Kevin Warnock

Entrepreneurship, ideas and more

A small way the world wastes big money can be fixed by super sizing our plumbing. Switch to toilet sized drain pipe for all drains.

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1.5" diameter drain fitting on the left and a 4" diameter drain pipe fitting on the right. Photo from http://scorevalve.com/

1.5" diameter drain fitting on the left and a 4" diameter drain pipe fitting on the right. Photo from http://scorevalve.com/

On January 27, 2011 I wrote a post suggesting people could live a more comfortable retirement if they stopped frittering away their money by buying necessities in quantities far smaller than made sense. The example I used was dental floss. We all need it, but we typically buy it in tiny little packages that we have to keep buying every couple of months forever.

This is stupid.

It would be far better to buy a roll of dental floss the size of a softball and have it last for a decade. Think about how many plastic containers for dental floss you’ve thrown out over the years and multiply that number by billions. That’s a lot of plastic containers.

Another product the world almost universally buys in too small a size is waste water pipe.

In the United States and all the other countries I’ve visited, the diameter of the drain pipes under the sinks, bathtubs and showers is about 1.5 inches. This is too small for our own good. Because of this small size, there is a section in every grocery and hardware store that I know of where I can purchase caustic chemicals that I am instructed to pour down the drain and into our water supply. Think of the huge tanker trucks of this drain ‘cleaner’ just slobbering their contents into our water treatments plants every day of the year. Yuck!

We buy these nasty products that will burn out your esophogous if you drink it because building codes call for drainage pipe that is too narrow in diameter to not get clogged up periodically.

I don’t know if it was a giant conspiracy between Mister Plumber and Joe the Plumber, his colleagues and their ancestors, or if nobody has seriously considered the societal benefits of super sizing the world’s drain pipes. Super sizing your meal is bad. Super sizing your plumbing is good.

But consider this: When was the last time the pipe connected to your toilet needed to be unplugged by anyone? I’ll bet the answer for 99.9% of the population is ‘never.’

Sure, the toilet trap can get stopped up pretty easily, but a USD $7.99 toilet plunger or a USD $8.78 toilet auger can take care of that for no incremental cost. The toilet user can clear the obstruction without pouring caustic chemicals into our water supplies.

But the 4 inch diameter pipe in the floor that carries the toilet waste away almost never gets clogged. Sure, there are truly rare situations like a tree root breaking into an old ceramic pipe in the backyard. But generally, a 4″ pipe is very hard to clog up with household or human waste. Here’s a video showing common drain pipe and how to calculate how much to slant the pipe so it drains properly.

What I propose is the the plumbing codes be modified planet wide so that only 4″ or larger pipe is used for all drains. It’s that simple. Problem solved. Billions saved over time. When can I schedule my TED talk?

Probably half the service calls of plumbers are to unclog drains. I can’t imagine any plumbers like this monotonous work. They can do something more fulfilling in life with their newfound spare time. Sure, many plumbers would go out of business, just like many buggy whip manufacturers went out of business. It’s a good thing to eliminate dumb repetative work, and cleaning drains century after century is certainly dumb when the solution is so easy and cheap.

Think of the brilliance of putting in 4″ drains under sinks, bathtubs and shower stalls. If you drop your engagement ring in there, just reach your hand in an pluck it out yourself. No need to dismantle the trap when you can stick your hand right into the trap. If huge hair balls accumulate, just stick your hand in the trap and grab them. Elapsed time? 10 seconds. I would suggest there be a grate over this larger opening, and I further suggest this grate be removable without tools. Some sort of child resistant solution would be best. I don’t want to read about a newborn infant being given a bath and falling down the drain never to be seen again! If a baby can pass through the birth canal, a baby can navigate a 4″ drain pipe trap, I suspect. Just to make this fool proof, I recommend a pencil thick rod be permanently affixed at the bottom of the U trap, perpendicular to the fluid flow. That would prevent a baby from squeezing past but since you can get your hand down there easily, hair and other obstructions could be cleaned away in seconds.

We already have sinks that have large diameter drain holes in them — they are called kitchen sinks with garbage disposals. In the sinks I propose, one wouldn’t even need those rubber flaps like on a kitchen sink. On a typical modern bathroom sink, there is a drain plug attached to a lever behind the faucet handles. Pulling up on that lever causes the drain plug or cover to move down to cover the drain opening. These covers are now about 1.5 inches in diameter. In my new improved world, these covers get bigger by 2.5 inches. Big deal. There’s more room for the logo of the fixture manufacturer, and perhaps advertising can be sold in this space for commercial sinks.

Under the sink I propose the same trap system we have now, but with the larger pipe. Maybe a more compact U shaped bend can be engineered so the trap doesn’t take up too much space under the sink. But right now space under the sink is used for plungers and bottles of nasty caustic chemical drain cleaners that kids often swallow. Once we get those items out from under the sink, there’s plenty of room for a larger trap.

In most bathrooms, the sink is in the same room with the toilet, so the extra larger diameter pipe needed to shunt the sink drain water to the toilet  drain pipe should be under 10 feet, a negligable expense compared to buying chemicals and paying generations of plumbers hundreds of years into the future to clean absurdly tiny drain pipes in use now.

Of course, the sinks themselves will need to have larger drain holes, but after simple retooling, that means less material consumed since a sink with a bigger hole consumes fewer resources to construct.

The kitchen will cost a bit more to prepare, but I suspect there is almost always a toilet within 50 feet of a kitchen sink. Fifty feet of 4″ diameter drain pipe in quantity costs less than USD $100.00, judging from the fact I can buy a single 10 foot section of 4″ ABS pipe online for USD $29.95 today. This is peanuts compared to plumbers and chemical drain cleaners into infinity. Since it will take more work to install the bigger pipe, perhaps the plumbers won’t lose any billable hours at all if my idea is adopted. The work gets front loaded into building construction.

Having a stuffed up drain is no fun. It’s messy and time consuming to deal with. This hurts productivity across the planet. Think of all the hours away from work that homeowners spend waiting for a plumber to arrive. Think of all the truck trips that plumbers won’t need to take. Think of how many fewer vans will need to be produced to move all those plumbers around. Think of the former plumbers doing more important work to improve the planet. Think of all the drain clearing snake machinery that won’t need to be built. Think of how many fewer children will be poisoned by drinking drain cleaner by accident. Think how many plumbers won’t accidentally drop a glass bottle of strong acid and get splashed with it when the bottle shatters all over the room. Acid is a step up from consumer drain cleaners, and it’s what the pros will sometimes use to clear a really stopped up drain. It has to be sold in glass because plastic can’t contain it — the plastic will be attacked by the acid and fail. There must be hundreds of acid accidents every year, and they’re sometimes horribly disfiguring accidents.

Example of the disfigurement drain cleaner accidents can cause. Photographs from http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/8253292.My_face_melted_when_drain_cleaner_exploded/

Example of the disfigurement drain cleaner accidents can cause. Photographs from http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/8253292.My_face_melted_when_drain_cleaner_exploded/

Think of how many people would not ruin their good looks by being splashed in the face with drain cleaner, like this grandmother whose face was ‘melted’ by drain cleaner.

Household chemical drain cleaners are dangerous, really nasty and should be made unecessary if only larger pipe were used in place of smaller pipe. This slide deck published by the pediatrics department at the University of Chicago says there were 1.5 million cases of corrosive ingestions by children 1 to 5 years old in the United States in 2002. That should be all the country needs to know to force my suggestion into the national building code.

One and half million children ingesting corrosive household products per year almost a decade ago. I had no idea the problem was so widespread until I began my research for this post tonight.

If saving innocent children doesn’t convince you, consider this. I have a strong suspicion that the waste water treatment industry has to apply more chemicals to counteract the millions of gallons of drain cleaner dumped down the drain by design. If someone knows about this, please contact me. I think it’s likely that for every gallon of drain cleaner made there’s an ounce of some counteracting agent also mixed in at the treatment plant. The company that makes this chemical can switch to making something else, like green household cleaners that are non-toxic, for instance. The waste treatment plant can cut its budget.

I propose that the building codes be modified. These codes will apply to remodeling projects and new construction, not existing structures. So we’ll still be stuck with our current rediculous narrow guage pipes for generations. This will give plumbers decades to adjust to their new, more exciting profession where they are solving higher order problems that call for more thinking. Millions of additional kids are going to ingest drain cleaner over the next half century or so it will take to phase out most of the narrow gauge pipe out there. But it’s far better to start the change today than to wait or even worse, to never make the change. Do we really need to poison hundreds of millions of kids over the next 100 years in just this country? No, we do not. 4″ drain pipe is cheap. Not as cheap as 1.5″ drain pipe, but still extremely cheap in the face of the horror that is happening right this minute. As you read this, there is likely a child drinking drain cleaner that will soon be rushed to the emergency room, never to really be the same again I suspect. Ouch!

Right now my bathroom sink is plugged up because I’ve been rinsing the water dish for my backyard chickens. The chickens manage to get the dish dirty with actual dirt, and the dirt has been accumulating in the trap for a while now. Finally the trap is stopped up. I’ve been thinking about writing this post for months now, but having a currently stopped up drain inspired me to sit down an write this post.

I recognize not all residential walls are thick enough to accomadate 4″ drain pipe, but for them, new oval pipe could be developed, like the gas appliance vent (chimney) industry developed. The area can be the same in an oval pipe, and it should have similar clog resistance. If not, make the oval larger until the unclogability is equal to round 4″ drain pipe. I understand toilet manufactures like Toto and Kohler are expert at using powerful computers to model water flow inside toilets. They had to develop this expertise in response to government demands for low water use toilets. I bet the engineers at those two companies could quickly calculate how large to make oval drain pipe that would be the functional equavalent of round drain pipe, which would allow builders to keep the current standards for wall thickness while achieving nearly uncloggable plumbing for every fixture in the house.

I think the building industry should get behind this project. They can charge slightly more for their new houses, and make the customer want to pay more by boldly demonstrating how superior a home is that has uncloggable plumbing. Think of the persuasive YouTube videos that could be produced where side by side installations are compared, made from transparent plastic pipe so viewers could see how impervious 4″ pipes are to clogging.

I even have the brand name: It should be called ‘DrainYes.’

Compared to what we have now with tiny pipes and lots of ‘DrainNO‘, what’s not to like?

PS – While researching this post I encountered a novel use for even larger drain pipe. I promise this pipe won’t get clogged no matter what you throw at it! Trust me.

Written by Kevin Warnock

November 24th, 2011 at 5:00 am

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