Rebranding The Art of Plumbing

Water as plumbing professionals’ life-giving art to give to the world

By Paul M. Onder

I started practicing the art of plumbing at the early age of 15 years old in 1978. In 2010, I quit my job as the district plumber for northern New Jersey Board of Education. The change came as a part of my new life as a Leukemia survivor.

That fall, my first article for the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center “Bridges” edition had been published. I wrote about reinventing my life after my cancer experience. After the article became a reality for all to read, I had to put these words into action. I could no longer work in public bathrooms because of the need to protect my health.

When that career door closed, another opened. I had the opportunity to take a nine-month Business Operations Course, complete with a certificate. This course allowed me to study marketing. I gained passion to promote “life.” After taking the course, I began work as an instructor. In 2013, and I was offered a position to teach plumbing and heating for a New York City private school of trades.

I continued teaching at other schools, and now I am currently working for a public school in New Jersey. Because I need to achieve a CTE certification to teach, I must complete a two-year course at an approved college. I am enrolled in school with months to go.

I ponder my life today and my cancer story. I find a need to talk about the rebranding of plumbing as we move into the year of 2020. The questions of “What is plumbing?” and “How can we use this idea of reinvention to move our society forward?” were under consideration as I wrote this article.

To start, I want to revisit the past so to bring us to the present state of plumbing. I also want to bring up what needs to change as we move forward into our future of providing systems for proper human health and tools of cleanliness for all.

The 1926 poster included with this article illustrates, “The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation.” This poster is still being used today. It was created by the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company, which later became American Standard Company. There are a few messages in the poster I want to touch on.

The first message is clear, this trade of plumbing was designed to keep and maintain a higher standard of life for the protection of human health and safety.  The poster depicts a man standing on a pedestal with coveralls, a hat, and a pipe wrench in his hands. At his feet sits a lead pot, ladle, and a pig of lead. The eyes of the community point upward with faces of humility toward the plumber. The line of people to support the art of plumbing stretches as far as the eye can see.

Another message is that plumbing is global, which is portrayed with the image of the world that sits behind the plumber. Near the top of the poster its states, “The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation.” The words bring the messages together with the fact that plumbing plays a leading role in our human existence.

This poster has been used to promote the art of plumbing for more than 93 Years. Do you think this poster correctly portrays plumbing today? Can you pick out what has changed in plumbing that has made this poster obsolete? Has plumbing become less of a human need? Or, has our society changed along with our American values and vision for a higher standard for life?

The plumber is no longer a man in overhauls handling a pipe wrench standing next to the lead pot and ladle. It can be seen as a positive change that plumbing has created a new environment that is more accepting of women in the workplace, which is a good start for the rebranding of the art of Plumbing.

However, the plumber also is no longer put on a pedestal to rise above all others. Technology in plumbing has developed and the artifacts of the lead pot with ladle have been assigned to plumbing museums. The standards and ethics of plumbing have been diminished to a point where society and even some plumbers now look down at this profession. As illustrated in cartoons, plumbers have the butt-crack of jokes. The importance of this trade and the life it brings is at an all-time low. The change of attitude from society gives rise for the need to reinvent and rebuild our profession.

This matter of urgency became apparent as we all watch as the state of Texas had talks of dismantling of the State Board of Plumbing Examiners, which is responsible for licensing plumbers and investigating claims of unlicensed work or violations of the plumbing licensing law.

How did we get to this position of degrading ethics and standards? The age of new technologies in the plumbing field have brought about many different changes for installing, maintaining, or replacing plumbing systems. The new materials and the tools have had a direct effect on the profession. This has also placed a change in the education for the trade. New technologies mean teaching new plumbing skills. We no longer value the skills of soldering, brazing, packing oakum, pouring hot lead into soil pipe connections, handling lead water piping, and the need to be able to lift heavy cast iron fixtures. While these changes have made our profession less labor intensive, they have also opened the door for more people to practice the art of plumbing without significant training or extensive knowledge.

There is a need for a new definition. I propose that plumbing is, “the art of supplying the tools, materials, and systems for a higher quality of life standard supported for proper human health.” We must build a new bridge between the past and right now! I am on a campaign to reeducate, invest, and develop tools along with systems that will aid in protecting human health and comfort. I am calling for unity. We must stand together for the rising of standards, ethics and values for human cleanliness. And, we must start with education.

In order to maintain a society of health, we need to attack the root causes for sickness. To support complete human health, I’m calling on plumbing professionals to address indoor air pollution, which can be 2 to 10 times more polluted than outside air pollution.

Our outside environment felt the direct effects of 9/11. After that event, we gained a better understanding and appreciation for air sickness, cancer, quality of life, and health issues. I believe we can use this experience to also understand and control our indoor living environment.

Plumbing professionals are already involved with indoor air quality. Plumbing Principal #12 of the National Standard Plumbing Code addresses exhausting foul air to the outside of the building. The two reasons we exhaust air out of a bathroom are foul odors and humidity.  Plumbers also use air when protecting water systems from cross contamination to the potable water supply, the air gap.

There is also a focus on addressing the lack of air quality in hospitals. Aerators are usually prohibited in hospitals because any airborne bacteria or disease in the air may enter into the potable water supply as it passes through the faucet spout opening. When talking about human health and providing an environment of healing, the proper amount of humidity inside of a hospital has certain health benefits. In the 2016 ASHRAE HVAC Systems and Equipment Handbook – Chapter 22, there is a chart that shows the OPTIMUM Zone for Relative Humidity. This zone supports improved healing process, reduced healthcare acquired infections, improved hydration, and decreased infections. By controlling the relative humidity, you also create an environment that cannot support static electricity.

ASHRAE Standard 170 section 6.6 deals with humidifiers in hospitals. Before the 2013 addendum to this standard, humidity was created by Isothermal Humidification (steam).  Added in the addendum M is Adiabatic humidification system, which is a system of high-pressure water spray. The cost benefit to this system is that it does not require any heating source.  Another fact for humidity is the use as a potable water source. Humidity is used for the technology of Atmospheric Water Generators. These water generators produce potable water from the inside or outside humidity.

Human health is supported and plays a great role for life in a clean environment of which we drink and breathe in clean, oxygenic, potable water! If we use the facts, plumbing professionals can move our society forward.  I call on the plumbing profession to take up this issues of indoor air quality and humidification. Together, we can tackle the inside environment to mitigate human health dangers of molds, mildews and stagnation of air and humidity.

The industry of plumbing has a history and a future of providing human health systems. Let us come together with a new, 2020 vision to return to the “Art of Protecting Health for All!”


About the Author

Mr. Paul M. Onder works as a public-school teacher working with high school level students, and is responsible for educating them on the trade of Plumbing. With over 40 years of trade experience, he is a former graduate from Passaic County Technical and Vocational High School, Wayne NJ. Afterwards he received his New Jersey Master Plumbing License at the age of 22. He received 4 months of Chemo therapy for a blood cancer while working as the district Plumber for a Public School system in northern New Jersey. After this experience, Paul was inspired to write about reinventing his Life after cancer treatment in the Fall of 2010. He quit his job so to go on so to become an educator. While teaching HVAC/r for a private trade school he became interested in the effects of Humidity, comfort and human health needs. Paul is inspired daily from his experience in cancer treatment and reflexes on rebranding and humidity while crafting the art of teaching. He seeks to become a leader for the industry of plumbing.