Though mostly unseen, a building’s plumbing and piping network is one of its most important systems—as anyone who has ever had to endure a no-hot-water shower in February, or who has come home to a flooded floor can attest. Plumbing covers not only hot water delivery, but water and waste removal—and not all plumbing is hidden. Some pipes snake across ceilings, or down walls inside individual units, making the plumbing more visible than the HVAC or electrical wiring in most buildings.
Plumbing is something many of us take for granted—until a faucet leaks, a sewer pipe bursts, a hot water heater dies, or some other disaster occurs. Let’s take a closer look at this essential building component.
If you’ve ever been on a tour of Rome, you know that plumbing, in some form or other, has been around for millennia. In ancient Greece, Persia, India, and China, as well as Rome, public bath houses mandated a rudimentary form of plumbing. When Rome fell, its knowledge of plumbing fell, too, and it wasn’t until the 1800s that mankind reacquired the technology to pump water in and out of residences.
The word plumber comes from the Latin root plumbum, meaning lead, which is why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb. From its earliest days until the last century, plumbing systems were made almost exclusively of lead. The relative malleability of the soft metal made it easy to work with. Lead, of course, can be poisonous—the use of lead pots and pans in ancient Rome indirectly led to its fall—and in the last half-century, plumbers have used other materials instead of lead.
“As recently as the 1970s, all waste piping was extra-heavy cast iron, joined together by lead,” says Michael Battista, president of R&R Battista in Watertown, Massachusetts. “Vent piping was with cast iron or galvanized steel that was threaded and screwed together. Water piping was copper tubing soldered together.”