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Blast from the Past

Posted on April 16th, 2020
A skeleton stands between two pipes and its arms are connected to both

Due to the interconnected systems, sewage used to return to the fresh water supply from the waste disposal system

The 1930s were the height of the Great Depression. Unemployment was at an all-time high, and the government had no extra money to fund hydraulics research, so IIHR turned to industry leaders. Though the country was in financial distress, the safety and sanitation of household products was still a necessity.

In 1936, Francis Murray Dawson, previously of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, arrived at the University of Iowa to take on his new role as dean of the College of Engineering and director of IIHR. Dawson’s expertise, like his colleague, Anton Kalinske, was in plumbing and hydraulics. Kalinske was also a professor and researcher who had followed Dawson as he made his move across the Midwest. At Iowa, they continued their work in plumbing, adding another level to the complex studies at IIHR.

Together, Dawson and Kalinske conducted research on toilet backflow, water heater valves, water-hammer noises, vertical drains, and more. They also expanded their research during World War II to include studies on grease traps to aid efficiency in military kitchens. Their plumbing research brought in a lucrative contract with the U.S. government, and IIHR was named the official testing agency of the National Plumbing laboratory–an enormous honor.

One area of widespread interest was Dawson and Kalinske’s research on the safety of toilets and the movement of sewer water once it left the bowl. In the 1930s, plumbers did not yet know that pipes need air circulation to prevent the creation of a vacuum.

A long line of toilets

IIHR researchers cut toilets in half to watch the water drain into the sewer lines

When water drains through a vertical pipe without additional airflow tubes, the water swirls and creates suction similar to drinking through a straw. The suction in the system pulls the water back through the pipes and out of the appliances back into the home in an action called “back-siphoning.”

In toilets, for example, contaminated water that should drain through the pipes and into the sewer system could instead be pulled back into the home and flow out through the taps, contaminating drinking and bathing water. Dawson and Kalinske’s research and extensive educational activities helped ensure that toilets were designed and installed correctly to prevent contamination of clean water from sewage. They developed models of the toilet and even cut some in half to watch the water as it flowed through the system.

Another area of IIHR’s plumbing research revolved around a frequent problem of the time: water heater explosions. In the 1930s, water heater explosions were not uncommon and frequently killed the people unfortunate enough to be in the building at the time. IIHR researchers found that the explosions were not caused by high pressure, though that was a factor. Many were instead due to broken water heater casings. Safety measures can be added to water heaters to keep sudden changes in pressure from occurring. Dawson and Kalinske proposed both pressure and temperature release valves to lower the chance of explosions.

The two researchers worked together for many years, bringing knowledge of sanitation and plumbing into households. An article by visitor Thomas Farrell in 1941 indicated the desperate need for more research into plumbing safety, a service IIHR was more than happy to provide. After speaking with researchers on a tour of the facilities he wrote: “The plumbing in my home immediately shall be inspected by a competent master plumber, who will pass on its safety according to the standards I have learned in the National Plumbing Laboratory.”

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