Why is the right faucet handle always for cold water? (Part 2)

My watch only reads 11:46 pm but I’m ready. I’m in my chair. My laptop is on and plugged in. My airpods are connected; I made sure because sometimes they’re not and the audio blasts out of speakers instead. I agonize over when to join the call — I’ve always had anxiety over being late. So much so that I’m always too early, so now I also have anxiety over being too early. It’s the longest fourteen minutes of my life but I decide to wait until exactly noon before clicking on the link.

Clicking on that link has been a year and a half in the making. It started on a chilly Monday evening well into the fall quarter. Peter and I decide to hang out at Roots until we needed to walk to lecture — we probably have a bit over an hour. We share a order of vegan sweet potato chili cheese fries. I’ve never really liked these — it’s not the vegan chili or cheese that gets me but the decision to use sweet potato fries instead of normal potato fries. As far as I know sweet potatoes aren’t any more or less vegan than regular potatoes. Peter opens up his laptop and begins to work. I mimic him, doing the same, except I don’t have any work to do — I never do. Instead I conceive of the idea for my seminal work: Why is the left faucet handle always for hot water? (Part 1). I spend the next month digging through plumbing codes but come up short and publish a disappointingly but not surprisingly circuitous and unsatisfying article where I never answer the titular question.

I have written and deleted at least three drafts of a follow-up, attempting to answer this question, but all have been inadequate for the same reason: we can not understand “why plumbing?” without asking “who plumber?” Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself now to justify spending three hours of my afternoon in the March meeting of the California Channel Islands Chapter (CACI) of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO).

As soon as I enter the Zoom call, I feel like I’m intruding on something. This isn’t a group of plumbing and mechanical officials — it’s a group of friends. But it’s definitely also a group of plumbing and mechanical officials. They look stereotypically like how you would expect them to: large men in their fifties and sixties, balding and with various goatees and mustaches.

“Jason you’re muted!” Tim Redondo yells out. Jason Reithoffe is the chair of the CACI chapter of the IAPMO. Without him the meeting simply cannot start. The next ten minutes are spent trying resolve this, filling the call with various cries of “He’s trying he’s still muted,” “There’s no way we can unmute him,” “Maybe Cathy can do it?,” and “Is Cathy here?”

“I’m here. I’m trying to unmute him.” Cathy finally chimes in. She’s unsuccessful, but it seems like Jason’s finally figured out the issue. He logs off. The conversation continues for a good five to ten minutes without him, hitting topics from how Tim Redondo’s business is going (it’s going well) to the cancelled IAPMO national conference (they miss it) and ending with Gary Klein’s discussion on the amendments to Appendix M of the 2022 California Plumbing Code (it “brings Hunter’s Curve into the twenty-first century”).

Why do I care so much about a topic as inane as faucet fixture convention that I’ve spent the better part of half an hour watching a group of middle-aged men troubleshoot remote working problems over a year into this pandemic? That’s what a few people have asked me. I did not have a satisfying answer for them nor do I have one now. It has been said that “to plumb is when you get the pipes just so” In this sense of the word, I am a plumber and these frivolous, futile fixations on faucet fixtures are my pipes. My alliterative musings are cut short as Jason returns. His “can you hear me?” is met with cheers all around. We can get started now.

I’d spent over half an hour in this Zoom meeting and was about to spend nearly two more. To what end? My goal was never to learn about the history “lefty hotty righty coldy” rule here. No. It was to learn about the plumbers themselves. Truth be told, deep down, I’d already known the answer for a while now.

It’s always been. As much of an unsatisfying answer as that is, it’s true. Search after search reveals that it’s just convention that got codified. My stubbornness does not allow me accept that, so I search further. I search for the oldest person I know. They are sure to regale me with tales from The Time Before Codification.

Peter Emanuel is three months older than me — yet born the year before — figure out that riddle. In late May, I stay with him for a few days. Matthew and Noelle are there too, but neither are as old as Peter, so they are irrelevant here. It’s been months since I’d seen them in person, but it feels like minutes. It feels like we’re living together again; we play, we eat, we sleep. But most importantly, I use his bathroom. It’s a master bedroom, with two sinks in the main room and the toilet and shower behind a door. The toilet and shower are cramped, but it doesn’t matter — they aren’t what I’m looking for. The sinks are and as far as I can tell they’re normal. The left faucet handle controls the hot water and the right faucet handle controls the cold water. I don’t know where this was meant to go.

With Jason back and unmuted, the IAPMO meeting can now get started. They stand up, put their hands over their hearts, and recite the pledge of allegiance. They really do. Often I exaggerate for comedy’s sake and all of my supposed “facts” and “storytelling” should be taken with a grain of salt (or better yet, not taken at all), but they really did this. It’s kind of wild.

Sitting back down, the minutes for the January meeting are read. I have no idea how stenographers do it because my notes are sparse at best, but if it was important, I would have remembered it. Hearing last month’s minutes being read made brought me right back to middle school participating in some after school club. They had a secretary and a treasurer and everything.

A tall thin man with glasses and a checkered shirt, the secretary, I presume, reads the minutes. He tells of a presentation about American Standard Water Heaters, weaving in jargon like “knocks,” “gas,” “oxygen,” and “Ventura calculator,” before finally asking the other participant, who have been sitting motionless and emotionless through his entire spiel, “Do we have any amendments to the meetings as read?” 

“Yes,” Larry chimes in. Larry seems extremely old — possibly older than even Peter, but I do not know Larry’s exact age, so it would be irresponsible of me to make such a claim. I get excited. Perhaps there is some dispute over exactly what happened in the last meeting. Maybe there existed a schism in the California Channel Islands Chapter of the IAPMO. No. All Larry does is correct the date. “It’s March 30th, not March 29th,” he says. Then, a motion to approve the minutes as read is made and goes through. The meeting proceeds and Phil Ribbs, another physical manifestation of a stereotypical plumber, from the Cast Iron Soil Pipe Institute launches into a multi-hour presentation about cast iron soil pipe, hitting points from the pipe’s first use in 1455 in the Dillenburg Castle to its design only for zero pressure gravity drainage to the institute’s codes and a comparison of the institute’s CISPI 301 to the American Society for Testing and Material’s ASTM 888 . I took multiple pages of notes — all of which are irrelevant to us today.

Emailing people makes me feel like a big business boy. In April, coming to terms with the fact that my hours spent watching Phil Ribbs’s presentation on Cast Iron Soil Pipe were going to be little help in actually uncovering this mystery, I reach out to the International Code Council looking for access to their archives of proposed code changes for the International Plumbing Code. I’m looking for all documents related to the addition of section 607.4 in the 2000 edition of the IPC, titled “HOT WATER SUPPLY TO FIXTURES.”

I spend the rest of that week in correspondence with Fred Grable, a man of many titles, but most importantly, he is the Secretary of the International Plumbing Code. He combs through the archives and sends me a scan of the first ever (1994) edition of the IPC, with the lefty hotty righty coldy rule already in place. We discuss the possibility of this piece of codification existing in the IPC’s predecessor, the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA), but this leads us to where all of our other paths led. It’s always been: “The only answer anybody has been able to come up with is that it became an established convention here in the USA, long before codes came into existence,” Fred tells me. Maybe Genesis 2:2 got it wrong — perhaps God never took the seventh day to rest, but instead used it to establish the lefty hotty right coldy rule.

As I finish this, it’s been months since I attended that IAPMO meeting and nearly two years since I first started down this journey. I’ve realized that I’ve never cared about why the right faucet handle is for cold water — perhaps I did at one point, but it’s been so much more than that. In his last email to me, Fred tells me “Had you asked initially asked that question, we could have saved a lot of time.  You are not going to find the ‘reason’ for why ‘hot is on the left’.” He’s right — I could have saved a lot of time, but I never really cared about answering the question. The question was nothing more than an excuse to explore the bureaucracy and people behind these plumbing codes. Did I accomplish that?

Fred ends that email to me, laying out the nature of plumbing: “Apprentices learn from the journeymen and the journeyman are told what to do by the master plumber. The master plumbers work together to unify the approach to plumbing.” I sense that there’s a metaphor here that satisfyingly ties everything up, but I don’t know what that metaphor is.

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