A 13-story plumbing test tower at a New Jersey college was the last of its kind in the country.

Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., once had a high-rise plumbing laboratory on its campus.

When I was a sophomore at Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, N.J.), the school made a big announcement that it would build a 13-story plumbing test tower on campus. That tower was completed my junior year.

During my senior year, I was fortunate enough to take the first class that used the plumbing test tower as a lab. The class was high-rise plumbing design.

We really didn’t do much in the tower, but I did have a chance to witness all the concepts that the tower could test. It was fascinating to observe the various tests. I wish we could have set up some of our own test parameters, but that was not a part of the class.

Long after graduating from Stevens, I had the opportunity to go back to the school to conduct some tests in the plumbing test tower. You may recall an article I wrote about 12 years ago on violently fracturing water closets. We needed the tower to test one of my theories as to how the pressure on an upper floor could rise to more than the head pressure tank on the roof could produce. The piping arrangement was a downfeed/upfeed system.

The tower proved to be invaluable in proving my theory. There was nothing else in the world available for conducting such a test. After all, where do you find a 13-story plumbing test lab?

You may be wondering what my theory was. I made the assumption that a large air pocket could occur in the upfeed piping, extending from the basement level to the 11th floor. With the very low density of air, the pressure on the 11th floor would be approximately equal to the pressure on the basement level. The pressure on the 11th floor would then be more than 45 psi higher than the anticipated pressure from the elevated water tank on the roof.

No More Tower

Last month, I visited my daughter-in-law on the campus of Stevens. She is completing her research in biochemistry for her Ph.D. In one of her labs, I  had a view of the Hudson River. As I looked out, to my utter dismay, the plumbing test tower was gone! The lab that all the students called “Big John” had been dismantled.

My heart sank as I thought about how a part of my history with my alma mater was destroyed. I had always hoped that smarter heads would prevail and plumbing research would once again be relevant.

I hate to admit it but that plumbing test tower at Stevens had been decommissioned more than 18 years ago. When we did our research, we had to temporarily recommission the lab. After our research was completed, the lab, once again, was mothballed.

When I was a student, the study of plumbing systems in high-rise buildings was very important. The research done on this tower was phenomenal. Without the research at Stevens, I doubt some of the venting systems we now find in the plumbing codes would be approved. My first look at a sovent fitting was as a student. That was well before sovent was introduced as an engineered design in North America. As students, we were told not to say anything since the research was top secret.

Research Relevancy?

With the end of an era, I wondered if plumbing research is still relevant. Have we done all the research that could possibly be necessary in plumbing engineering?

Of course, the answer to that question is “no way.” The problem we’ve had is that plumbing engineering doesn’t seem to be relevant to many engineering colleges and universities. Everyone likes to do research in computer engineering. Plumbing is so low-tech.

The president of Stevens, who decommissioned the plumbing test tower, appeared to have no use for plumbing research. (It should be noted that he recently resigned.) When you are trying to promote a college as being on the cutting edge, plumbing doesn’t seem to be a part of that. I haven’t heard of many plumbing engineering classes being offered at Stevens such as when I was a student.

At so many colleges and universities across the country, the graduating student knows virtually nothing about plumbing engineering. He can flush the water closet and take a shower, but that is about it.

The University of Wisconsin started a program in plumbing engineering. Unfortunately, the program is not popular with the students. Even with guaranteed intern positions, students are not lining up to take plumbing engineering classes.

The education of these college graduates has been undertaken by ASPE. Many chapters of ASPE have done a wonderful job filling in the gap of these engineering programs.

I’ve had a number of Purdue students intern in my office over the years. It is nice to see that some of them have gone on to engineering positions in the construction design sector.

In terms of plumbing research, that has fallen into the hands of the ASPE Research Foundation, also called ASPE-RF, or simply RF. In April, I was elected RF’s president. The foundation is currently conducting research on various aspects of plumbing systems. The research should be completed in time for one or two papers to be delivered at the ASPE convention at the end of October in Philadelphia.

Future Research Still Needed

What is extremely disturbing is that any future research of high-rise buildings cannot be conducted in a laboratory. The only remaining high-rise lab was at Stevens. With that now gone, plumbing research will suffer.

I, for one, do not believe we have conducted all the research necessary in the world on plumbing systems. We will need to continually research plumbing engineering design, plumbing fixture design and plumbing systems use. Maybe, in the future, we will once again convince college and university presidents of the importance of plumbing research and plumbing engineering.