He was my friend and mentor, as well as a top plumbing researcher.

Julius Ballanco and John Swaffield (right) discuss plumbing at an industry banquet. (Photo courtesy of Julius Ballanco.)


I was very saddened to learn of the loss of my good friend Professor John Swaffield, who died Feb. 21 in Scotland.

Professor Swaffield, or John to those of us who knew him well, was a world-renowned researcher in the field of plumbing. He was the head of the engineering department at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, for many years (he recently took the title Professor Emeritus). For the last 50 years, if it involved plumbing research, John had his hand in it. He was brilliant.

Almost everyone in the United States has heard of Dr. Roy B. Hunter, who is considered the father of modern plumbing in this country. Not to demean Dr. Hunter in any way, but John Swaffield did more in plumbing research, and more to advance the study of plumbing, than did Hunter. In addition to being a great researcher, John also was an educator, disseminating his wisdom to countless students and many doctoral candidates.

John Swaffield’s legacy includes his former students, now brilliant researchers. They continue the work John started. Their enthusiasm emanates from him.

My friendship with John goes back almost 30 years. We nearly crossed paths in the late 1970s. I interviewed for a position as a plumbing research intern at the National Bureau of Standards in 1977. While I was waiting for the internship to begin, to my disappointment, I was informed the position was terminated. Had I received the internship, I would have been working with John, who was a visiting plumbing researcher from the United Kingdom.

When we finally met a few years later, we hit it off right away. I think one of the reasons we became instant friends is because we both had a love for a strange subject matter - hydraulic shock, also known as water hammer. John’s doctoral thesis included the study of hydraulic shock. I had published two papers on the same subject matter.

Imagine sitting down over dinner and discussing in detail the studies of hydraulic shock and how it affects the drainage and vent system, as well as the water piping system. Yeah, we were a bunch of geeks enjoying the conversation.

You may be asking what impact John’s research has had in the United States. He developed one of the first computer programs that could simulate flow and movement in a plumbing drainage system. When John developed the program, the main pipe size for a water closet in this country was 4 inches. He proved not only was 3 inches a better pipe size, but 4 inches could lead to unnecessary stoppages in the drain. Today, thanks to John, we use more 3-inch pipe in DWV systems than in the past.

Another product that has taken off in the United States is air admittance valves. John did all the original studies on the use of air admittance valves. Many of his studies were used to develop the standards that currently regulate such valves.

Also entering the U.S. plumbing market are siphonic roof drains. The plumbing research facilities in Scotland allowed siphonic roof drainage to be studied and developed. The design criteria used today was developed under John’s tutelage.

Working With A Mentor

John and I talked through many concepts and ideas in plumbing. I always enjoyed bouncing things off him. He did the same with me. Whenever I encountered a difficult problem in the profession, I gave John a call.

In the mid 1990s, I received a call about toilets blowing up. That started a two-plus-year part-time research project into the cause and solution. The first thing we learned from the attorneys was we couldn’t use the terms “blowing up” or “exploding.” The water closets were “violently fracturing.”

Once I had permission to bring on an associate, my first phone call was to Professor John Swaffield. We spent hours on the phone discussing the causes of the violent fracturing and continued to do our research on opposite sides of the ocean. We both, independently, came to the same conclusions.

At an international plumbing researchers’ conference, we presented concurrent papers. I spoke on the physical research and John spoke on the computer modeling. It was at that conference he suggested we co-author a paper for a world researchers journal.

So, in 2002, John and I, along with Professor J. A. McDougall, co-authored a paper in the journal entitled, “Pressure Surges in Building Utility Services Exacerbated by Trapped or Entrained Air.”

That paper received the award as the best plumbing engineering research paper of the year. I flew to London to receive the award with John at a black-tie affair and spent a wonderful weekend there. I thanked him for allowing me to participate as an author of the paper - it was a thrill of a lifetime.

This past year, John had his latest book published, “Transient Airflow in Building Drainage Systems.” I was shocked to find he had referenced two of my papers in the book. What a great honor.

If you ever met John, you would be taken by his infectious laugh. As I would say, he is a jolly ole fellow. We could roar in laughter for hours.

When I learned John had died unexpectedly, I took a good look at a picture that has been on my desk for 20 years. It was of the two of us, talking and laughing at a plumbing industry banquet. Somebody took the picture and mailed it to me. I still remember that evening and our conversation.

John made me a better person in the profession. He did that to everyone he met. I will miss him tremendously. When you retire tonight, say a little prayer for John. Thank God for all that John gave to our profession while he was here on Earth. The world is a much better place because he graced us with his presence. God bless you, John!

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