Plumbing. It’s one of those things for which we all should be grateful, but about which we rarely ever give a thought – at least not until we see water seeping out from under the bathroom door. Fortunately, if and when things go wrong, there are plenty of professionals out there to remedy the problem. Even better, in most of our co-op and condo buildings, there are dedicated staff members working to maintain and service our plumbing systems with the goal of preventing problems before they ever start.
A Look Back
Plumbing refers to the system of pipes, tanks and other structures required to supply water, heat and sanitation for a building or dwelling. And it has been a concern for humans for millennia. The earliest known evidence of drains and primitive toilet technology were found among the 5,000 to 8,000 year old Neolithic settlements at Skara Brae on the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
Water-carrying pipes and cesspools also existed thousands of years ago in the ancient civilizations of Sumer, Akkad and Babylon in the Middle East. Halfway around the world in Mesoamerica, ancient Mayan plumbing included underground aqueducts, flush toilets and household limestone water filters.
The Romans had a knack for plumbing, and even get credit for the word’s origins, which derives from plumbum, the Latin word for lead. From public bathhouses to massive underground sewer systems, there is no doubt the Romans were into their plumbing systems. Not that they were perfect at it, of course. Case in point; while many households did have private indoor toilets, few of those were connected to the main sewer system for fear of home invasions by rats, and the occasional eruption of flames from underground gas build-ups.
After Rome fell, most Europeans got lazy and reverted to collecting waste in chamber pots, which were simply dumped out windows into the streets – leading not only to a truly disgusting situation for pedestrians, but also to regular outbreaks of typhoid and cholera that killed thousands. Things began to get (arguably) better when Europeans began using small rivers and waterways to guide waste-laden water away from city centers. Of course, this made those rivers and waterways into reeking, profoundly polluted sewers...but at least there was less poo in the streets.