Standards Vs Systems
During the pioneer days, local blacksmiths hammered out products by eyeball. If two items needed to fit together, they were made together. Interchangeability was never even considered. After all, the world that existed on the other side of the hill had their own blacksmith.
As Montgomery Wards and other giant vendors reached out to the mountains and the prairies, we began to see a real need for parts to fit other parts. It took some time. I understand that supplying the soldiers during the first World War was a logistical nightmare due to the fact that even simple items like nuts and bolts had to be inventoried separately for individual pieces of equipment because Standards were not followed.
So, in order for all of us to play together in the same sand box, modern industry has worked to develop “Standards”. These standards are very useful because they define products and materials in a way that assures us that standard products by different manufacturers will fit together and perform together adequately to the performance criteria of the Standard. In plumbing, it is standards that assure us that a fitting will fit a pipe and together they will perform to meet the rigors of the application.
Plumbers and Code Officials, like it or not, are charged with determining the suitability of products in plumbing systems. They are correct in demanding that the products used, among other criteria, conform to certain consensus standards. In a sense, they rely on the experts of industry (such as the American Society for Testing and Materials or ASTM) to define the products and the tests they must meet.
Interchangeability among standard products has always been assumed in the plumbing industry. Copper fittings will fit copper pipe as long as they meet the same standards. Any other way and it would be chaos!
We all know about the “class action” legal firms that materialize at even a rumor of a wet spot. They make money by implicating everyone down to the guy that printed the box that the pipe insulation came in. Manufacturers with deep pockets are deservedly squeamish.
In response to these law suits, plastic pipe manufacturers have become “System Suppliers”. They warranty their pipe with their fittings, and their hangars. What used to be the fine print has become the bold print disclaiming any failures where other suppliers products are involved. Some manufacturers attest that their products meet “Standards” so that they can gain approval, but immediately back pedal by stating that their products shouldn’t be used with other products that meet the same standards.
It seems that the plumbers and plumbing officials are left to sort out the details. Wholesalers cannot be far behind them. A plumber making a repair or installing a water softener might need 5 different “Systems” depending on what flavor of PEX he finds on the job. Plumbing officials will have to be trained along with the plumber to recognize what goes with what. Wholesalers will take on the tasks that faced the World War I Army Logistics Command. Or maybe there’s a better way.
Wholesalers are told by some system suppliers, that a single system in a single branch is the only way to purify their shelves and assure compatibility of components. They want to control your shelves (and thus your market). As long as the “system” approach prevails... this will be the case. Forget competition. Your customers will be the contractors that are plugged into your system, and other contractors will go to other houses. In order to get contractors to switch, you’ll have to buy their competitive inventory.
If, as an alternative, the wholesaler pushes for standard products that are tested and deemed interchangeable with other products in the market , in my opinion, he controls his shelves and he controls his market.
The concept of standard products has worked well for us in America. Manufacturers that try to control the market rather than earn it go the way of the Beta Max. Those that honestly try to earn the market bring high quality products at competitive prices survive, and, in my opinion, make life a little better for us all.
If, to our misfortune, the “System Supplier” approach takes hold in America like it has in some areas over there on the “enlightened continent”....I’ll be thinking of starting a “Plumbing System of the Month Club”.