Danger From Poor Plumbing 1899

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To the Editor of The New York Times:

During the past five years, while personally superintending some of the finest plumbing work, such as that of Grant's Monument and the Flower Hospital, I have carefully studied the sanitary conditions in New York City, and I feel that a plain statement of facts may improve matters considerably.

Great progress has been made within the past ten years in the plumber's trade, so that well-designed plumbing, properly constructed by competent mechanics, paid by day's work, will stand any honest test. But in most cases, especially in the showy apartment houses now being built by speculators, the competition is keen, work is done hurriedly, and not over carefully, on a contract basis the main object of realizing a profit. The result is inferior work, which may stand the unsatisfactory peppermint test required by the Building Department, but will not stand a fair and honest smoke test.

The plumbing work of a building consists of several main from pipes through which all waste water passes off from a small branch connection for each plumbing fixture. These mains are made of five-foot lengths joined together with molten lead. The metal of the main pipes expands and contracts with the varying temperature permitting the joints to become loose and defective; and while the waste water may not leak out, sewer gas will surely pass through these defects and into the living rooms.

It is true that the Board of Health is well organized and ever ready to preserve the public health by means of its tenement, school, factory, and offensive trade inspection, and its contagious disease and shipping regulations. It is, however, also true that the introduction of improved sanitary appliances and the careful inspection of high-class residence and apartment property receive practically no official attention. The Health Department gratuitously makes an inspection or a peppermint test of plumbing work where a complaint is filed by a citizen, and will compel the owner to make repairs found necessary as a result of the inspection. The peppermint test used by the Board of Health is applied by pouring two ounces of oil of peppermint with a bucket of hot water down through the open pipes on the roof. If an odor of peppermint is detected in any room of the building so tested, it is supposed that a defect exists in the plumbing of that room, and the owner is notified, giving him but a vague idea of what repairs he is to make, and often putting him to unnecessary expense for ripping up floors and taking off plaster, whereas if the defect were exactly located and specified, it would mean a prompt remedy at alight expense. For the purpose of accurately locating defects in plumbing and drainage a scientific apparatus and improved form of smoke-testing machine has been recently devised. Its use is just now being adopted by sanitary engineers and high-class plumbers, and with it the slightest escape of sewer gas can be quickly detected and the exact location of the minutest defect pointed out.

The late Col. Waring was greatly interested in smoke testing, and in my presence he made quite a number of experiments, with the results of which he was highly elated. Had he lived he would have doubtless succeeded in introducing this apparatus for exclusive use by the Board of Health of this city, for me expressed himself to me in a manner which left no doubt in my mind.

Householders as a rule are very careless about sanitary matters, especially in the way they close their homes up tight all Summer. While they are away the conditions inside their houses are often unspeakable. Wherever there is a plumbing fixture, washbowl, sink, &c.,) the water which seals the traps under them soon evaporates, leaving the traps open to the passage of sewer gas into the rooms.

This dangerous gas saturates the tapestry, the absorbent plaster walls, carpets, bedding. &C. with the disease-breeding germs. When the family is about to return they have a little sweeping, dusting, and airing done, perhaps the day they are to arrive from the country, and when typhoid or diphtheria makes its appearance the cause of the sickness is wrongly attributed to the drinking water of the country resort or to the sudden change of climate. The same conditions obtain in the empty rooms of large apartment houses, and they cause the same deplorable results therein.

To avert these dangers a few simple precautions are:

First]  Be sure that the plumbing is sound. This can be ascertained at any time by means of a smoke test applied by a competent plumber.

Second] Have all the traps emptied of water and filled with a non-evaporating substance, such as glycerine, which will remain and prevent sewer gas from entering the rooms.

Third] Have the heating flues cleaned out, as offensive dust is bound to accumulate therein.

Fourth] Have the cellar swept clean and aired before returning home.

Fifth] Have the windows and doors open for several days, so as to thoroughly air the house.

Very often an extensive alteration of the plumbing is made during the Summer, and the work is finished without being subjected to a thorough test. Moreover, the plumber may not take the trouble to fill the new traps with glycerin, and he will simply turn on the water. The water in the new traps evaporates, the house is filled with sewer gas from the empty traps and the conditions are immeasurably worse than before the alterations were made. Fine-looking plumbing of the "modern sanitary" kind is not always sound. There any be deception and careless work under the tiling of the bathroom, and defects of this kind can only be detected by a properly applied smoke test.

The Health Departments of Albany, Troy, Chicago, Baltimore, Yonkers, and many other cities have adopted the smoke test for their inspections, and I think that these cities are to be considered ahead of the great City of New York, at least in sanitary affairs.



Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Danger From Poor Plumbing 1899
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


New York Times, JULY 17, 1899
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