Plumbing is high art although not (yet) high tech

By Mike Muller

Given that water was the original source of mechanical power used for everything from transporting goods to grinding corn, remarkably little new technology has seeped into modern water systems.

Obviously, water treatment is a technologically complex business; the electromechanical machines that drive the system are more efficient and reliable than what they used to be, while many municipal systems in developed countries are increasingly supported by online monitoring and control. But the key functions are still based on relatively traditional technologies.

At household level, we certainly don’t have anything like the electricity industry where (in Europe at least) many households have small control panels linked to smart meters to keep track of their power usage. So the control panel flashes red when you boil a kettle (heavy load) and many can keep a running check of the cost of heating water for your teenager’s shower. But very few cost-effective smart water meter installations provide a continuous readout of domestic water consumption. Most domestic units can simply transmit monthly readings and show trends in consumption.

Though, there are some bright ideas. One is a product to track and control your shower usage, setting off an alarm if you’ve been in the shower too long. The deluxe version of the EVA shower even promises to monitor water temperature when you turn it on; when it reaches the right temperature, it stops the flow and alerts you so you don’t waste water while brushing your teeth, waiting for the water to warm up! There is only one drawback: the product’s publicity aimed to raise the funds needed to commercialise the product. More than two years later, they are still looking for funds (visit Perhaps they have discovered that people usually establish when the water is warm enough by putting their hand under the water!

Another recent proposal (apparently also still at the bright ideas stage) is for a showerhead connected to the internet that will measure and record how much time you spend in the shower. The problem with this one is that (as one technology journalist pointed out) all these internet-based devices in the home are going to be easily hacked. So you will now need virus protection for your shower as well as your computer. Otherwise, Vladimir Putin will hack in and scald or freeze your aged in-laws. Besides, do you really need a smartphone app to tell you how long you have been in the shower?

Since it seems that household water management is unlikely to be the next frontier for technological advance, we need another approach to make the business more glamorous. So, on a visit to London’s famous Tate Modern Gallery, I was struck to see the crowds around the famous display of a urinal as an object of art. It received just as much attention as the nearby Picasso — and it was only a replica.

So while plumbing may not be able to compete with electricity on the high technology front, let’s take comfort in the fact that, from the aqueducts and public fountains in ancient times to today’s modern plumbing fittings, water infrastructure has always been at the forefront of good design.

“…. today’s modern plumbing fittings, water infrastructure has always been at the forefront of good design.”



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