The Next Big Thing in Plumbing

Touchless technology and DIY-friendly materials will likely play a greater role in the future.
The Next Big Thing in Plumbing
Anja Smith

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I’m not sure what qualifies one to be a futurist, but I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. So when asked what the next big thing in plumbing innovations might be, I did what I suspect most predictors do; I thought about it for a while and went down a serious internet rabbit hole. We are talking dozens of open tabs.

While my best guess is probably as good as anyone else’s, I’m going to save you the brain space and Googling by laying out my findings for you.

As an intellectual exercise, this topic is actually pretty fascinating. When you dig into innovation in general terms, plumbing and sanitation are often cited as the leading contender for the greatest invention of all time. So, the bar is pretty high to start.

Historically, plumbing innovations fall into the following key areas: style, effectiveness, efficiency and materials/tools. Since history often repeats itself, we can probably expect more of the same in our future.

Style

As evidenced by powdered wigs and hoop skirts, style changes over time. The same is true for home decor and interior design. It is hard to imagine or guess what style changes might be on the horizon, though. In recent years we’ve seen a trend toward materials that are easier to clean and more durable. For practical reasons, we can probably expect those to continue.

From a purely stylistic standpoint, it appears that brass is coming back. It hurts my soul a bit to type that, but if recent designer lookbooks are to be believed, we can expect that resurgence. This isn’t the high-shine brass of the ’80s though, but a softer matte finish.

One trend I expect to disappear over time is the incorporation of LED lights in fixtures. It’s gimmicky and high maintenance, which goes against the bigger trend of easy maintenance and durability. Unless you are looking for a really expensive nightlight, I just don’t see it having a mainstream audience.

Effectiveness

Plumbing has two primary jobs: to deliver water and take away waste. Effectiveness, in my mind, relates to anything that improves those two systems. At the end of the day, though, it all goes back to why plumbing might be mankind’s greatest invention in the first place: increased health and sanitation.

I expect to see a rise in touchless technology in the residential setting, simply because of the improved sanitation benefit. Yes, it is higher maintenance and has more points of failure. But the hygiene benefits are clear and compelling as the price point begins to fall on these items. That may just outweigh the need to add batteries every few months.

In the wake of the Flint crisis, there seems to be more distrust of municipal water systems. I found an increase in studies that paint a picture of water systems that aren’t as safe as once assumed. The public is paying attention. While the average risk of getting sick from municipal water is much lower than getting food poisoning, a scared population might seek out more water filtration systems as extra insurance. I expect to see a rise in whole-house filtration installations and new water filtration options to hit the market.

Efficiency

This might be the big one. Steven Solomon famously argued in his book, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization, that water will be a major source of conflict in the 21st century. He explains that water is a basic human need, yet is divided very unevenly and in many cases, we pay far less for water than it is actually worth.

As the resource gets stretched ever thinner, that price may change to reflect water’s true value. If that is the case, then I believe consumers may finally see the value in water conservation efforts. Technology, which increases the efficiency of water use, will be at a premium and plumbers will play an important role in implementing those systems.

Materials/Tools

There is little doubt that, when compared with the initial innovation, improvements in plumbing materials and tools will provide only incremental improvement. Plumbers are all too familiar with the increase in DIY-friendly materials in plumbing fixtures over the past decade. I don’t expect that to go away, as designs improve and the cost of skilled labor increases. It is simply more efficient for the consumer to complete a simple project themselves.

That does not, in my opinion, negate the value of plumbers though. In fact, it allows us to focus on the more complex — and often more profitable — tasks that do require an expert hand. On the upside, however, these material and tool improvements positively affect us as well.

While the jury is still out on correct use in the cases of many materials and tools like PEX and push-to-connect fittings, there is little doubt that the plumbing industry is a continuously changing and innovation-heavy industry. Old plumbers will need to learn new tricks as technology pushes its way into our everyday job description.

In answer to the question of what the next big thing in plumbing might be, I’d argue that it won’t be one thing at all. The big thing in plumbing, historically, was plumbing itself. Now we will continue to do what our forefathers did, which is make small improvements over time to keep the population and our water safe.

Disagree with my analysis or have your own ideas to share? Join me on the Plumber.com forums for a continuation of this discussion. I’d love to hear from you!

About the author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at anja@acpupsstate.com.



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