Old frostproof sillcocks fail to make the grade, according to Julius Ballanco.

Here we are in the middle of another hot summer. We get to spend time in the backyard garden, watering our crops for the big harvest. We also tend to water the lawn to keep it green, even though many of us swear we won't waste the water. We also water our cars and trucks.

If you haven't noticed, there is one common theme with all of these outside activities - the sillcock. Or, if you prefer, the outside hose bibb. Whatever you want to call it, the valve gets a workout over the summer.

It was some 40 years ago when the plumbing industry started to raise concerns about backflow potential through an outside sillcock. Mind you, the 1955 National Plumbing Code specified requirements for a backflow preventer on all faucets having a hose connection. This included outside sillcocks.

There are many published incidents of water supply systems being contaminated through the sillcock. Of course, the most famous backflow occurrence through a sillcock occurred in 1969, when the Holy Cross football team was wiped out with infectious hepatitis after drinking contaminated water.

If you think about it, we expose our outdoor sillcocks to some of the nastiest chemicals. Just think of the liquid spray fertilizers, bug killers and weed killers. Any one of these chemicals can do major damage if allowed to enter the potable water supply.

Catching A Culprit

Every time I hear a report of some disease outbreak at a county or state fair, I assume it is related to a backflow incident on a hose bibb. One of the vendors connecting the water supply to their trailer may have contaminated the water supply. Of course, you never read about the final analysis in the majority of these cases. I wouldn't doubt they often ignore checking the sillcock connections.

In 1970, ASSE developed the standard regulating hose connection vacuum breakers. I got heavily involved in the plumbing codes and standards business a few years later. The one thing that always struck me was how shoddy the frostproof sillcocks were. No offense intended to the manufacturers; they made a frostproof sillcock that conformed to the standard. I just never thought these frostproof sillcocks would do the job of preventing a backflow occurrence.

I have been known to speak out regarding questionable areas of our profession. I didn't think we were getting the necessary level of backflow protection from these frostproof sillcocks. For a while, it seemed as if no one cared. Heck, you may not even care! But it is my opinion that if we are going to provide the public with a level of safety, then we should give it to them. The worst thing we can do is provide a false sense of security.

I ran into Joe Woodford a number of years ago at a seminar I was instructing on backflow protection. Joe happens to own a company with his name on it. Joe was intrigued with my comments regarding frostproof sillcocks. He asked if I would sit down and chew the fat with him regarding this matter.

We spoke at length. Being a manufacturer, Joe said he'd always been concerned with the vacuum breaker on the frostproof sillcock. He never thought it was providing the ultimate level of backflow protection, although no one ever agreed with him.

I mentioned a connection of the water supply to a chemical vat. The connection would be protected with a reduced pressure principle backflow preventer, which has two check valves and an intermediate area that opens to atmosphere. We can connect to that same vat through a frostproof sillcock that has a single check valve. That's scary!

Joe took our conversation to heart. A few years later, I ran into Joe at a plumbing trade show. Joe told me to come see him in his booth; he had something he wanted to show me.

"Do you remember the conversation we had regarding the quality of the frostproof sillcock with vacuum breakers?" Joe asked. Then he showed me his response - a hose connection backflow preventer that had two check valves and an intermediate area open to atmosphere. I was impressed.

Joe, being the guy he is, didn't bother to patent this new invention. He wanted it available for any manufacturer to make. A new standard was developed to regulate this backflow preventer: ASSE 1052.

How Bad Is 'Bad'?

You probably are wondering if these frostproof sillcocks with vacuum breakers are really that bad or if I am just dreaming it up. I was asked to prove my theory by testing a variety of frostproof sillcocks that had been installed for a number of years. I selected the five-year mark as the minimum time for the frostproof sillcock to be installed.

One of the hardest things to do was obtain frostproof sillcocks from the field. I invited contractors to ask their customers to allow a free installation of a new frostproof sillcock. It is amazing how many people turned down the offer. But eventually, a pool of frostproof sillcocks was available to test.

The ASSE standard has a series of tests that new frostproof sillcocks must pass. All manufacturers have their products certified to this standard. The testing I conducted merely repeated these tests after the product was installed for a period of time. To prevent a backflow occurrence, the frostproof sillcock still would have to pass all of these tests.

Before you test products like this, you try to predict the failure rate. I was bold and estimated that 30 percent of the frostproof sillcocks would fail. One colleague went even further, predicting 50 percent of the valves would fail. We all thought he was nuts.

I am glad I am not a gambling man, because my prediction was way off. So was my colleague's. After running the series of tests, more than 90 percent of the valves failed. That's right, 90 percent!

When you have numbers like this from a test sample, it is easy to say that the frostproof sillcocks we thought were protecting our water supply against backflow are not. You cannot place any faith in the long-term performance of these frostproof sillcocks with vacuum breakers. Installing a frostproof sillcock with a vacuum breaker is the same as installing a frostproof sillcock without a vacuum breaker. You are assured the same level of protection - none.

What To Do?

As a contractor, you can continue to install these frostproof sillcocks and walk away from the job. After all, they still meet the plumbing code. Or you can provide your customer with a higher level of protection. That higher level of protection is a hose connection having an ASSE 1052 backflow preventer.

Other companies besides Joe's make ASSE 1052 backflow preventers. Remember, Joe wanted protection of the public, not protection of a patent. All manufacturers can make these valves.

What I hope to see is all manufacturers changing to a frostproof sillcock with an ASSE 1052 backflow preventer. It would be nice to have the industry do the right thing by ceasing to manufacture the old style of frostproof sillcocks that provides no level of protection against backflow.