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Recently, I was in Chicago performing a forensic investigation of a mechanical system. I realized that the offices of the publisher of this publication, Plumbing Engineer magazine, are in the Chicago area. I have been writing for this magazine since 1994 and I have never visited their offices. On this trip, I was able to meet the new editor, Amalia Deligiannis.
During my almost three decades of writing for the magazine, I have worked with more than 10 editors. I would occasionally stop by the Plumbing Engineer booth at one of the industry trade shows, but they were not always at the booth because they would walk the floor conducting interviews.
My staff and I met with Amalia and had plenty to talk about during dinner. Since we were at a Greek restaurant, the conversation included Greek food and Greek customs. We selected a Greek wine that was not too sweet and not too dry. Amalia also told us about her experiences in publishing and editing, as well as her Greek heritage.
We talked a little about my colleagues, Fred & Mr. Pierce, who assist me. I affectionately refer to Mr. Pierce as “professor.” He did teach, but it was many years ago. He has a degree in mathematics and chemistry and assists with various forensic investigations. I told Amalia that I had many active forensic investigations; about two-thirds of them were scald investigations.
While I could not discuss specific details about those investigations, I told her many involve scalding and Legionnaires’ Disease. There are also cases involving fuel gas explosions, fires, carbon monoxide poisoning incidents, floods, compressed air explosions and a host of other calamities that occur on a regular basis and cause injuries, deaths and property damage.
I told her my work is divided between forensic investigations, plumbing system design for several regular clients, technical consulting and troubleshooting for several manufacturer clients that need a plumbing expert, assisting manufacturers or my local code committee developing and proposing code language, and serving on many plumbing product standard committees. Oh, and I have also been writing a monthly column for Plumbing Engineer since the mid-1990s.
Over dinner, we had a chance to learn about Amalia’s work and family and culture; I admire the Greek culture and the strong family ties. Amalia asked me about how I got started in the industry. I wasn’t ready to answer that question, so I gave her a very abbreviated version of how I started working for an engineering firm while in high school and, eventually, I became a plumbing designer.
I hadn’t thought about it too much; it’s a long story and some of the company names and places were a little fuzzy. After thinking about it, I decided I should have given more than a 30-second answer, so I thought I would document it in this column.
Fort Worth and Architecture
The story of my career began in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1969 through 1974. During that time, I had not thought too much about what I wanted to do in life, but I was influenced by a television show that was on during that time — “The Brady Bunch,” a sitcom about a couple with six children and a housekeeper named Alice.
I thought it was cool that Mike Brady, the father in the show, was an architect and got to work from his modern home. He had a home office with a big drafting table and got to work on some cool projects. I’m sure that show influenced me to want to be involved in building design; maybe I could work from home, too. That TV show influenced my decision to declare architecture as my major when I entered college.
One of my father’s friends, who was a draftsman for Bell Helicopter, trained me in drafting. My father would take me to the Knights of Columbus Hall; my father’s friend would sit me at a table and show me how to do drafting, lettering and how to make each letter in the alphabet by making a good chisel point on the pencil while lettering. He also went over line weight, and he taught me that when you draw a long line, you should roll the pencil so that the line stays the same thickness along the length.
These skills went with me to drafting class and allowed my work to stand out. While in high school, I won an industrial art drafting competition with a set of house plans. This was a time before computers and plotters, when drafting skills and lettering were important skills for architects and engineers. My drafting instructor was impressed with my work and recommended that I apply to a few local engineering firms for part-time work as a draftsman while attending school.
Love, Friberg and Why I Chose Plumbing
During my career, I have often been asked why I chose to focus on plumbing. It was probably fate; plumbing chose me. When I applied for a drafting job at engineering firm Love, Friberg & Associates in 1978, I was assigned to work with a plumbing design engineer. I have wondered that if I was assigned to work with an electrical engineer back then if my life may have taken a completely different path.
Most people don’t start out in life saying, “I’m going to grow up and be a plumbing designer/engineer.” Plumbing design seems to be a field where people are exposed to it; some like it and excel. Others may accept it as a job that pays the bills, but they never invest personal time in the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE), the American Society of Sanitary Engineering (ASSE) or other trade organizations. They don’t attend trade shows on their own time because it is not a passion for them. Then there are those who try plumbing design, get bored and move on to something else.
I have talked with a lot of mechanical engineers who say they did not learn much about plumbing in their mechanical engineering programs. Some said the closest they came to plumbing design in college was a materials class, a chemistry class, maybe a heat transfer class or a fluid dynamics class, but those are really just basic engineering classes, not directly related to the design of plumbing systems in buildings. Many mechanical engineers have said that what they learned about plumbing design was on the job.
There are some mechanical engineers who attended schools with architectural/engineering programs that teach architectural building systems engineering, and many of those programs include some plumbing design classes. Mechanical engineering is a broad field, and there are a lot of schools that focus on other aspects of mechanical engineering, which are helpful in manufacturing jobs.
From my experience, there are some mechanical engineers who are outstanding and have a good grasp on plumbing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system design and engineering concepts, but there is a significant number who I have worked with that did not have a lot of experience with plumbing design — and it showed.
Most plumbing system design is learned on the job or through joining ASPE and participating in other industry organizations, by reading this magazine, reading the ASPE Plumbing Engineering Design handbooks and working with plumbing designers who mentored them.
Most young engineering students will choose something other than plumbing when given a choice between plumbing, HVAC, electrical power, electrical lighting, computers, civil/structural or some other trade. Many engineers right out of college seem to find a discipline they are comfortable with; not many choose plumbing.
During my career, I have worked for some of the largest firms in the country; many of those firms had up to five HVAC or mechanical designers for every plumbing designer. As the workload fluctuated, I saw many firms lay off architects, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers, but the plumbing guys were always there and were usually the last guys to go when there was downsizing.
This is because plumbing designers were rare and often overloaded with work, such that most firms could not afford to let them go. I often was working on eight or 10 projects at the same time while my mechanical and electrical counterparts were working on two or three projects.
I realized that I had unique skills and training that no one else wanted to do. That was OK with me; I became a valuable asset to the firm. I worked a lot of overtime and gained valuable experience early on. I also joined the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and attended fire science classes in college as part of being a volunteer firefighter.
My employer paid for my NFPA membership and attendance at fire protection design courses sponsored by NFPA and the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE). These fire suppression design courses covered wet and dry fire sprinkler systems, standpipes, fire pumps and clean agent fire suppression systems.
I added fire protection design to my abilities; this made me more valuable to a design firm. I also worked for an architectural/engineering firm that had a landscape architecture division; the firm paid for my schooling when I took courses on irrigation system design and hydraulics. It also paid for me to take the licensing exam for the Texas Irrigators License.
Why Is Plumbing Important?
On many occasions, I have mentioned a survey done by the British Medical Journal (BMJ). It listed all the advancements the magazine had covered since the magazine’s first issue was published in 1840 and asked subscribers to vote for the greatest medical breakthrough contributing to the preservation of humanity in the field of health and safety.
The list included: antibiotics, anesthesia, computers, discovery of the DNA structure, Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, x-ray/medical imaging, immunology, oral rehydration therapy, the birth control pill, the discovery of the risks of cancer linked to smoking, indoor plumbing and sanitation, and vaccines for preventing smallpox, polio and the measles. These represent just a few examples of the types of achievements that medical professionals had to choose from.
The medical profession voted indoor plumbing and sanitation as the most important achievement in the field of health and safety for the advancement and preservation of humanity. They did so because indoor plumbing brought about sanitary conditions with clean water for bathing and washing, and removal of sanitary waste — which was linked to improved health, less disease and increased life expectancy.
Mentors and CAD Systems
I was lucky to have had many excellent plumbing design mentors during my career. As I mentioned earlier, I was studying architecture and working as a draftsman helping to layout plumbing systems for the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineering firm of Love, Friberg & Associates. I worked with Richard Ellis, Bob Pruitt, Gerald Maloney, Emil Frieberg, Bob Alexander, D.W. Gipson, Vic Weir, Larry Akers, and many others.
The firm was large enough to allow me to work on some large hospital and university projects, but small enough that I played on their softball team and attended the company picnics; it felt like we were family. I knew all the partners of the firm, too. Love, Friberg had an in-house training program where different partners or engineers rotated training duties and held luncheon training programs on a chosen subject.
As each person conducted their training, you could see the passion they had for their discipline. I still have a binder with materials from those training sessions. I worked under Ellis, Pruitt and Akers, who were mechanical/plumbing designers and engineers active in ASPE and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) at the time (Ellis was an ASPE officer).
They and others would take time to explain the plumbing layout and give examples or show pictures of what we were drawing. In 1978, they encouraged me to attend the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter meetings of ASPE and ASHRAE with them. I learned the company would pay for membership in one association, so I joined ASPE in 1979.
While attending ASPE meetings, I met many more plumbing engineers, designers, salesmen, contractors and a few inspectors. I was a sponge absorbing knowledge as they shared it with me. The knowledge was presented in the ASPE chapter technical sessions, tabletops and trade shows. I made many friends who were my peers that I could call if I had a question about a design issue.
In 1979, I signed up for a 40-hour plumbing design class taught by Robert Kinkel of the engineering firm Yandell & Hiller Inc. The class was the first of many plumbing design classes sponsored by the DFW ASPE chapter. In 1980, PVI industries flew most of the DFW ASPE chapter to the ASPE Convention and Expo in Atlanta.
Attending the convention is a great experience to see a trade show with hundreds of manufacturers’ products on display; each booth has someone ready to explain the technical aspects of their product to the attendees. Seeing the products and talking to the representatives helps you understand how products should be installed in a plumbing system.
Over the next several years, I signed up for several basic and advanced plumbing design classes sponsored by the DFW chapter of ASPE. They were held at various colleges, engineering and contracting firms around the Dallas / Fort Worth area. My brain was like a sponge soaking up the plumbing design knowledge. I attended a plumbing apprentice program offered in the evenings through a local contractor T.D. Mechanical. A few years later, I served as Vice President of the DFW Chapter.
I worked at Lawrence D. White & Associates, architects/engineers, designing plumbing for several prisons and a city/county jail, as well as commercial high-rise hotel buildings. Lawrence D. White Associates invested heavily in the new technology of the day, which included vacuum printers and pin bar registration drawing systems. These allowed the architect to change the floor plans and distribute pin bar registered copies of the plans to overlay the engineering discipline drawings so the different engineering discipline designers could look to see where changes needed to be made because of architectural wall changes.
The pin bar registration system also allowed for color printing of each discipline. Walls were printed gray, and discipline drawings were printed red, green or another color. This technology also allowed multidiscipline prints of drawings, with each engineering discipline or trade in a different color for what was the first generation of construction coordination drawings. In those days, printing was a highly coordinated manual layering process — a pre-cursor to computer-aided drafting (CAD) systems with layers for each system or reference files.
I was offered a job with another engineering firm in town that was converting from manual drafting to CAD systems. While at Carter & Burgess Engineers and Planners, I met and worked with the founders' Gene Carter and John Burgess, Joe Wilcox, David Cassanova and many other plumbing and mechanical design engineers on plumbing and fire protection projects — the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, the American Airlines Flight Training Center, various university projects, military projects, and many other commercial and institutional projects.
During this time, the early 1980s, CAD mainframe computers were still making a grand entrance into the architectural engineering arena. I organized a group of ASPE members to study for the first proposed Certification in Plumbing Engineering (CIPE) exam. The study materials were based upon books written by Al Steele, a columnist from Plumbing Engineer magazine who was like a rock star and mentor for me; I read all his columns and had his books.
All the classes I took used one or more of his books as a text. We also studied the ASPE Data books and other reference books, and manufacturers provided design and sizing materials. When I became an officer in the DFW chapter of ASPE, I invited Steele to come to teach one of the very first CIPE exam review seminars in summer 1983. I picked him up at the airport; he came with handwritten notes, which he let me copy and distribute to the attendees. These notes were later typed up into the first edition of the CIPE exam review seminar.
The CAD workstations at Carter & Burgess in those days were very large, two-screen stations with large, digitized tables under the two large monitors on a pedestal resembling E.T. A separate mainframe computer was located in a computer room with dedicated A/C systems and had tape backup reel systems.
The huge expense of this early equipment required shift work to justify the investment. I was chosen as one of the first group of people to be trained on the Intergraph CAD system; it felt like being chosen to be an astronaut! I soon had lots of work on mostly larger projects that were done on the CAD system. Simpler projects were still being done by hand drafting.
I worked many long days designing plumbing systems for airports, prisons, jails, hospitals, university lab buildings, high-rise buildings, hotels and other building types while continuing my studies part-time in the evenings, which by now I had switched my major to engineering.
In my next column, I’ll continue the story of my career and how I became an expert witness for scalding and Legionella cases.