Take a stroll down underground memory lane. Wood piping systems are the focus of NASSCO’s Sewer History Exhibit.


The show floor at WWETT 2015 will be filled with the latest and greatest products the water and wastewater industry has to offer. But it’s also important to remember where the industry came from. A historical display, sponsored by NASSCO, and coming to the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment and Transport (WWETT) Show in February, will do just that.

The display, located in the Hoosier Corridor near the registration area and educational rooms, exhibits a deep interest and growing understanding in the work sewer and water professionals do, according to Ted DeBoda, NASSCO’s executive director.

“Some of the artifacts on display are very primitive, dating back to the 1800s,” he says. “NASSCO’s mission to ensure the continued acceptance and growth of trenchless technologies is supported by the Sewer History Exhibit as it builds awareness and pride in how far our technology has advanced over the years. We need to understand and honor our history to know where we are going in the future.”

Related: Grout Boot Camp Scheduled for September

Timber history

In the 1700s, when the United States was in its infancy — and growing municipalities began worrying about how to get potable water and wastewater from Point A to Point B — city founders used what was readily available. Across much of North America, that material was wood, specifically huge virgin white pine timbers. The first municipal piping systems were constructed of 8-foot bored-out white pine timbers, which were shallowly buried to carry gravity-fed freshwater to homes and businesses. The concept wasn’t exactly new — even in the 1700s.

Related: What Can $35 Get You? WWETT!

According to Jon Schladweiler, curator of the Sewer History Exhibit, European towns and cities began using wooden water pipes as early as the 1400s.

“When settlers came to the U.S., wood is what they had an abundance of, so that’s what they used,” says Schladweiler. “It’s actually surprisingly durable and effective.”

The first wooden pipes consisted of logs of varied circumference, with hearts that were bored out by hand using long boring drills. The installer would first drill a small pilot hole through the middle of the log, and then use a larger bit to create a 3- to 4-inch-diameter hole through the length of the log. Smaller wooden thimble joints connected the pipes. Although obviously gasket material was unavailable, the piping systems were surprisingly watertight.

Related: What Can $35 Get You? WWETT!

“There might have been some looseness in the piping when first installed, but as soon as they sent water through, the wood would expand, effectively sealing those logs together,” says Schladweiler. “If done correctly, the pipes would last for decades.”

What about wastewater?

Municipalities tried using similar technology to pipe wastewater, but found less success. Although the piping worked initially, it often needed to be replaced as quickly as a year or two later.

Subscribe: If you don't want to bring your iPad into the bathroom, we can send you a magazine subscription for free!

“The bacteria and acids in wastewater actually consumed the pipe from the inside out,” says Schladweiler. “That’s why we began seeing other materials used for wastewater pipes.”

For moving potable water, though, wooden pipes were considered the norm for decades. Some municipalities even used the pipes as late as the 1960s. The construction technology also improved. Wood piping from the late 1800s was machined to create smooth-bore, uniform-circumference piping that would handle flows up to 60 psi. A machine auger drilled a smooth interior bore, while a machine lathe created uniform circumference. The pipes were then spiral-wrapped with steel bands for added durability. Often referred to as Wykoff Pipe, the material was produced by Michigan Pipe Company.

History — and Future — of the Sewer History Exhbit

Subscribe: Save the trees for beavers, sign up for our E-Newsletter!

Formerly housed in Tucson, Ariz., where Schladweiler retired after working for 30 years as a municipal operator, the Sewer History Exhibit recently changed ownership from AZ Water to NASSCO, and is now housed near NASSCO’s headquarters in Baltimore. According to DeBoda, the significant investment needed to set up, transport and dismantle the display is worth it, as it creates excitement for industry professionals wherever it goes.

“People are just in awe when they see it,” says DeBoda. “Even seasoned professionals in this industry are not aware of the early materials and methods used to evaluate, repair and rehabilitate underground pipes, some of which is still in service today. We are looking to NASSCO members to sponsor the exhibit at various events throughout the year, as they did for WWETT. Without them, this would not be possible.”

DeBoda points out that the inventory of artifacts has grown substantially since NASSCO first became involved in 2003. He notes that the travelling display is, ironically, fluid.

“We hope to continually add to the library of intellectual properties and welcome contributions of information and materials,” he says. “We also hope to update the way in which it is presented to make it more user-friendly and interactive.”

Schladweiler says the main goal of the display is to get the word out regarding the industry’s rich, buried history.

“These pieces are a great conversation starter in the sewer and water industry,” he says. “When you look at today’s systems, and see everything computerized and high-tech, it’s sometimes tough to realize these wood pipes are where it came from.”


Related Stories

Like this story? Sign up for alerts!