Plumbing Company Builds On Tradition

Plumbing Company Builds On Tradition

By John Reosti Times Staff Writer

William J. Baumbach II gets wistful when he talks about plumbing. “Plumbing used to be an art,” said Baumbach, president of Baumbach Plumbing of Fairfax Station. “They don’t do it like they used to.” Baumbach points to piping as a sign of decay. Complaints about lead in water forced the introduction of plastic pipes, an innovation he disdains. “It used to be galvanized black steel. It was like cast iron,” Baumbach said.

Though he is only in his 30’s, Baumbach can be excused if his plumbing talk sounds old fashioned. He owns one of the oldest and best-known names in Northern Virginia plumbing. Baumbach’s father, 89-year-old William J. Baumbach, Sr., was a pioneer in the plumbing industry. A self-made business success who left school after the fourth grade, the elder Baumbach invented several ground-breaking innovations.

In the mid 1930’s, Baumbach, who founded Baumbach Plumbing in 1928, made plumbing history when he installed the plumbing for an apartment complex in Arlington’s Buckingham subdivision before construction started on the building. In the 1960’s, Baumbach invented a diaphragm for drains that reduced backflow and flooding. Patented in the United States and Canada, Baumbach’s “Suds and Floods Backflow Preventer” is still widely used today.

Baumbach’s introduction to plumbing came by accident. After the death of his father, Baumbach’s mother took in boarders to help make ends meet for the family. One of the boarders was priming for his plumbing certification and enlisted the teen-aged Baumbach’s help. After reading the plumbing code to the boarder, Baumbach decided to take the certification exam himself and passed. An outgoing, gregarious man, Baumbach was a dominant force among area plumbers until his retirement in the 1970’s.

Baumbach taught veterans returning from World War II plumbing at Washington-Lee high School. “At one time, 95 percent of the plumbers in the Washington area had worked for Mr. Baumbach,” said his wife, Beryl, who still helps out in the family’s business.

In the uncertain business climate since the elder Baumbach’s retirement, Baumbach Plumbing has struggled at times. Shortly before he retired, Baumbach moved the business from Arlington, its location for 50 years, to Fairfax Station, where he had bought 14.4 acres 20 years before.

William Baumbach III and his brother, Andrew, who inherited the company, were left with the task of retaining the company’s Arlington customer base while expanding westward into Fairfax County and Manassas.

According to Beryl Baumbach, most of the company’s business still comes from the Arlington area.

“Things out here are still new compared to Arlington and don’t need (the things) that Arlington needs,” she said. The Baumbachs’ also attempted, with limited success, to expand into small home repair and remodeling jobs. “We do repair, replacement, furnish and install . . . it would be a remodeling of a bathroom or a kitchen, not someone putting a wing on their house,” said Beryl  Baumbach.

Baumbach was also hurt by an influx of small contractors during the recession. According to Beryl, many skilled workers laid off from the construction industry went to work for themselves. She said small operators by-pass county permits and use low quality materials to undercut the prices of more established firms.

“They don’t get permits; they don’t get inspections when required and we do,” she said. “If someone is putting in a gas hot water heater you’re supposed to get a permit which means you have to charge the customer a little more,” she added.

Throughout their business ups and downs, Beryl said her family’s company always maintained the standards set by William J. Baumbach, Sr.

“There’s more of a personal feeling involved when it’s family owned and operated because (we) are interested in obtaining a good relationship,” she said.