What are your prized possessions? In my home office, I have three: a mid-1980s vintage custom French horn I still play, a leather stuffed rhinoceros called Nelson, and my father’s pipefitting handbook from the U.S. Navy that dates back to the early 1950s.

Until I began working at the PHCC Educational Foundation in 2005, I didn’t know my father was a pipefitter. I knew he had done deep sea diving while in the Navy, but I was not aware of why he was diving. Based on the stories he has told me from his time serving on a sub tender, I am amazed the man is still alive and that I exist at all. Who knew pipefitters had such a good time?

In reading through the pipefitting handbook, it is clear metallic pipe was king in the 1950s. Over the years, the tools of the metal piping business haven’t changed all that much. Sure, new and improved joining methods have come into the marketplace that save time and make our processes more efficient. But in some cities, do we not still pour lead joints?

PVC piping was introduced in the U.S. in 1952, but its widespread acceptance by the plumbing industry took decades. Outside of the U.S., PVC had been installed with some regularity in plumbing systems in Germany during the 1930s.

PEX tubing has been used in Europe since the 1950s. It was introduced to the American market in the 1980s, its adoption beginning with hydronic heating applications and moving into hot and cold water distribution more slowly.

The point of this discussion is to remind us that we sometimes hold on to our past for a little too long, perhaps at the detriment of our future. Here’s how.


Embracing change

Our industry changes constantly. New products and fittings come into the market all the time. Yet many of us are caught up in using only the “tried and true” methods and materials that we know. As an example, if you are still soldering copper fittings, you have an excellent skill, but you could get that job done more quickly (and, arguably, just as effectively) with press fittings.

Yes, there is an additional cost for press fittings, and they require a special tool, but you can pass that cost on to your customers through your flat-rate pricing of each job. Some jobs may require soldering, and that is perfectly fine, but are there times when you can move to a method that is faster and equally as effective?

I can guarantee you have a competitor who is faster on their feet and on the forefront of adopting new technology. This competitor is less risk-averse than you. They may sometimes fail, but many times, they will find solutions for customers that you are not providing. In today’s marketplace, is that a risk you’re willing to take? If so, that is when your knowledge (which is your prized possession) is working to the detriment of your future.

I’ve heard the argument over and over that new technologies are “dumbing down” our industry. I don’t think that’s the case at all. New technologies are allowing our technicians to get their jobs done more quickly so we can take on more work. With our current workforce shortage, is that a bad thing? And these new technologies allow us to offer more possible solutions for our customers. People like to have choices — that’s a good thing.

Remember that plumbers in 1950 dealt with cast iron, steel and copper piping for the most part. They didn’t have to know about a multitude of types of plastic piping and how these pipes can be joined. It was a simpler time in so many ways. Today’s technicians work on more complicated systems — systems people like me know better than to touch.

Contractors, I beg you, let go of your prized possession so that your business can grow and prosper. Go to industry trade shows and see what’s new in the marketplace and talk with the manufacturers of these products about how they can save your technicians time, better solve your customers’ problems, and make your business more profitable.

You still need trained technicians who understand the complex plumbing and piping systems we have in place today, but we need not hold on to a 1950s view of how those systems should be put together.