When IAPMO asked me to moderate a symposium on “emerging technology,” I couldn’t help but recall the story of a former director of the U.S. Patent Office. In 1899, the story goes, he recommended that the office be closed. His reason was that everything that could be invented had been invented.

You probably have heard that story. You even may know that the story isn’t true. Actually, the patent office in 1899 reported an increase of 3,000 patents from the previous year. The onslaught of new products rarely has shown any sign of losing momentum since then.

The International Emerging Technology Symposium, organized by IAPMO and the World Plumbing Council, highlighted products and systems largely aimed at conserving water and energy. The event, held Aug. 19-20 in Chicago, brought together plumbing engineers, contractors, manufacturers, inspectors and code officials.

One clear message that emerged is that all these groups need to talk with one another, not just during two-day industry meetings, but also as they go about their daily work. For new technology to be effective, it must be designed, manufactured, installed and maintained properly.

A bigger reason for communication is new technology’s emphasis on systems, as opposed to individual products. Take dual-flush toilets, for example.

John Koeller and Bill Gauley, both engineers, put dual-flush residential toilets at No. 1 on their list of the “Top 5 New and Innovative Water-Efficient Products” (for the other four, check out our site). They estimate 75 billion gallons in water savings if 5% of U.S. and Canadian residential fixtures flushing 3.5 gallons per flush are replaced with dual-flush models.

Impressive savings, yet some audience members questioned the effect of dual-flush as well as high-efficiency toilets on a building’s entire plumbing system, particularly the drain-line carry. Would using less water in pipes cause drainage problems down the line? Koeller, by the way, said he has not seen evidence of drain lines being adversely affected by HETs.

The questions, however, raised another recurring theme of the symposium. Along with saving water and energy, emerging technology must do nothing to compromise building occupants’ health and safety. IAPMO Senior Director Allen Inlow pointed out during a panel discussion that green plumbing systems should not turn people green.

For an example, he cited the importance of cross-connection control and backflow prevention of potable water and gray water in the same system. With estimates of the amount of potable water being used for non-potable purposes ranging as high as 50%, technology that reuses water has to become more prevalent.

By taking a systems approach, our industry can consider environmental, economic, health and safety benefits as we implement technology that will continue to emerge. As an industry, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to examine green technological advances, differentiate the good from the bad, and design, install and maintain plumbing systems that conserve water and energy while keeping people healthy.