A letter in this month’s edition draws attention to an issue relevant industry wide (Page 8). Dan Shembeda, a plumbing contractor from Olean, N.Y., and a member of his town’s plumbing board, penned a succinct letter outlining a history of lax code enforcement in his community. He appeals to fellow plumbing contractors to be vigilant about plumbing codes and their enforcement.
Along with his letter, Shembeda sent to us some local newspaper clippings pertaining to this issue. One article from five years ago reported five homes in one block with illegal hookups of storm water connections to the sanitary sewer system. The article also referred to broken drains, open lines, fixtures without traps, sewer vents leading into homes and other plumbing atrocities uncovered by Shembeda.
According to him, these violations were committed by duly licensed contractors able to meet lame requirements and undeterred by code enforcement concerns. Thanks in large measure to his efforts, he reports the town has since shaped up its code efforts. PM applauds Shembeda’s activism.
A question naturally arises as to how this situation came about in the first place.
Our take is that it’s because sanitation is taken for granted in this country and throughout the civilized world. Plumbers and plumbing engineers have done their jobs so well that the average person has no inkling of what life was like before they began doing their thing.
Our high school history books recount the death toll in all the wars from the distant past, but few report that WWI was the first large scale war in which more soldiers were felled by combat than succumbed to camp diseases. Nor does the typical historian bother to tally the millions of civilian casualties from cholera and other waterborne epidemics prior to the era of modern plumbing.
Moreover, plumbing is a mature trade. The days are long gone when plumbers had to pound their own pipes into shape and laboriously pack lead and oakum joints. Today’s user-friendly materials and tools have simplified the mechanical part to the point where the average homeowner can perform many common installations and repairs. For decades they have been encouraged to do so by the big boxes and various publications and TV shows catering to the DIY audience.
As a result, a thought process has evolved among the masses that plumbing is no big deal. From there, it’s only a short leap of illogic to conclude that plumbing codes and their enforcement can be winked at.
An analogy presents itself with commercial aviation. Knock on wood, but it’s been more than four years since the last fatal commercial plane crash in the U.S. - the longest such stretch in history. This is a remarkable safety record considering the complexity of modern aircraft, thousands upon thousands of daily flights and millions upon millions of miles flown during that time - along with terrorists itching to repeat 9/11.
Yet, it’s something travelers tend to overlook when we’re fidgeting in a terminal or stewing on a runway. When we’re in a hurry to get home, we’d love to shortcut some of the FAA’s picky regulations. Surely our plane would not fall out of the sky if the pilot stayed on duty a few minutes beyond the allotted time, and we’d be correct the vast majority of the time.
However, once the frustration passes, sober reflection tells us that a few airplanes might never make it to their destination if too many rules get relaxed. Likewise, some plumbing codes and inspectors may be overly picky, but I would rather live in such a jurisdiction than in a town without a code or one that’s routinely ignored.
The virtual absence of waterborne disease in our present society sends a confused message to the public. They think it makes plumbing codes antiquated. They fail to associate their good health as the result of these codes.
Here’s another lesson to draw from Mr. Shembeda’s experience - don’t rely on government agencies to get this message across. No jurisdiction is wallowing in money, and just as you can’t put a cop on every street corner, you can’t expect to have an inspector show up for every little project. The integrity of plumbing codes must instead be protected by trade professionals such as yourself leading the way.
Plumbing professionals must be willing to lend eyes and ears to the cause and help police the marketplace as whistleblowers. And, when necessary, they must be willing to engage the authorities as hell-raisers.