How far have we come in our ability to quickly and accurately locate and diagnose pipe blockages? Consider this: until recently sight wasn't the primary sense plumbers used, hearing and touch were.

A plumber with ears tuned by years on the job could listen to a toilet flush or a bathtub drain and get a sense for the problem. Feeding a snake or auger down a pipe meant plumbers had to translate the bumps and snags they felt into a diagnosis and location. As for sight, it was the primary diagnostic sense only on those rare occasions when an obstruction was hiding in plain view.

The primitive past
That all changed, of course, with the 1957 introduction of sewer cameras. While touch and hearing will always play a part, these marvels allowed problems to be seen and located more accurately.

Of course, what was state-of-the-art back then seems primitive now. Those first cameras were too large for smaller pipes; the command units were heavy and bulky; the pictures on the cathode-ray monitors were jerky and blurry; and there was no way to record images. The customer had to look over the plumber's shoulder to see the obstruction.

Moving ahead
As with all things electronic, over time, the cameras got smaller and better. That meant they could be mounted on thinner, more flexible cables that could turn corners and be used in smaller pipes. The newest models are less than one inch in diameter and include self-leveling technology to keep the picture upright. More sensitive cameras protected in stainless steel housings and equipped with scratch-resistant lenses and LED lighting are a big improvement.

LCD monitors replaced the cathode-ray models and are sharp enough to be used in handheld units. The rest of the equipment improved as well. VHS recorders allowed plumbers to record and share what they saw. Confronted with black-and-white images of root balls and other obstructions in the pipe, even the most wary customers were likely to approve a job.

But storing the tapes required space and making copies was time consuming and expensive. So, videotape gave way to DVDs.

DVDs provide clearer images that can be frozen without jitters. They also last longer than VHS tapes and are easier to store. While they can't be recorded over, they're less expensive and are easy to copy.

Digital data has also entered the scene thanks to newer systems. Plumbers can store hundreds of hours of work on devices like hard drives, or on smaller, more durable options such as SD cards and flash drives, which are easy to use and share.

While convenient these file-sharing and storage options are not without drawbacks, including higher cost to replace, damage, theft and memory failure, not to mention the download time for large files that are e-mailed.

Focusing on the future
Today, plumbing is following other digital content to the cloud. Plumbers have the ability to share video and images online. "Open" solutions, while popular, allow information to be viewed by all and shopped around for best pricing. Secured online solutions, such as the subscription-based RIDGIDConnect, are making their way to the market, providing plumbers with a secure way to store and share everything from photos and videos to job reports and maintenance records.

Video inspection and file storage and sharing have come a long way since the "stone age" of hand-written reports that were mailed. Plumbers have many options to choose from, and the future looks bright for much more to come thanks to improving technology and new innovations.

Justin Daw is director of software solutions at Ridgid.