Of all the IAPMO Group’s core competencies, which division do you feel is making the greatest impact, and why?

In the spirit of the sharing of unique experiences that shape the plumbing industries in our respective nations, the following essay won first place in IAPMO’s annual Scholarship Essay Competition. First introduced in 2009 and open to all high school, university, and trade school students, the competition has elicited entries from across the world. Written by David Barry of Georgia Gwinnett College in Cumming, Georgia, it is the next in a regular series of similar articles that will be run in this magazine.

In today’s age, we are surrounded by modern miracles: dazzling cellphones buzzing away in countless pockets; lightning-fast fibre optic internet connections transporting the whole of human knowledge at the click of a finger; and an endless supply of goods and services that can be delivered to your front door in two days or fewer (with Prime shipping, of course). Living in a world in which we are constantly being inundated by all of these sorts of conveniences, one can be forgiven for overlooking the more humbling marvels that lie right under one’s nose. Or should I say one’s bathroom tile? I speak of the engineering achievement that is our modern plumbing system.

This system has laid the foundation for the success of today and the future, a golden age in which people live longer and better lives, free of the diseases of the past, to pursue advancements in a variety of disciplines. But like much innovation, progress was a slow journey that took many years of hard work before it became a commonplace standard. The International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, otherwise known as IAPMO, has been in existence since 1926. From its humble beginnings of only 39 members, it has grown into a major global organisation with specialisations ranging from sanitation to solar energy. But of these many core competencies that make up IAPMO, I believe its most important division involves the organisation’s initial purpose: the Uniform Plumbing Code.

To truly understand the magnitude of the Uniform Plumbing Code, one must examine the history that led to its creation. While we usually consider plumbing to be a recent amenity, truth is, the concept of moving water for sanitation and drinking purposes is not a new one. Every story must have a beginning, and plumbing found its beginning in China around 5000 BCE. Although the specifics are hazy, as is often the case in ancient history, we believe the earliest form of plumbing was constructed from bamboo pipes. It’s hard to know the level of sophistication, but they were most probably the very first. It would be nearly 2 000 years later that another ancient civilisation, the Harrapans of the Indus Valley, would take this concept and create an elaborate system with clay-lined cisterns for drinking water and a sewer system. In their capital city, the ruins of which reside in modern-day Pakistan, lie the remnants of an extensive plumbing architecture that provided indoor plumbing to the entire city, nobles and peasants alike.

Their brilliance would not be rivaled until the Romans another 2 000 years later. Indeed, we got the word ‘plumber’ from the Romans, derived from the Latin plumbarius, referring to a tradesperson who worked with lead to create the pipes that would transport water throughout Rome and its far-reaching territories. The Romans had an obsession with fountains — their cities were full of them — but naturally fountains require a great deal of water, which is a problem for a landlocked city. So, they used their mastery of engineering to do the impossible: they brought running water from the Alps to the metropolis of Rome. Incredibly, many of their plumbing inventions, including the impressive aqueducts found all over Europe and their vast sewer systems, are still operational in some areas today. These marvelous feats made Rome the central power and envy of the ancient world. But alas, these wonders would disappear along with the fall of the Roman Empire. Without proper sanitation methods, Europe would be plunged into the Dark Ages, marked by the spread of the bubonic plague that would kill over a third of the population.

Our story picks up again in the early 20th century in the United States, a country that was going through sizable growing pains. Having successfully avoided much of the horror of World War I, America was the only superpower to come through the war relatively unscathed. But all was certainly not well in a very literal sense. In the year 1918, a disease had begun to spread among the soldiers huddling in the poor conditions of the trenches. It wouldn’t be long before one of these unlucky individuals would bring the virus home to their local towns and municipalities. Before all was said and done, the pandemic that would become known as the Spanish flu would have mortality rates anywhere between 50 million and 100 million, or three to five per cent of the world’s inhabitants. While the Spanish flu had many causes, it became very clear that poor sanitary conditions among large populations in close proximity could result in devastating effects and untold tragedy. With this event fresh in collective memory, it became imperative to pursue solutions to this issue to avoid another catastrophe of this scale.

In 1926, a group of plumbing inspectors in Los Angeles began to note an alarming wave of disease that correlated with improper sanitation being used in the city’s infrastructure. After much research and observation, they noted that plumbing codes varied widely from area to area. Oftentimes, the methods and equipment would conflict and this was contributing to an extremely disorganised industry, rife with inefficiency. It was at this point that these inspectors decided to make a real change and create a uniform, universal code that laid out an industry standard that would guarantee a safe and effective system. This massive undertaking, as created by these original 39 inspectors, would come to be known as the Uniform Plumbing Code.

The Uniform Plumbing Code, or UPC, is an ever-evolving document that brings together a wide variety of expertise to create a comprehensive guide to promote the best plumbing practices for the public’s health, safety, and overall welfare. To stay at the very cutting edge of technology, the document is constantly revised to reflect innovation and new developments in the industry. Revisions are made by consensus and the organisation welcomes a diverse array of professional opinion and volunteer viewpoints to create a standard that is recognised across the United States and the world alike. Designated as an American National Standard, the UPC is an impressive document, indeed, but there is still much work to be done to continue to spread its adoption. As I type this sentence, approximately 17% of the world’s population, or 1.1 billion people, are without clean drinking water and 41%, or 2.6 billion, is without proper sanitation. These types of conditions have resulted in masses of children with worm infections that can lead to developmental problems and increased infant mortality rates. Even in our very own backyard, many residents of Alaska and other rural areas have inadequate plumbing architecture. What many of us take for granted can often spell the difference between an individual realising their potential and descending into the clutches of poverty.

In conclusion, I believe the Uniform Plumbing Code to be a vital step in providing clean water and proper sanitation on a global platform, which I believe to be the most important mission of IAPMO going into the future. While plumbing may never be as fashionable as something like finance, one would be wise to remember that the humble plumber has even been admired by royalty. When Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Edward, came down with a near fatal case of typhoid, it was a crafty plumber who discovered and fixed the broken water closet that had bred the disease. After his recovery, the young prince was quick to exclaim that if he were not a prince, he would rather be a plumber. Indeed, the prince was onto something, for it was the plumber, not the monarch, who helped to shape modern society as we know it today. In the spirit of the original founders of IAPMO, I believe we must always strive to do better and to continue to help our fellow man.


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