We all have mentors and teachers we can look back on and reflect on what we have learned. We all have that one bit of knowledge that stands out as the ultimate, the great light bulb going off in our head, the enlightenment of the world we work in. For me, it could have been Mrs. Horskey, my seventh and eighth grade English teacher, who beat grammar into my head, and said one day I would thank her. Well, every month that I sit down to write, I thank her.

But it was someone much later in my life who beat a similar lesson into my head. That one person was Paul Heilstedt, my first boss I had working in the field of plumbing codes. Interestingly, Paul has no background in plumbing; he is a structural engineer by education. Currently, Paul is the CEO of BOCA International and President of ICC, the publishers of the International Codes (including the International Plumbing Code).

Paul was a great guy to work for. You never had to worry what he was thinking or what he expected from you. He always told you.

I remember walking into his office one day to speak about an issue on the plumbing code. Being hard headed, I was adamant the issue at hand was very clear, and certainly the plumbing code prohibited what was being considered. (It was the same opinion many of you have encountered with your local plumbing inspector.)

After speaking my piece, with complete technical backup and convinced I was correct, Paul just looked casually at me and said, “JB, wouldn’t you agree that anything is possible in the plumbing code?” Whenever Paul said, “Wouldn’t you agree,” it meant this is my opinion and unless you are a complete and total idiot, it will be your opinion, too.

But I was too young 20 years ago when this took place. I decided to put forth my argument and say the plumbing code was clear in not allowing anything. A normal boss would have pounded his fist on the desk and said, “This is how it is because I am the boss.” However, Paul was never that way. He would rather have you go through the complete thought process that would bring you to the conclusion he had already reached.

The Big Picture: Sometimes the simplest examples are easiest to put things into perspective. The example Paul used was unrelated to plumbing. He said to imagine a building code requiring every house to be painted black. Then he raised the question, “Couldn’t you paint your house white and still be in compliance with the code?” Of course, I answered, “No, if the code requires it to be painted black, then you would have to paint it black, painting it white would be prohibited.”

Those were exactly the wrong words to use in answering the question. Paul picked up on it right away and said, “But the code never said painting it white is prohibited, and even if it did, wouldn’t it still be possible to paint it white?” By now I was totally confused and knew it was time to sit there like a good son and receive the fatherly lecture on the why’s and wherefore’s of life.

Paul went on to explain that any code is nothing more than a document prepared by individuals trying to do their best (we hope). Behind every code, plumbing code included, there is a reason for the requirements. The words of the code are not as important as the intent of the code.

The word “intent” took on a new meaning in my life. If the code required the house to be painted black and the intent of the code was to have a coat of paint to protect the exterior siding, then you could paint the house white and still meet the intent of the code.

Every plumbing code has a section that allows any individual the opportunity to do something different from the written words. If the code doesn’t have such an allowance, it would violate the federal guidelines for codes. The section in question is the alternative approval. This section grants the right to do anything in a plumbing system you want, provided you can prove it is equivalent to the code requirements. More importantly, the alternative must meet the intent of the code.

If a plumbing code was written to be exact, there wouldn’t be changes to the code every year. Furthermore, if we only need to enforce the written words, then anybody could enforce the plumbing code. We would probably be better off with an English teacher as the plumbing inspector. Who better to understand the written words.

As a society, we have chosen to place a knowledgeable individual in the position as plumbing inspector. The purpose behind this is to have a person who will think. The worst plumbing inspector we could ever have is one who says, “I only allow what’s in the book. If it is not in the book, then you can’t do it.” Of course, to these inspectors, I always say the alternative approval section is in the book. That only serves to confuse the unenlightened inspector.

The best plumbing inspectors are not afraid to think. If you have an alternative idea of how to install, design or accomplish the intent of the code, they will listen. All we have to remember is the plumbing is designed to protect public health, safety and welfare.

This past year there has been a lot of rhetoric about one code being too permissive and another code being restrictive. There is no such thing as a code that is too permissive. Every plumbing code should be. If something works, then a plumbing code should permit it.

If a plumbing code is classified as a restrictive code, then that translates to an arbitrary document prepared by individuals either afraid to think or are not qualified to think. If education is the No. 1 concern for our children, then we should prove to them an education prepares us to think for ourselves. As such, we should want every plumbing code to be “too permissive.”

As Paul taught me, a plumbing code is a document allowing you to do anything, unless it is restricted or prohibited. And those restrictions and prohibitions are always subject to debate.