There are, or should be some guiding lights to follow when designing and building good plumbing systems. The basic concepts are simple.
The first point sounds simple, but did you know that over 70% of the hot water draws in most homes do not deliver hot water? Who is willing to wait for hot water when rinsing hands? Most of us aren’t, but we turn on the hot tap anyway and finish before the hot water arrives.
And, have you ever heard of or done the “shower dance”? That’s when you are showering and somebody flushes a toilet, unbalancing the system and giving you a jolt of hotter or colder water than you were using, causing you to do the limbo away from the shower water. Extrapolating from this article: https://blog.aarp.org/healthy-living/beware-the-most-dangerous-room-in-the-house there are about 188,000 injuries in the US requiring an emergency room visit each year from falls in the bathroom, many around bathing. If you have to do the shower dance, now is the time to install a pressure balancing shower valve! So in addition to being inconvenient and unpleasant, unsteady temperatures can lead to life threatening falls. That’s rather unhealthy and it leads us to the second point about safety.
Uneven temperatures can lead to falls, but also scalding. Old and very young people may not be able to sense or communicate it when they are getting burned. Another thing that plumbing can give us is bad bugs, like legionella or ultimately Legionnaire’s disease. The balance between scalding and bad bugs is something the plumbing community has been struggling with for decades. Temperatures over 130 F effectively deal with most bad bugs, but that temperature also can burn people in not very many seconds. This problem can be helped with anti-scald shower valves and mixing valves, but ultimately, education of the populace in general is probably the best defense, so people don’t unknowingly put themselves in harm’s way. This leads me to the next topic, being energy and water efficient.
Probably the first thing to keep on top of mind when looking for efficient plumbing systems is to keep the volume of water between heater and end use as small as possible. Why? Well, if there isn’t a lot of cooled water in the hot line, you don’t need to run as much water or wait as long for hot water to arrive. Also, you haven’t spent so much money to heat water that simply cooled off in the pipes. One can reduce volume by having shorter or skinnier pipes, … or both! Shorter pipes means putting all the wet rooms close together and keeping the water heater close by as well. That’s best done in new construction or when a gut remodel is being done. Skinnier pipes can happen when it’s time to re-pipe or just because you’re tired of waiting for hot water. A rule of thumb is that for every size up in piping materials, you roughly double the volume of water in the line. So, if you go from ½” to 3/8” pipe, you’ve cut the volume in half. That means you’ll wait half as long to get hot water :~) This also means you will have needed to heat only half as much water for the plumbing. So, there is a 50% savings in the plumbing without even mentioning insulation. But now that I’ve used the “I” word, let’s think about what that can do for you. Here is an article written by my friend Gary Klein: http://www.garykleinassociates.com/PDFs/15%20-%20Efficient%20Hot-Water%20Piping-JLC.pdf He goes into some detail on insulation and the benefits of having it. The main point to me is that good insulation will slow cool down of the piping (and water in it), so after the first draw of hot water you will get much more time where the water in the lines remains at a usable temperature, essentially giving you hot water immediately on subsequent draws. This also saves water, which actually matters in some places…
It seems most plumbers don’t carry a pressure gauge, but they should! If you know what the static water pressure is, you can size the piping appropriately to the use. Now, should you install a really low flow showerhead and you know what the water pressure is, you’ll know just how small the piping or tubing to the shower valve can be. I would not be surprised to find lots of places where ¼” tube would be sufficient to supply a shower with good pressure if you had a not-too-long run of tubing. One health benefit of smaller tubing is that water flow in it speeds up and this scrubs off bio-films that can harbor those bad bugs we don’t want. There are lots of benefits from using right-sized plumbing including lower cost to buy and install. How does that relate to my next topic, being simple and durable?
Every piping material is good for a certain flow rate through it before any damage happens to the pipe. With copper it’s about four feet per second and with cross-linked polyethylene or PEX, it’s more like ten feet per second. With copper if you exceed that rate, erosion corrosion begins to happen.It’s like running sand through the line. The pipe gets worn down internally, getting thinner over time. Eventually you start to get pinhole leaks. PEX, which is particularly smooth on the inside, gives you two and a half times that flow rate before damage starts. So, if there is adequate pressure, using small diameter PEX tubing can give you good flow without affecting the life of the tube. Also, it’s much easier to run than rigid pipe as it can be snaked through walls much like wiring. Another thing about using resilient PEX is that it helps with the problems of water hammer and also freezing. It can expand slightly when necessary to take up some of the shock of water hammer or enough to allow ice to form. When the hammer or freezing is done, PEX returns to its original size with no damage. PEX is still not freeze proof, but is much more tolerant of freezing than copper. Good design can help by keeping the piping away from areas more subject to freezing. That sounds pretty durable to me! Good design will also keep the system simple so there are fewer moving parts to get stuck or fail.
The four categories listed above each influence the other. When thinking about good plumbing it helps to take your time and make sure you have enough information to be able to meet all four goals. Then you can think about other important things, like cats!
I’ve been thinking about housing much of my life. Simply put, one of the big problems with housing is that most people in the US cannot afford to own it. We are not given much that’s useful in school about how to manage money or how to think about it, so the majority of us have little stashed away for emergencies or retirement and cannot come up with even the down payment on a conventional home. That’s sad as it makes us slaves to the lack of money. For most folks, a home is the biggest investment or indebtedness they will ever take on. So, I’ve been thinking about how to “do” housing in a way that costs far less yet still meets our needs. We have lots of expectations around housing, but to drastically reduce the cost of it, we’ll need to adjust some of those expectations. The “standard” expectation is to have a nice, stick built home on a nice lot. What I’ll propose here is to have some sort of manufactured housing in a small development. There are many other ways to chip away at the cost of housing, but this way has so many benefits, I thought I’d start with it. The recent interest in tiny homes just might be helping to do that.
I just did a search on my local Craigslist for Recreational Vehicles, (RVs) at up to $10,000. There were lots of them! I imagine it will be pretty much the same across the country. Certainly many will need work, but even if it doubles the cost, things could be worse. Mobile homes are another place to look. It’s not uncommon that people owning mobile homes in parks fail to pay their space rent for any number of reasons. One main reason is they up and die and no relatives can be found or the relatives have no interest in the mobile home. These homes can sometimes be had for free or just for the back space rent. Another thing that happens with mobiles is they sit on private land which gets sold or changes in some other way and the home needs to go. These homes will be cheap or free. The costs of ownership are in having a place to move one to, and then moving it.
If you step back and think about it, these two types of dwellings (RVs and mobile homes) are the tiny home of yesteryear. But think about the cost. These homes may be had for very roughly $40 or less per square foot and in livable condition. Note that the $40 number comes from one of those $10,000 RVs, that looked to be in great shape. It’s easy to find older mobile homes for ¼ that amount per square foot. Tiny homes are often over $500 per foot.
None of those costs include land. The normal approach of owning a lot and putting utilities on it isn’t cheap. How about changing things up a little and following the cohousing model? Here’s an interesting primer on cohousing: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/your-home/info-2018/cohousing-community-fd.html And, here’s another link that will take you much deeper: http://www.cohousingco.com/ A good cohousing development has up to about 35 homes. Let’s imagine something between a mobile home park and co-housing. If the development were designed following cohousing guidelines; like being people-centric rather than car-centric and if it had a main building that housed a kitchen, room for gatherings, laundry facilities, maybe a shop and even some guest bedrooms, that building would get a lot of use and help eliminate the need for those functions in the private homes, which could then be simpler and smaller (read less expensive!). Buying into a development like this could cost far less than your normal single family home. Also, you get a community where people know and learn to care for each other, making things safer and potentially far more enjoyable. It’s normal that when a cohousing community is built, property values around it go up, so neighbors are happy too. Splitting infrastructure costs 35 ways does help cut the individual cost of owning. I’ll add that if the “tiny home” idea just sounds too small to be comfortable in, there are ways to create inexpensive transitional spaces that bring the outdoors inside and give you more real living space that can change with the seasons. It’s a fun and interesting approach that blurs the line between inside and outside. I hope to discuss this more in a future post. But back to the benefits of cohousing; other things like a community garden, playground, teaching classes based on the skills of the residents, and sharing responsibilities, like child-sitting or elder-care could be woven into the fabric of life at such a place. These things all add up to the potential for a richer life than the usual, semi-isolated single family home can give.
Unfortunately, many of the biggest hurdles to overcoming expensive housing are baked into our regulations and how they are enforced. Many places discourage manufactured housing of all sorts because they think it’s substandard or will bring adjacent property values down… or will not yield as much property tax as conventional construction! Still, public officials decry our lack of affordable housing. Perhaps they need to encourage, rather than put up barriers to novel thinking about low cost housing, so that we can test and learn what really does work in the real world.
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.