Home Renovation Show’s Longtime Plumbing Expert Reflects on Industry Changes

'This Old House' has been educating plumbing contractors and homeowners for decades, and Richard Trethewey has been along for the entire ride
Home Renovation Show’s Longtime Plumbing Expert Reflects on Industry Changes
Richard Trethewey alongside fellow "This Old House" cast member Tom Silva.

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One might say that plumbing is in Richard Trethewey’s family DNA. His great-grandfather, Harry, founded Trethewey Brothers Inc. in Boston in 1902 alongside brother Arthur. And plumbing has remained the family profession since.

In 1979, the Tretheweys took their plumbing expertise to a new arena as they became the plumbing and HVAC experts on a new home renovation show, This Old House. Richard’s father, Ron, was the on-camera talent for the PBS show’s first season before handing off the duties to Richard, who has now been in that position for nearly four decades.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the industry and thrilled to have this opportunity,” he says. “I grew up in the industry and I took over the TV role when I was 22 years old. I’ve had different products from around the world shown to me, traveled to Europe and Asia, and been given an opportunity to share information as a teacher. I’m an inquisitive-type. We all want to change the world and in some ways this show has been a way to de-mystify the mechanical world to the public.”

Trethewey recently spoke to Plumber magazine about his role on the show, the impact of the show on both contractors and consumers, and his thoughts on the plumbing industry.

On the plumbing world before This Old House: “It was 1978 and there was no way for the consumer to find out about stuff, except when a contractor came out to them. And many contractors would be ‘down’ on what they weren’t ‘up’ on. Back in that era consumers were often only offered what was called CWC — Cheap, White and Chrome — and what This Old House did, and what even Home Depot did, which coincidentally started the same year as us, was all of a sudden give consumers choices. On the TV side we would show stuff to the consumer and then the consumer would start working backward through the contractor and wholesale distributor to find it and get it. We offered many more choices than you would have been offered before, and it has been fun to be part of it.”

On the show’s role in educating professionals: “We’ve always shown the right way to do everything — whatever we know to be the correct way. We show that not only to educate the consumer, but in many cases, contractors. There are many ways you might become a contractor and not necessarily know every fine point about the technical side of our business. We could always gloss over stuff, but we consider ourselves to be teachers. So even if we might have shown the steps before on how to make a connection, we still want it to be included if somebody is using the show as a defining education piece. It stands alone.”

On introducing new products to the industry: “I feel really blessed that Russell Morash, who created the show, was willing to take time to take cameras into the mechanical world and let me find new products from around the world and show them. We introduced radiant floor heating, thermostatic radiator valves, small duct heating and air-conditioning, instantaneous water heaters – stuff that would have taken a lot longer to get to the consumer if not for showing it on television.”

On his preference for PEX as a pipe material: “My fear, in this race to improve the speed of connections and find the cheapest price, is that a connection will get out into the marketplace and leak. And a leak in the plumbing system is catastrophic. I always fight to show the best piping material and I always advocate for PEX. There are many good ones on the market.”

On the value of foresight when installing plumbing systems: “It’s important to have a sense of system. Start with a clean board and make it serviceable for the next generation. When I look at the classic homes in my neighborhood, built in the 1920s and 1930s, in every mechanical room there is a framed schedule on the wall that has the list of where every valve control for the water piping is. In this race to the bottom, people in the post-war era went on low-bid all the time and nobody could afford to do the beautiful job or take that systems approach where people two generations from now can come in and know where everything is. I go into houses and find that nobody’s put in a shut-off valve on a branch to a bathroom and that should be a code issue. If anything ever happened, you would have to shut the whole house down. That’s the pain and scourge of low-bid, and then everybody else has to deal with it for the next 20 to 50 years.”

On contractor feedback about the show: “When I first started doing this, I was afraid that contractors would be mad at me for giving away the ‘magician’s secrets.’ I realized that I couldn’t worry about it and I had to give the right answers. My father was so helpful and said, ‘Just be true to yourself.’ So I did. A lot of peers just want to joke with you and it’s all in good fun, but many people say ‘thank you’ because we always show the right way and we always, often, show the best and most expensive way, realizing the marketplace will figure out ways to do it for less money — so we show it the perfect way. Established contractors love it because it’s educating the consumer about what good behavior and performance is.”

On his nearly four-decade role on the show: “I still love my buds on the show. We still get along all this time later and feel blessed that we were able to build this and keep the band together. It’s changed my life. We recently did an event in Detroit and 500 people showed up at the local taping — 1,000 wanted to be there, we were told. Every single person we saw said the same thing: thank you. If you can do a career where everyone says ‘thank you,’ that feels pretty good.” 



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