Chicago has been known as the last major city in the United States that still mandates lead and oakum cast iron systems in buildings. No-hub fittings have never been allowed in the Chicago Plumbing Code. What is interesting is that caulking tools used to make lead and oakum joints are normally found in the plumbing museum.

If you mention to plumbing professionals in other parts of the country — or world — that all DWV systems in Chicago are installed in cast iron with lead and oakum joints, they laugh at you. They think it is a joke. But it is not. Lead and oakum joints have been a mainstay since indoor plumbing was installed in Chicago.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot made a promise when elected to work with the neighborhood groups to lower the cost of plumbing systems, especially plumbing renovations. The Chicago Building Department started a pilot program to allow both no-hub cast iron and PVC plastic pipe under a special permit category. The purpose of the pilot program was to gain information to use when considering changes to the Chicago Plumbing Code.

As was expected, virtually all of the special permits selected PVC plastic pipe for the drainage, waste and vent systems. At least no-hub cast iron became an option.

Following the pilot program, the Building Department put together a presentation for the City Council regarding the use of alternative materials for plumbing systems. Many facts and figures were presented from actual installations of PVC plastic pipe. That presentation discussed changes to the Plumbing Code to be consistent with other major cities in the United States. During the presentation, some of the aldermen were surprised that Chicago was the last city in the country to mandate lead and oakum joints. They were further surprised that it had been more than 30 years since any other major city mandated lead and oakum joints.

As a part of the presentation to the City Council, the plumbers’ union, Local 130 of the United Association, was given the opportunity to present their justification for continuing to mandate cast iron with lead and oakum joints. In defense of Local 130, they did not completely oppose the use of no-hub cast iron or PVC plastic pipe. They asked for limited allowance for both products.

Keeping her promise, Mayor Lightfoot introduced an ordinance to update the Chicago Plumbing Code. What would probably surprise many is that the Chicago Plumbing Code is based on the ICC International Plumbing Code. There are Chicago modifications to the International Plumbing Code; however, more than 80% of the Chicago Plumbing Code is taken word-for-word from the International Plumbing Code.

The amendments to the Plumbing Code did include changes to piping material. Both no-hub cast iron and PVC plastic pipe were added as acceptable materials for aboveground DWV systems. PVC was also added for below grade building drain and sewer installations. However, a footnote is added to the materials table. No-hub cast iron and PVC plastic pipe are limited to residential buildings not more than 60 feet in height. Another note mandates lead and oakum joints for all hub and spigot cast iron other than residential buildings not more than 60 feet in height. Hence, elastomeric (rubber) gaskets for hub and spigot cast iron are still not permitted for aboveground use. They are permitted for underground installation of cast iron.

When announced, the proposed ordinance disappointed the Chicago Chapter of ASPE. The Chicago Chapter had been working with the Building Department to remove all arbitrary limitations on the use of piping material. They were basically looking for a change to be completely consistent with the International Plumbing Code regarding material requirements. This seemed to be the normal course of code applications as used throughout the country.

To the neighborhood groups, the change is what they sought. Most of the buildings they addressed were residential buildings. They didn’t care what commercial buildings cost to construct. Thus, the neighborhood groups can promote the use of PVC in all new and renovated residential buildings. A big win for them. The neighborhoods rarely have residential buildings that exceed 60 feet in height.

UA Local 130 also got what they wanted — a minor allowance of no-hub cast iron and PVC plastic pipe. It is hard for anyone to consider it an acceptance of no-hub cast iron since no-hub has the same limitations as PVC plastic pipe. As the pilot program proved, when given the choice to use either no-hub or PVC, everyone selected PVC.

The magical number of 60 feet in height comes from New York City. When New York City originally accepted the use of PVC plastic pipe, they limited it to residential buildings 60 feet or less in height. You will hear all sorts of reasons why New York City selected 60 feet. However, none of these reasons are technical; they are all political, attempting to bend technical justification to meet their political needs. Chicago simply stole the New York City number thanks to encouragement by UA Local 130.

It should be noted there were many other modifications proposed to the Chicago Plumbing Code. A significant change is the mandate that certain plumbing fixtures comply with the U.S. EPA WaterSense Program. WaterSense compliance applies to water closets, urinals, showerheads, weather-based irrigation controllers, spray sprinkler bodies, commercial pre-rinse spray valves and private residential lavatory faucets. This is a major victory for water conservation professionals who have promoted WaterSense.

Another change is in formalizing the requirements for all-gender toilet rooms. Chicago has already been in the forefront with all-gender toilet rooms. One only has to fly through a Chicago airport to see the signs for all-gender toilet rooms. All single-use toilet rooms will have to be identified as all-gender toilet rooms.

While proposed by Mayor Lightfoot, it took the Chicago City Council no time at all to approve the ordinance. The changes to the Plumbing Code take effect immediately on a voluntary basis. They become mandatory for construction projects after March 2022. Copies of the changes to the Chicago Plumbing are posted online by the City of Chicago.

While it can no longer be said that Chicago prohibits no-hub cast iron, it is doubtful that there will be any increased use of the material in residential buildings not more than 60 feet in height. It seems like a quasi-Christmas present from the City of Chicago.

I want to wish all of you a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and Happy COVID-free New Year. Enjoy some time with the family over the holidays.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily represent PM Engineer or BNP Media.