You never really know what life will offer you. You can’t really differentiate between that which was opportunity and that which is fate.
I imagine that many of you are not sure if plumbing chose you, or if you chose plumbing. Some of us like to say, “Plumbing found me!” In all cases, the plumbing industry is more important today than ever. And for all involved to prosper in their career, there needs to be a level of shared knowledge and a passing of the torch.
There are things I wish someone had told me when I first started my career, and I’m sure I am not alone in thinking this. For example, for a new designer working on projects, the thought process usually starts with:
Those are all great questions, and truly the survival tools for a plumbing designer. But the better questions are:
For the new designers just getting started, I’ve broken down the questions you should ask, and provided some insight on how to answer them, too.
How does the system work, and why?
This answer is always, “It depends.” I state this with a wry smile. It depends because the answer is influenced by the factors from physics, good design practice, and the code. Please remember physics will always win. There is a joke that goes, “Plumbing is easy; hot water is on the left and cold is on the right and sewage flows downhill. Anyone can do it.” None of those are completely true. The actual truth is water can be cross-connected and sewage can be pumped. There is a simpler truth called physics. At a faucet, we design for the hot water on the left and the cold on the right. Physics will kick-in at some point though, and water will take the path of least resistance. Check that valves, backflow preventers and vacuum breakers are part of the system. Another simple truth is that not everyone can do it. But as a person who has set out to be in this industry, you should learn to understand your system. Understand the factors that influence your system and understand the code that influences the requirements of this system. Physics will always win.
The second part of understanding your system is a term in the office known as, “The Golden Nugget.” The “Golden Nugget” is the small piece of information that was needed prior to the drawings going out at contract document level. The fact that the underground sewer system has been repaired several times, or that the pumps in the lift station were replaced a couple of years ago in an emergency and are no longer as shown on the existing drawing. Or, even the fact that the existing drawings dated 1968 have 8-inch terra cotta pipe verses cast iron or the building domestic hot water mixing valve set point varies because it hasn’t been low point setup in its history. The “Golden Nugget” is sometimes not avoidable because your site visit is often a mere single point snapshot. Open the door for communication with facilities, document conditions, and understand how the system works and hopefully the “Golden Nugget” scenario will happen less often.
How does the building get constructed?
The answer to this question is one of the keys to becoming a well respected designer. Many designers start without any field experience. My absolute first suggestion is to get out to projects and understand how a building is constructed from trenches, to structural foundation pour, slab pour, in wall, above ceiling and final walkthrough. This recommendation includes listening and walking with the contractor and extending the respect of their understanding of the construction process. Understanding the constructability of your job will help you make the better decision on fitting locations, system layout, main locations and slab penetrations. You will always have the, “No, the floor mounted back outlet water closet cannot be installed on a structural beam” experience. You will understand the 2-inch pipe passing behind a chair carrier in an 8-inch block wall is not possible. You will also understand the slabs get poured in sections and the trench for your main cannot be that close to a footing. You will understand not to stack fittings. With all this knowledge, you will be able to provide a better design.
Where can I get good information?
Good information is what will make the difference at the end of the day. Aptitude to learn and a willingness to learn is the key to success. The truth is, this can be huge for long-term planning of your career. First of course, you should work in an environment that you enjoy or in an environment good for your development. You will need to have all the tools of the trade at your disposal: Codes, books, mentors, colleagues, and professional organizations. Codes set the rules. You must have access and understanding of them or you are driving without a road. Personally, I have a thorough collection and review code developments constantly. This of course, is one of the key components to the professional organization for me. Use your professional organization as the intellectual property that it is. The data books or the people who work with technical and legislative groups are great resources at your disposal. The organization will be a front line for books and mentors.
How do I document and design?
My first employer was the wood industry. My second was an engineering consulting firm. From both, I learned these basic principles: Your performance is not any better than your documentation. You should never state anything in writing that you would not publish in the New York Times. Your reputation is what you have to represent yourself. Your reputation is your last project.
This all wraps up to:
You/your firm has a contract with the owner/Architect to provide a client with design documents based off of certain parameters. If you are a consulting engineer, the firm provides contract documents. CD’s are your firm’s representation of what is required by code and good design practice for a client to construct a building. You are the organizer of the information that is provided to you by the client, AHJs, code and the client’s representatives. You access from this information what is needed for the construction of the building. You apply the code and good design principles. You must understand both code and design principles to design well. A designer must understand that documentation of the information is as important in the process as understanding what must be done. If you cannot prove it, you have not done it. The contract documents represent your knowledge base.
How do I use this software?
This topic, is in this article, as my own “Golden Nugget.” I write this with all sincerity to calm anyone concerned with using new software. Every firm has their own BIM/CAD standards, so do not panic if you are at the beginning of learning. You should sit down and walk through the standards from start to finish. Learn the terms and the file locations. Learn your tricks from YouTube and Autodesk. Whatever your level — designer to project manager — learn what task each person must perform at each level. The understanding of what others’ path is, will ultimately make you better. I speak these words as a project manager who can use BIM.
The plumbing industry from a design perspective is at an age of evolution. Choose your knowledge base now. If you’re trying to define a good design path, ask the right questions to learn. Here they are again:
Understand your growth at each level of learning your trade. Understand you are one of few selecting this career, which by shear economics makes you valuable. Always value your time and your education in all facets of life. Follow your heart and live without regrets. Enjoy plumbing.