Plumbing in a Time of Big Changes

October 28, 2013  |  News

Look at any of the magazines about our industry – Plumbing & Mechanical, Plumbing Engineer, Contractor – and you will quickly realize that our industry is changing. Rapidly.

Many of us who have been in the business for a few decades are surprised by the pace of innovation. After all, how many times have we heard the expression: “Plumbing is plumbing.” The intended meaning is: Once you become a journeyman and understand the basic principles and installations, you pretty much have it down. It was never that simple. But it really is not that simple anymore. Ask any PHCC contractor. This business is changing faster than we expected.

Not that the basic ideas behind a plumbing system have been altered. As another old plumbing saying goes: “Hot on the left, cold on the right, and $#*! goes downhill.”

Like every other industry, ours has been subject to a number of innovations – many of them connected to digital technology. Other advances are quite simple. This includes long, flexible coated stainless steel gas tubing that is turning the Rigid 300 pipe machine into a three-legged dinosaur. But at the other extreme there are electronic and mechanized devices that are changing the way we design and build our projects.

The challenge for all of us in the industry is to remain aware of these innovations, and to employ them in ways that help us get our work done. As we teach the next generation of plumbers at schools such as the Plumbers Local 12 Training Center, we owe it to them to make sure we hand them more than a pencil and tape measure. Those were the tools we grew up with. And while a pencil and ruler will always remain essential, we need to make sure that the toolkits of those who succeed us contain the equivalent of a laptop or iPad, as well as other electronic devices that will enable plumbers, fitters, and all the other trades to work more effectively than ever before.

A horse is a horse. Of course?

A very smart man once told me: “Be sure you are riding the horse the direction it’s going.”

Sometimes this is uncomfortable. What if the horse is headed in a direction we don’t like? Shouldn’t we pull in the reins?

But we can’t. For better or worse, when it comes to innovation within industries, the tradesmen almost always need to “ride the horse the direction it’s going.” There are exceptions. There will always be some demand for craftsmen to use “old techniques” in the construction industry. Specialized tile work or painting come to mind. But it is difficult to imagine that a modern customer would pay to have a cast iron sanitary drainage system where every joint poured lead.

“Innovate, or die” is an expression entrepreneurs sometimes use. But we know that change and innovation is not always popular. It doesn’t matter. There are commercial designers who refused to learn the digital technology used to produce magazine charts and images. Most of those artists are out of work. Some of the plumbers attending Industry Night will remember when there were howls of protest when no-hub began to replace lead and oakum. Later, many protested the use of plastic piping. Of course there remain good reasons to prefer cast iron over plastic in some applications. But the overall point remains true: If you want to be part of any industry, you have to adapt with the times.