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DEAR TIM:I saw a new device on a website that says it can replace the traditional p-trap under a plumbing fixture. It has a flexible tube-like membrane that is supposed to stay closed when no water is flowing down the pipe. I’m skeptical this thing would work over the long haul. I also wonder how things like this get approved by code officials? It seems the traditional p-trap under all my plumbing fixtures work well. What do you think about these mechanical plumbing products that attach to the waste and vent lines? Julie P., Rockford, IL
DEAR JULIE: Boy, oh boy, you sure know how to stir the pot! You also did a great job of touching a nerve I happen to have about plumbing devices and code officials. Let’s open the discussion with the fact that I’ve been a master plumber for over 30 years.
I’m pretty certain I’ve seen the exact plumbing waste valve you’re talking about. When I first got it, I immediately recoiled at the design. My years and years of dealing with sludge-encrusted drain lines screamed at me this was a possible disaster waiting to happen.
Let’s go quickly back in time to just after the American Civil War. If memory serves me right between then and the 1880’s, the medical community came to a consensus about the connection between bacteria and diseases. Plumbing standards rapidly advanced and believe it or not, plumbers back then were often more highly regarded than physicians when it came to protecting the health of the general public. Plumbers were seen as knights in shining white armor.
That said, you absolutely never want to underestimate what can happen to you or your family if a plumbing drain system malfunctions or you have a polluted water supply system. Entire books have been devoted to the subjects.
Well over 100 years ago, it was quickly discovered you could completely stop vermin and bacteria from spreading into your home with a simple water seal under each plumbing fixture. They used to come in two styles: the S-trap and P-trap. They got the names because the shape of the drain pipes look like those letters in the English alphabet.
I have huge issues with mechanical plumbing drain and vent products that try to supplant the time-tested p-traps and traditional open vent lines that lead from fixtures up to the roof of your home. A mechanical device is one that has moving parts. We all know that every mechanical device known to man has failed at one time or another. If you know of one that’s not, it will eventually fail.
You don’t want a mechanical trap under a fixture that will not close off properly. When the trap remains open sewer gas or vermin can enter your home. What can cause a trap to stay open? If you’ve taken apart used p-traps and drain lines like I have, you’ll quickly see biofilm, sludge, grease deposits, food chunks, gravel, etc. These can all interfere with a mechanical membrane that’s supposed to close tightly.
It gets worse in my opinion. I’ve never sat in on meetings where building code officials debate and discuss changes to the code. But suffice it to say that I’ve seen parts of the building code that make me shake my head. Some of the building code is not backed up with hard science, and/or the code officials have not seen as many old buildings I have that prove certain minimum standards must be always be adhered to.
You can’t hope things are going to work. Hope is the emotion of last resort. You hope for something when you can’t control the outcome. I can control the desired outcome in my plumbing system by using traditional p-traps and a real interconnected vent system that always supply air to the pipes as water rushes down them.
Realize the building code in your town is very possibly a hybrid of a national model code. The building and plumbing code can be different from state to state and city to city because local code officials can modify the model codes. I’ve also been told that some codes have provisions where a local inspector can approve an alternative material on his own. That’s a very scary situation indeed.
Talk to any seasoned plumber and he’ll tell you he’s able to make a living because mechanical plumbing devices fail. Backflow preventer valves, regular valves of all types, pressure regulators, anything that has a moving part fails on a routine basis. Ask that same plumber about how well-designed and installed vent line systems work. I’ve never in my career had one fail. Never.
Article courtesy of The Cincinnati Enquirer, 02/18/2012 by Tim Carter, Ask The Builder.