Wise and Cool Plumbing Stuff

Why think about Plumbing?

It's not actually all about poop.

Sure, everyone laughs about poop. Plumbers, though, don't much talk about it. Electricians talk about poop a lot more than most plumbers, in my experience. New-construction plumbers almost never smell it. After two years of apprenticeship, I have had a lot more total stinky time working in the same room in a single hour with a certain electrician than from all the pipes I have worked on. The secret to thinking about poop is humor. And with that, enough about poop already!

Let's talk about Plumbing!

Plumbing can be Academically Interesting

For example, "civilization" could actually be defined by "having plumbing". Even the 5000-year old Indus Valley civilization had separate bathrooms in each house, with each one draining to a sewer (covered brick trench) under the street. Now that's academically interesting.

Everyone knows how fundamental plumbing is, keeping water potable and waste contained, thus preventing disease and saving lives. The number of lives saved by plumbing is vastly greater than those saved by medicine, that is, by all the doctors and hospitals in the world.

But to be more personal and interesting, I'd rather talk about people and disasters. So let me talk about plumbers.

The Plumbers You've Heard About

Plumbers may indeed have a reputation as buttcrack-showing drunkards that show up to your job late or never, and charge huge rates for shoddy work. In my personal experience, having met and worked with around about a hundred union plumbers, I have never met anyone I would describe as anything like that reputation.

So imagine my surprise reading the King5 piece on Beacon Plumbing (cached copy) (and its followup story). Apparently, most non-union plumbing shops have hardly any licensed journeymen plumbers, but lots of trainees. "Trainee" means noone has tested you to verify that you won't put the public's health and safety at risk through ignorance or shoddy work. It means you don't know need to know anything. Indeed, these folks are often hired (and paid) for their sales skills, rather than their technical knowledge and craftsmanship.

So if you hire a plumber, ask to see their journeyman card. It will say State of Washington Department of Labor and Industries, Journeyman Plumber. Not "Plumber Trainee". If they don't have it, and no other plumber is on your job at that time to supervise them, then they and their company are in violation of the law, and you should call up Labor and Industries and tell them that the company you called is violating the law. And go call a different plumbing company.

By the way, the other card Plumber Trainees have, if they are actually learning the trade, is an Apprenticeship card. I have one, and it says that this "certificate indicates that the holder is enrolled in a registered apprenticeship program under RCW 49.04". Understand that there is a trick to this: Joe Blow can go out and buy a Plumber Trainee card for $37, but that card doesn't mean they are actually learning anything. The Apprenticeship card is what tells you that they are actually learning plumbing. If you're not an apprentice, probably noone is taking the time to explain anything to you, you probably aren't taking any classes, you probably aren't actually learning the trade. Some lucky trainees might be learning enough to get by, enough to fool you, enough to clean some people's drains (the most profitable niche in plumbing), but the majority are not really learning the trade. Whereas an actual apprentice is a person that has gone through a selection process, and is taking regular classes and receiving regular on-the-job supervision, training, and feedback from certified experts. So ask for the Apprentice card too.

"Licensed journeyman plumber" means you have logged 8000 hours of on-the-job training working as an apprentice directly under a licensed journeyman plumber (10,000 if you're in the union, which has higher standards). Union apprentices get a lot of training and supervision on the job. They're not supposed to work alone or unsupervised, and I can tell you as a union apprentice, we don't work alone.

So please let me share with you how very different it is in the union.

The Plumbers I Know

Union plumbers have high morale, and a strong work ethic. Their culture is all about arriving at work 30 to 15 minutes early, starting right on time, getting the work done calmly and efficiently, and producing a quality product that they can be proud of. Doing it once.

They don't like changes in the plan, so please get your plan straight. They submit to randomized drug and alcohol testing as part of their contract, so they are a pretty clean bunch. Their personality types are mostly those of Myers-Briggs Inspectors and Supervisers (ISTJ and ESTJ) with others in a minority. That makes them on-time, mechanically-minded, and generally concerned about things being done correctly. Most are highly decisive and carefully scheduled. Most are quiet and reserved; they don't like to have long detailed exploratory conversations. So you can give them a detailed plan in the form of drawings, or just the general constraints of where things are and what fixtures you've bought, but then get out of the way and let them do it.

Most are homeowners and many have small (and even large) real estate empires. Most are highly motivated by security and predictability, and they really appreciate and value their retirement and health benefits. They are relatively comfortable with appropriate hierarchy, and they embody its best virtues through both willing, diligent service and also watchful, thoughtful mentorship and coaching of apprentices, who by the way are by common practice carefully matched with journeymen by union-contract-required ratios, so that they won't be swimming out of their depth. Wonderfully, old plumbers are typically smiling and happy.

Union plumbers also receive a broad and thorough education in the plumbing related sciences and applied fields, from medical gas piping where no contaminants are acceptable, even oxidizing the inside of brazed or soldered joints. To the usual range of "showers and shitters". To green energy systems like solar water heaters, drain water heat exchangers. To the piping in factories, food processing businesses, refineries, high-rise buildings, and nuclear power plants.

The United Association (plumbers union) has a 10,000 hour working apprenticeship program churning out licensed journeyman plumbers. Apprenticeship provides extensive and varied on-the-job training experience under constant watchful supervision. A person who hasn't been through this kind of training might be able to figure some things out on their own, but the fact is that being able to do many things consistently, perfectly, and fast, is an art that takes a lot, a lot of training and supervised practice. Particularly when the output is expected to last and keep working for a lifetime without modification or failure, with a very high cost of failure. Unless you know your plumber has been through a real apprenticeship, you may be paying a lot for uncertainty and sometimes for some very expensive failures.

So here are some interesting horror stories and factoids I've learned lately about plumbing.

The Redmond High School stormwater system

Was plugged at the outlet and forgotten when a (non-union) employee left the company. So there were lots of floods and the Certificate of Occupancy wasn't issued for five years, until finally someone figured it out. Five Years!

Union Quality

Rocky Gerber at Centennial Construction, who teaches the UW Construction Management class on Scheduling, was running a job where a non-union plumbing company was picketed during the job to join the union. The company made various installation errors including a backwards-installed wye fitting (which makes them certifiably unqualified to do plumbing). When the leaks started coming out the drywall above the hallway, Centennial had to chase down the plumbing company to get it fixed, but they had gone out of business. Nice. So a reputable company is important; and obviously the quality of a well-trained (union) craftsperson in our area is meaningful. As mentioned before, Washington State requires 8,000 hours of work under a journeyman before you can try to get licensed to work independently. And the UA requires 10,000 hours and really does have apprentices work under a journeyman, so you can be pretty comfortable that they know what they're doing.

Bid Nightmares.

If your low bid is from an inexperienced company, beware of the consequences. If the low bid didn't account for all the work, they and you are going to be in a lot of pain. Even just forcing them to lose the money they'll need to lose to complete the job they are contracted to do at the low price they bid may cause you pain. It won't be pretty. For example, they might just leave one guy to do the work of several, and you'll have to hold their hand and say, "So tasks A, B, and C next week, now who is working on them? Oh worker X is on A? but worker X is on B already, so who are you going to have out here to work on A?" Excessively detailed handholding may be necessary to get your work done. Painful.

Baghdad Police College.

"Improperly fabricated wastewater plumbing" was a problem. "Drains were assembled without the specified molded plastic fittings which resulted in water and waste materials flowing through the improperly fabricated joints directly onto the concrete floors." "The contractor used pipes with holes that were hand cut with ... pipes inserted" "As a result of the inferior plumbing techniques, methods, and bonding materials used by the contractor to join the wastewater pipes, water and other waste materials from ... toilets are continually draining through the .. floors from the top floor to the second floor to the ground floor, permeating and filling light fixtures showers, and toilet areas, with liquids, including [ick]... For example, we witnessed a light fixture so full of [ick] that it would not operate." "The Director of the Baghdad Police College is also concerned that the rust, mold, and presence of urine and fecal matter caught within the concrete floors presents a serious threat to the health of all Baghdad Police College students and staff." (http://www.sigir.mil/reports/pdf/assessments/PA-06-078_079_Baghdad_Police_College.pdf)

Plumbing "Design Horror Stories"

by a former president of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE).

Doing It Yourself

From http://weblog.pell.portland.or.us/~orc/2005/05/01/002/index.html: "When we moved in, almost every valve on the bathtub leaked. I fixed most of them, and we managed to successfully ignore the jury-rigged arrangement of the rest of the tub for several years. We had to call a plumber once, because one of the patched-in new bits of plumbing exploded one day and we woke up to find a vast puddle of water on the dining room floor."

Poop page:

http://www.plumbingsupply.com/pooppage.html. Hilarious. Contains nuggets like: The Poop Pen. The fact that each person contains about 7 pounds of bacteria. The reason #2 is Brown. The definition of "coprophilic". How to measure "transit time". NASA's zero-gravity Vacuum Toilet.


From http://www.theplumber.com/results.html: "The pool contractor put the filter in the basement; lots of plastic pipe. One night, a plastic valve let goooooooooo. Question: How much water was in the basement? Answer: What was the volume of the pool? Owner hired a PLUMBER to re-do everything, this time routing all lines away from, far away from, the basement!" (Thanks to Dennis from Lost Wages)

http://www.theplumber.com/usa.html reports that "a two-story [outhouse"] was built and still stands in Crested Butte, Colo. The upper level was used when heavy snow blocked the first floor", and

Major Joel Connolly, Chief Inspector of the Chicago Bureau of Sanitary Engineering, spoke these prophetic words:

"One of the lessons to be drawn from the amoebic dysentery outbreak ... is that plumbing demands the very best, painstaking effort that thoroughly qualified, certified plumbers can give in every building..."

Another Cool Resource

Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine, www.pmmag.com.

And that's it.

Copyright (c) 2008-2013 Thomas C Veatch