Plumbing is the system of pipes and drains installed in a building for the distribution of potable drinking water and the removal of waterborne wastes, and the skilled trade of working with pipes, tubing and plumbing fixtures in such systems. A plumber is someone who installs or repairs piping systems, plumbing fixtures and equipment such as water heaters. The plumbing industry is a basic and substantial part of every developed economy due to the need for clean water, and proper collection and transport of wastes.[1] The word "plumbing" comes from the Latin plumbum for lead, as pipes were once made from lead.

Plumbing is usually distinguished from water and sewage systems, in that a plumbing system serves one building, while water and sewage systems serve a group of buildings or a city. Plumbing fixtures are exchangeable devices that can be connected to a building's plumbing system.

Plumbing was extremely rare until the growth of modern cities in the 19th centuries. At about the same time public health authorities began pressing for better waste disposal systems to be installed. Earlier, the waste disposal system merely consisted of collecting waste and dumping it on ground or into a river.

Plumbing originated during the ancient civilizations such as the Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, and Chinese civilizations as they developed public baths and needed to provide potable water, and drainage of wastes. Standardized earthen plumbing pipes with broad flanges making use of asphalt for preventing leakages appeared in the urban settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization by 2700 B.C.[2] The Romans used lead pipe inscriptions to prevent water theft.

Improvement in plumbing systems was very slow, with virtually no progress made from the time of the Roman system of aqueducts and lead pipes until the growth of modern cities. Until then waste disposal systems merely consisted of collecting waste and dumping it on ground or into a river. In the 19th century, public health authorities began pressing for better waste disposal systems to be installed. Eventually the development of separate, underground water and sewage systems eliminated open sewage ditches and cesspools.

Most large cities today pipe solid wastes to treatment plants in order to separate and partly purify the water before emptying into streams or other bodies of water. For potable water use, galvanized iron piping was commonplace in the United States from the late 1800s until around 1960. After that period, copper took over, first with soft copper with flared fittings, then with rigid copper tubing utilizing soldered fittings. The use of lead for potable water declined sharply after World War II because of the dangers of lead poisoning. At this time, copper piping was introduced as a better and safer alternative to lead pipes.[3]

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Ancient age

During the Neolithic, man dug the first permanent water wells, from where vessels could be filled and carried by hand. The size of human settlements was largely dependent on nearly available water. Pit toilets and potties were the only alternative to defecation in the open, until flush toilets appeared in mid 19th century. Devices such as shadoofs, and sakias have been used to lift water to ground level.

Throughout history people have devised systems to make getting and using water more convenient. The Indus Valley Civilization has early evidence of public water supply and sanitation. The Roman Empire had indoor plumbing, meaning a system of aqueducts and pipes that terminated in homes and at public wells and fountains for people to use. Rome and other nations used lead pipes, often unknowing about lead poisoning.

Persian Qanats have been used for water supply and cooling in the Middle East.

 Middle and early modern age

Pail closets, outhouses, and cesspits were used to collect human waste. The use of human waste as fertilizer was especially important in China and Japan, where cattle manure was less available. See toilets in Japan. After the adoption of gunpowder, municipal outhouses became a important source of raw material for the making of saltpeter in European countries[1]. In London, the contents of the city's outhouses were collected every night by commissioned wagons and delivered to the nitrite beds where it was sown into the special soil beds to produce earth rich in mineral nitrates. The nitrate rich-earth is then further processed to produce saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, an important ingredient in black powder[2].

London water supply infrastructure developed over many centuries from early mediaeval conduits, through major 19th century treatment works built in response to cholera threats, to modern large scale reservoirs. The trap was invented in 1775. Fire hydrants were introduced in the 18th and 19th century.

 Industrial age

The first screw-down water tap was patented in 1845. The germ theory of disease emphasized the need of clean water supply, separated from sewerage. The 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in London was a well-known case.

Water towers appeared around the late 19th century, as building height rose, and steam, electric and diesel-powered water pumps became available. As skyscrapers appeared, they needed rooftop water towers.

The technique of purification of drinking water by use of compressed liquefied chlorine gas was developed in 1910 by U.S. Army Major (later Brig. Gen.) Carl Rogers Darnall (1867–1941), Professor of Chemistry at the Army Medical School. Shortly thereafter, Major (later Col.) William J. L. Lyster (1869–1947) of the Army Medical Department used a solution of calcium hypochlorite in a linen bag to treat water. For many decades, Lyster's method remained the standard for U.S. ground forces in the field and in camps, implemented in the form of the familiar Lyster Bag (also spelled Lister Bag). Darnall's work became the basis for present day systems of municipal water purification.

The first successful district heating system was introduced in Lockport, New York, in 1877.

Desalination appeared during the late 20th century, and is still limited to a few areas.

Current development

During the beginning of the 21st Century, especially in areas of urban and suburban population centres, traditional centralized infrastructure have not been able to supply sufficient quantities of water to keep up with growing demand. Among several options that have been managed are the extensive use of desalination technology, this is especially prevalent in coastal areas and in "dry" countries like Australia. Decentralization of water infrastructure has grown extensively as a viable solution including Rainwater harvesting and Stormwater harvesting where policies are eventually tending towards a more rational use and sourcing of water incorporation concepts such as "Fit for Purpose".


Joseph Bazalgette (1819 - 1891)

As chief engineer to London's metropolitan board of works in the mid-19th century, Bazalgette had a significant impact both on London's appearance and, through his design of an efficient sewage system, on the health of its inhabitants.

Joseph Bazalgette was born in London on 28 March 1819. His father was a captain in the Royal Navy. Bazalgette began his career as a railway engineer, gaining considerable experience in land drainage and reclamation. In 1842 he set up in private practice.

In 1856, London's metropolitan board of works was established. The board was the first organisation to supervise public works in a unified way over the whole city, and it elected Joseph Bazalgette as its first, and only, chief engineer.

In the mid-19th century, London was suffering from recurring epidemics of cholera. In 1853 - 1854 more than 10,000 Londoners were killed by the disease. It was thought at the time to be caused by foul air. The hot summer of 1858 created the 'Great Stink of London', which overwhelmed all those who went near the Thames - including the occupants of Parliament. This, together with the frequent occurrence of cholera, gave impetus to legislation enabling the metropolitan board to begin work on sewers and street improvements. By 1866 most of London was connected to a sewer network devised by Bazalgette.

He saw to it that the flow of foul water from old sewers and underground rivers was intercepted, and diverted along new, low-level sewers, built behind embankments on the riverfront and taken to new treatment works.

By 1870 both the Albert and the Victoria Embankments had been opened. These replaced the tidal mud of the Thames shore with reclaimed ground for riverside roads and gardens behind their curved river walls. The Victoria Embankment protected Bazalgette's low-level sewer, as well as a service subway and the underground railway. The Chelsea Embankment was completed in 1874, reclaiming over 52 acres from the Thames.

Throughout this busy time, Bazalgette continued to train young civil engineers and provide independent advice to other British towns and cities - as well as places as far apart as Budapest and Port Louis, Mauritius.

Bazalgette died on 15 March 1891.