joint.

I was especially intrigued by the copper crimping fittings. The fittings had an elastomeric ring built into the fitting. You simply placed the copper tubing into the fitting and applied the crimping tool to the fitting. In 3-7 seconds, you had a connection. I inquired as to the reason for crimping copper tubing rather than soldering. It was simply a matter of time being money. The manufacturer estimated the average solder connection takes 3 minutes, compared to 3 seconds with the crimp. The labor savings paid for the additional cost of the fittings.

The disadvantage to the copper crimp connection is that you cannot unsolder the fitting. The response was that it is much faster to cut out a fitting and put in new crimp fittings than worrying about unsoldering a connection.

The crimping tools cost in the neighborhood of $1,000. They are currently considering developing power crimp tools for the U.S. market that range in price from $350 to $500. That is one tool that I think would be a welcome addition for plumbing contractors.

Lagging Behind: Not all technology at ISH exceeded American know-how. What was extremely disappointing was the lack of advancement in the 1.6 gpf water closet. U.S. manufacturers far exceed the water closet design of European manufacturers.

All of the water closets I observed were of the split rim design. I personally hate split rim water closets. If you are not familiar with a split rim water closet, the bowl has a void in the rim area that is open to allow the water to enter. There are no rim jets, since there is no solid rim. When you flush this style of bowl, it’s like dumping a bucket of water into the bowl. The water rushes in to force out the waste with no chance to produce any siphonic action.

What is interesting is that the Europeans recognize that these water closets are no good. Whenever a water closet was displayed there would be a toilet brush also displayed. Rather than improve the water closets, they have gotten fancier with the toilet brush holders. Some were even gold-plated! For the week I was in Germany, every water closet I used was of the split rim design, and every one had a toilet brush along side of the bowl. The brush was even in the water closet compartments of the Messe hall toilet rooms. I much prefer the U.S. water closets, even the poor flushers are better than the European water closet.

Too Much Technology: Sometimes technology gets carried away and takes us too far. I was thinking that when I came across what was proclaimed to be the most sanitary water closet. After use, you pushed a button on the top of the bowl and the seat lifted up. A paper seat cover was automatically placed on the seat, and the seat lowered. When you flushed, the seat cover went down the drain.

The price of this unit was only 1,900 DM, which is just under $1,200. For that price, I would rather have someone add their own paper seat cover to the toilet seat.

The same manufacturer had a urinal that had electrodes in the water trap area. When the electrodes sensed the presence of urine, it flushed the urinal. I thought it would be a lot easier to have an electronic flush valve that flushed after each use.

The other high-tech product I saw was an automatic toilet seat washing device. The seat was not permanently attached by hinges, but rather to a rinsing arm. After each use the seat would spin through this washing arm, get cleaned and squeegeed off.

By the end of the week, I was overwhelmed. The size, the magnitude, everything just starts to fry your brain. But the trip to Frankfurt, Germany is well worth it. If you want to experience the thrill of a lifetime, mark your calendars for March, 1999, the date of the next ISH Trade Fair. Don’t forget to extend your trip to visit the beautiful European countryside. I only hope that this wasn’t my last ISH.