Indoor plumbing may no longer be an issue, but residential fire sprinklers still are.

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Every 10 years, the country is required, by the U.S. Constitution, to conduct a census. That sounds simple enough. All you have to do is count the people.

To make sure there is an accurate count, they made it the law that you have to fill out the census form. Most people get what is referred to as the short form. If you are “lucky,” you may get a copy of the long form. This year, it is called the American Community Survey Form.

The purpose of the long form is to obtain information and trends regarding American lifestyles. This information is then published for use by anyone. Of course, many federal agencies use this information either for funding new programs or advancing technology.

For many years there have been census questions about housing. However, only in modern times has the census included plumbing questions. The earliest reports that I found regarding census questions on plumbing was 1940. Some have claimed there were questions about plumbing in 1900 and 1920. However, if you search the U.S. Census Bureau’s Web site (at, there are no reports regarding plumbing prior to 1940.

The plumbing question asked in the 1940 census was whether respondents had indoor plumbing. Indoor plumbing was defined as a flushing toilet, a sink with a faucet and a bathtub or shower.

In 1940, 45 percent of the population reported that they did not have indoor plumbing. But more importantly, 55 percent said they did have indoor plumbing.

It should be noted that indoor plumbing was not a regular part of new home construction until 1900. However, even in 1900, not all new homes had indoor plumbing.

An increase in indoor plumbing to 55 percent of the population seemed amazing in a 40-year period. It has been estimated that only 1 percent of the homes had indoor plumbing in 1900. However, there is no validity to that estimate since reports indicate there was no such question on the 1900 census form.

In any event, from 1940, there was a continued rise in the number of homes with indoor plumbing. By the time the 1990 census was issued, more than 99 percent of the homes in the United States had indoor plumbing.

Following the 1990 census, comments were made that perhaps it was time to stop asking about indoor plumbing. Low and behold, the 2000 census long form once again asked if citizens had indoor plumbing. The census reported that 99.36 percent of homes have indoor plumbing. The report indicated that those lacking plumbing were mostly poor, the elderly or people living in rural areas.

Finally, after the 2000 census, the government decided it was time to stop asking if you have indoor plumbing. That seemed to make sense since more than 99 percent of the population has indoor plumbing. We tend to laugh that somebody would ask whether we have indoor plumbing. After all, it is 2010. Furthermore, how much more information can you gather from asking a question about indoor plumbing?

When I reviewed the long form for the 2010 census, the question on indoor plumbing did not appear. However, that does not put an end to the questions on plumbing. Rather than ask if people have indoor plumbing, the Census Bureau modified the question to ask: Does this house, apartment or mobile home have - hot and cold running water? A flush toilet? A bathtub or shower? A sink with a faucet?

Isn’t that the same as asking if you have indoor plumbing?

If the 2000 census reported 99.36 percent of housing had indoor plumbing, wouldn’t you expect the answer to these questions to also be 99.36 percent or higher? In this day and age, the question seems meaningless.

In the same section where they ask about various plumbing fixtures, they also ask if respondents have a stove or range. There are questions about mortgage, insurance, size, etc.

What About Fire Sprinklers?

Unfortunately, the 2010 census does not ask an important question on housing related to water supply. What it should be asking is whether the house, apartment or mobile home has a fire sprinkler system protecting the dwelling.

This would be an interesting statistic. Everyone merely estimates how many homes (and apartments or condominiums) are protected with a sprinkler system. It is like being in 1900 wondering how many homes have indoor plumbing.

We laugh about the question on indoor plumbing today, but it was a serious concern back then. Many in the country wanted all citizens to have indoor plumbing to protect public health. These same individuals were convinced that indoor plumbing would extend the life expectancy of the population. They were right.

But, to homebuilders in 1900, the installation of indoor plumbing was ridiculous. The builders supported affordable housing. Indoor plumbing would take thousands out of the new housing market. (OK, so I made this up, but with today’s arguments, it seems plausible.)

Today, many believe all homes should be protected with residential fire sprinkler systems. I am a member of that group. So, I would like to know what the statistics are from the Census Bureau. Perhaps the 2020 census will ask about fire sprinkler protection. I hope the percentage of homes protected will be very high, like around 55 percent.

Maybe by the year 2100, people will be laughing that anyone would ask such a silly question about whether your home is protected with a fire sprinkler system. That census may show that 99.36 percent of the homes have fire sprinkler protection. The census also may show that life expectancy has increased in the population because of the life safety protection associated with the universal installation of fire sprinkler systems. After all, the people supporting this concept are correct; residential fire sprinklers will extend life expectancy. But let’s not wait until 2100 to figure this out.