Is It Ever “Just Plumbing”?
I’m just out from crawling around under a seventy year old house where the space is tight and obstructed with plumbing, ducting, low hanging beams, piers and of course broken concrete bits to crawl on. This reminds me in part why I decided to focus on hot water… Water heaters usually live in nicer places! Anyway, part of what I’m doing under the house is replacing some of the old steel water and drain line with ABS drain and PEX water service.
Some would say this is “just plumbing”, but I feel it deserves a bit more respect. Let’s think about what goes into installing new or making repairs in difficult to access places, or any places. The technician needs to know what work is to be accomplished, how to make sure it’s efficient, what parts will be needed, what the codes and physics are around doing the work, what order the work is best done in, and importantly, how to improvise successfully. Safety and durability matter too. Doing “just plumbing” just might involve multitasking!
The way I prefer to begin work is to simply stare at the job to be done and ponder the approaches and variables until a clear picture comes to mind showing me the cleanest and simplest way of making it happen. It’s helpful to know what the “fixed points” are. These are the bits that must be a certain way, or material, or in a certain place. Knowing these gives you places to build from and to. I’ve learned over time that if I just start plumbing without that clear picture in mind, I wind up unhappy with the result as there inevitably will be something I missed taking into consideration. I’ve mostly learned that if I don’t have that clear picture, don’t start the job! Sometimes it’s not so simple. Other people around the job may wonder how you’re earning your keep when you are just sitting there, but don’t let them distract or hurry you. Show them a copy of this blog post! Get that clear picture in your head to work from. You’ll actually be working smarter and faster this way. A tight crawl space is hard to just sit and stare at, so I must try to imagine the job without that visual help. Toting a big pile of fittings and tools around under a house isn’t much fun, as you can imagine, so I aim to have only what I’ll need. Actually knowing what you’ll need for this sort of job just may be an art form. One of the most frustrating things for a tradesperson is to have to make multiple shopping runs in a day for a single job.
This is where improvisation can be a good thing. Imagine you’re under that house, with limited fittings. You run pipe and find that you don’t have the right fitting to complete the job. Ug! I was bringing a drain line down but found I had only one correctly sized 45 degree bend and needed two. What I was able to do was cut the main line and install a coupling so the pipe could be rotated 45 degrees. This allowed me to get things hooked up using just the one 45. It actually made the flow path a little easier by eliminating one bend. That might have been a combination of good luck and lots of field experience, but I’ll take it!
Plumbing frustrates and scares many people. I believe that if we slow down and recognize the challenges in doing good plumbing, we’ll be giving it the respect and consideration it deserves. By doing this, the plumbing task at hand will become easier and much more manageable. Sometimes respect is in doing good prep work. For example, if you’re not too confident in your soldering abilities, practice some first. It’ll make doing the soldering under a home, much less threatening. Breaking jobs down into manageable pieces and finding ways to always stay in control of the job will make life nicer too. Just imagine cutting into a pipe to learn the water wasn’t turned off. That’s when the plumbing is controlling you! Additionally finding a mentor, or someone willing to share tips and tricks won’t hurt either.
I think you know by now that it seldom is “just plumbing”. There is so much more to it! Knowing what I know now still doesn’t make crawling under houses any more physically comfortable, but it does give me reason to believe that I won’t need to spend any more time down there than is truly necessary and that is comforting!
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.