Of all the modern conveniences we take for granted, perhaps none is as profoundly basic—and indispensable—as indoor plumbing. Carrying fresh water into our homes and taking waste water away, the pipes in our condo or co-op buildings are the fine line that separates us from our not-too-distant (also very aromatic and very unsanitary) urban past. When plumbing fails, it doesn’t take long to realize just how much we depend on it.
Each day, more than 1 billion gallons of fresh, clean water is delivered to the taps of nine million customers throughout New York City from large upstate reservoirs—some more than 125 miles from Manhattan. Just a few generations ago however, New York City residents carried water in from wells to be used for washing, bathing and cooking. According to the New York City Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Plumber’s UA Local 1 websites, it was in the 1700s, when the city’s population grew to well over 20,000, that a reservoir and wooden piping system was constructed.
It took another 50 years for a public waterworks system to be created. Initially the system was used to fight fires, and the water was pumped through cast iron piping, but it also brought usable water to residents. Some sources credit the design of New York City’s indoor plumbing system to architect Isaiah Rogers, who designed the Astor House hotel, the first hotel in New York City to have indoor plumbing.
After the Great New York Fire of 1835, a new, stronger aqueduct system was created, allowing nearly all New York City buildings to use indoor plumbing. Today, the water comes from various aqueducts in all of the Manhattan boroughs, up to the Hudson Valley and Catskill regions. The EPA reports that the water system includes 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes, with a total storage capacity of approximately 580 billion gallons.
Today, the cast iron piping is gone and, according to Bob Bellini, president of Varsity Plumbing & Heating Inc. in (where else?) Flushing, water distribution systems are now made predominantly of copper. “Copper piping is faster, easier and lasts longer,” he says.