Travelers on the PM-Ecoflex tour reacted with gasping adjectives.

Mike Schnorr’s (Schnorr Enterprises, Wappingers Falls, N.Y.) voice rose a couple of octaves with excitement in describing the “shower tower” he had observed. “It had four body sprays adjusted individually and a grab bar that can turn into a seat for handicapped individuals — heck, even I would like to use it,” he said.

John McGregor (McGregor Plumbing & Heating, Harbor Springs, Mich.), couldn’t get over the sheer volume of exhibitors. “One booth showed nothing but faucet stems,” he noted. “Another had nothing but escutcheons, and one nothing but crystal handles.” So impressed was McGregor, he decided to skip our group tour of Heidelberg to spend an extra day at the show.

“I saw a bunch of companies selling equipment that captures rainwater for reuse in flushing toilets,” noted Jim Terry (E.L Terry Plumbing & Heating, Scotch Plains, N.J.), a second-time ISHer who also accompanied PM’s last tour group in 1995. “One company swore you could run the rainwater through a filter and also use it for washing clothes,” he added. “I have my doubts, but it was interesting.”

As for yours truly, I did a double take on the Duscholux video showing a voice-activated whirlpool. Granted, my first look had more to do with the gorgeous model taking off her robe and entering the tub. (You see a lot of that at ISH, and it never gets boring.) But I was also fascinated by the technology. Honest.

ISH had graywater systems, self-cleaning toilets, multi-layered pipe, frameless shower stalls, bathroom fragrance dispensers, women’s urinals, ultra-efficient and ultra-clean boilers, electronic plumbing gadgetry galore and a gazillion faucets — many of which looked not like faucets at all but more like artifacts retrieved from alien spacecraft. Two huge exhibit halls were devoted to nothing but faucets and fittings, with a little bathroom furniture thrown in here and there. No matter how many decades they had worked in the industry, the 36 people who went along on the PM-Ecoflex ISH show tour spanning March 23-28, all saw plumbing and heating devices they had never imagined existing.

“Awesome … overwhelming … amazing” — gasping adjectives flowed without prompting. Our partner on this excursion, Ecoflex, is a Uponor subsidiary that manufactures preinsulated flexible pipe out of a plant in the little town of Marl, Germany, near the Holland border. We paid a visit to that facility among other tour activities.

Stunning Stats: What’s so special about ISH? Three words: size, scope, spectacle. The data pertaining to the world’s largest plumbing-heating exposition gives the impression that one is looking at a bunch of typographical errors.

  • Upwards of 220,000 visitors from 130 countries. (But fewer than 1,000 show attendees were from the United States.)
  • 2,243 exhibitors from 42 countries (only 25 from the United States, although some American companies were represented by European subsidiaries).
  • More than 800,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, spanning 23 exhibit halls in nine buildings, plus outdoor displays.

    The closest comparison in North America would be the ASHRAE show, but last January’s record-setting ASHRAE exposition in Chicago had less than half the display space and only about a quarter the number of visitors as ISH.

    Held every other year, ISH is put on by Messe Frankfurt, a quasi-public German agency that puts on shows for a variety of industries at its huge Frankfurt facility. The ISH acronym derived from “International Trade Fair — Sanitation and Heating,” although Messe Frankfurt now describes ISH as “International Trade Fair for Housing and Building Technology.” Still, plumbing-piping and hydronic heating displays account for almost three-quarters of the exposition. That percentage will increase at the 2001 version because air conditioning will be taken away from ISH and grouped with lighting and other building electrical technology in a separate trade show that kicks off next March.

    Here are some scribblings jotted in this scribe’s notebook during our tour.

  • Das Boot. Hotel space is at a premium during ISH week in Frankfurt, when the city of some 650,000 population swells by about a third with visitors from all over the world. The best hotels charge room rates upwards of $400 a night. “Reasonably” priced hotels in Frankfurt mostly are places from which your mother told you to stay away. More affordable lodging can be obtained on the city outskirts or as far away as the city of Weisbaden — some 40 kilometers away.

    Our group stayed in the “Queen of Holland,” a riverboat rented by Ecoflex and docked about a mile away from the ISH show on the Main (pronounced “Mine”) River in Frankfurt. Rooms were Spartan, but I don’t think there’s anyone in our group who didn’t thoroughly enjoy the experience. The ship’s bar and restaurant were as spacious and warm as anything you’d find on shore, and the compact quarters made for a communal spirit that would have been hard for any landlubbers to match.

  • Viessmann pulls a fast one. Buderus, Vaillant and Viessmann are the big three of European boiler manufacturers. Their displays span tens of thousands of square feet and dominate the humongous boiler exhibition hall. They also play one-upmanship in festooning Frankfurt with advertising signage. Each has its characteristic product color — blue for Buderus, green for Vaillant and orange for Viessmann.

    So closely are these colors identified in the minds of European consumers, that smaller boiler manufacturers have taken to mimicking the big three’s colors as a marketing ploy. Viessmann’s orange was said to be particularly popular.

    When the show opened, visitors were stunned to find that, known to only a few high-ranking executives, Viessmann had changed the color of its new boilers from orange to gray (with orange trimming). The change took place with almost military secrecy. Most of Viessmann’s sales managers didn’t even know about it until the show opened. NATO should be so tight-lipped about its plans.

    In Europe, the doings of the big three get reported in the popular press much like the activities of our Big Three automakers. Boilers are big business over there. Consider that the entire U.S. market for boilers totals between 300,000-400,000 in any given year. Germany alone consumes 1 million boilers a year, Italy some 900,000 and France 750,000.

  • The monochromatic look. I noticed a preponderance of white bathroom fixtures displayed throughout the show, and not nearly as many colored faucets as had been apparent in previous visits. This reflects the latest trend in European bathroom design toward a retrograde look that is a bit stark and austere. Ironically, it is an American designer, Michael Graves, who helped establish the look with projects done in collaboration with German bathroom giants Duravit, Dornbracht and Hoesch. Duravit describes Graves’ “Dreamscape” concept this way:

    “Ceramics, bathroom furniture and accessories form a harmonious whole. The bodies of the individual items of furniture in light maple or dark pearwood are combined in typical Gravesian style with fronts in apple green. A slight transparency, created by a material which has been developed specially and exclusively for this series, lends the monochrome design an enchanting effect.”

  • The invisible hand of commerce. What most fascinates me about ISH is how the invisible hand of commerce steers the jumbled mass of humanity one sees in every transit corridor to apportion itself so that just about every booth gets a fair share of traffic every day, throughout the day. It seems that everywhere I look, exhibitors are talking to interested visitors. You don’t see people sitting around reading the paper, which is a common sight at many stateside PHC trade shows. Even the worst booth locations in the nooks and crannies of exhibition halls get enough traffic to make it worthwhile.
  • Ernie Banks & Stan Musial. Hydronics manufacturer Roth Industries served as a prime gathering spot for American visitors throughout the show — thanks to invitations conveyed via Dan Holohan’s Wall ( and mailings prior to the show. For the first time, I got to meet Roth’s tubing division director Tomas Lennman and technical director Manfred Hoffmann, the gentlemen widely credited as the inventors of PEX tubing in the 1970s. A feeling came over me reminiscent of that glorious day in the 1950s when I got both Ernie Banks’ and Stan Musial’s autographs.
  • Beer blasts. Roth, like many ISH exhibitors, was generous in plying visitors with food and drink, especially beer … great German beer … plenty of it. As of this writing, I’ve been home a little more than a week, but have yet to have any of the store brand beer that sits forsaken in my refrigerator. I know from past experience returning from ISH that it will taste like swill. I need several weeks to shake Germany out of my taste buds before I can be satisfied with American brew again.

    Many first-time visitors were puzzled at all the half-empty glasses sitting around German beer taps. It’s because their tap beer gives rise to thick, slowly settling heads. Bartenders have to pour in multiple stages in order to give time for the luscious foam to settle. You’d think with all their modern technology they’d have figured out a way to speed up the process by now. Thank goodness we Americans can still feel superior about something.

  • Ecoflex tour. Visiting an Uponor plant in the little town of Marl, many in our group marveled at the low labor content and clever machinery that goes into producing Ecoflex pipe. We also saw other Uponor products not sold in America that they thought would find a ready market on our shores — especially a plastic pipe liner used to plug up existing water and sewer lines.

    Our trip to and from Marl lasted about twice as long as planned, thanks to a bus driver whose “shortcuts” led us to believe he might be getting paid by the hour. No problem. Ecoflex representatives Anja Schelm and Anne Coffelt kept spirits up with a steady stream of reparteé and massive infusions of beer.

    We spent much time riding through the Ruhr industrial region of Germany. Not very picturesque, but quite instructive. We passed quite a few windmills along the way and even more cooling tower structures that at first appeared to mark nuclear power plants but actually harbored coal or other fossil fuel facilities. Germany’s power industry seems geared toward smaller decentralized power plants than in the United States.

  • Electronic toilets. On our second night in town, Ecoflex treated our tour group to an evening at a Spanish restaurant in Frankfurt. The food and music were fine, but the highlight of the evening for many was a trip to the men’s restroom where a display panel of lights recorded the toilet’s journey through the flushing cycle. Nobody could figure out any practical purpose, but it made us feel kind of Star Trekky.
  • Bathroom lowlight. Our last evening meal together was in a Heidelberg restaurant that has been owned by the same family for more than 300 years. It’s a quaint place with terrific food, but, again, the men’s room provided the most memorable sight of the evening.

    It was a plumbing fixture the likes of which absolutely nobody in our group had ever seen before. A little deductive reasoning was required even to figure out its function. The plain circular bowl was about at waist level, and it had two vertical grab bars on either side. Perfect for helping one lean over the bowl to … well, remember what the Romans used to do to clear their surfeited tummies for more food and drink? Perhaps this restaurant catered to an inordinate number of bulimics. On the other hand, Heidelberg is a college town. Ask any U.S. college student what it means to “worship the porcelain god.”

    Gross. But practical.

  • Now that’s old! A Wirsbo engineer was one of our breakfast speakers, and he informed us that the well-known PEX tubing manufacturer traces its history all the way back to 1620, when it manufactured cannonballs and other forgings.
  • PEX galore! Wirsbo estimates that it has produced some 1 billion meters of PEX since 1972. If I crunched my numbers correctly, that’s enough to circle the globe almost 24 times.
  • The good, the bad & the ugly. Things I noticed about Germany that I don’t recall from my last visits four and six years ago, respectively:

    — You see recycling bins in many public places.

    — You see graffiti “art” from so-called “taggers” everywhere, including the fabled old city of Heidelberg.

    — While visiting Heidelberg a few days after NATO commenced bombing Serbia, we were treated to a protest demonstration by Serb nationalists through Heidelberg’s shopping district. How can one take any group’s politics seriously when their most prominent banners are festooned with the English “F” word, applied to Bill Clinton?

  • Can it happen here? Plumbing manufacturers on this side of the ocean are crusading for PHC trade shows to combine into one large ISH-type exposition in North America. Messe Frankfurt Vice President Norst Niedlich doesn’t think it will happen. He attributes the success of ISH to his organization’s independence. Although ISH works closely with German trade associations, it is owned and operated by Messe Frankfurt. Niedlich believes that shows sponsored by trade associations or publications are plagued with too many competing interests and political squabbles to make it work on the scale of ISH.

    In addition to ISH, Messe Frankfurt has organized PHC trade shows in China and South America. In response to a query about whether they might be interested in tackling one for North America, Niedlich smiled and said, “I’d rather stay away from that right now.”