55 Years in the Plumbing Business With No Regrets

By H. Kent Craig, Special to CONTRACTOR Editors note: The 55-year plumbing career of Harold H. Craig nearly coincides with the 50-year history of CONTRACTOR. He was in business for himself from 1949 to 1999 in Cary, N.C., with his wife, Mildred Craig, running the office. From 1945 to 1949 he had apprenticed with Vickers & Ruth Plumbing Co. in nearby Raleigh. Harold Craig is the father of CONTRACTOR

By H. Kent Craig, Special to CONTRACTOR

Editor’s note: The 55-year plumbing career of Harold H. Craig nearly coincides with the 50-year history of CONTRACTOR. He was in business for himself from 1949 to 1999 in Cary, N.C., with his wife, Mildred Craig, running the office. From 1945 to 1949 he had apprenticed with Vickers & Ruth Plumbing Co. in nearby Raleigh. Harold Craig is the father of CONTRACTOR columnist H. Kent Craig, who recently interviewed him at his home in Raleigh.

Question: What is the biggest single change you’ve seen regarding plumbing in the 55 years you’ve been in the plumbing business?

Harold H. Craig: Without a doubt it would have to be the change from cast-iron drain pipe and galvanized steel DWV and water pipe over to plastic. Plastic pipe revolutionized our industry more than any other single thing.

Q: How so?

HHC: When I was first starting out, there weren’t even any Charlotte-seal-type gaskets for hub cast-iron pipe. It was all lead joints, which took a lot of time and a lot of knowledge and skill. Not just anyone had the aptitude to work with cast-iron pipe, not and do so efficiently.

Q: Sounds like you’re saying there’s less skill involved in using plastic DWV pipe?

HHC: There’s definitely less craftsmanship involved now, yes, even on commercial jobs that still use no-hub cast-iron pipe and no-hub bands. It’s not like the old days of poured-lead-and-oakum hub cast-iron jointed pipe.

Q: What about the productivity increases that come with the use of modern materials? Isn’t that a good thing?

HHC: For the most part, yes. It definitely has saved the consumer money in the short and long runs. When I first started out as an apprentice in 1945 under Frank Ruth of Vickers & Ruth Plumbing, it would take an entire week, five full days of hard work, to rough in a small house consisting of a single bathroom, kitchen sink and washing machine connections. Now a single mechanic without a helper could come close to doing that same amount of work in under half a day.

Q: Wow! It would take five days to do that little bit of a rough-in? I never knew that!

HHC: Of course, improvement in tools, especially power tools, had something to do with that. In the days before large power drills and Sawzalls, we used to use what is called a “ship’s auger,” which was a hand-cranked, hand-powered ratcheted drill. Using a ship’s auger was the only way you could drill holes in the tight spaces between wall studs for pipe. And to saw in tight places, a keyhole saw with its pointed triangle-shaped blade was the only way to be able to cut out enough flooring for a tub drain/waste, for example.

Q: I remember that old ship’s auger you have. It had to be back-breaking work.

HHC: It was hard work but not so much back-breaking work. What was truly back-breaking work was having to hand-dig pits for pre-cast septic tanks and then 150 ft. or so drainfields for them. I remember one time a driver for Charlotte Pipe showed up to drop off a load of cast iron pipe and asked me if I was “the owner of this here plumbing company.”

When I replied, “Yes,” he made the crack, “Well, I bet you’ve never done a day’s real work in your life.” When I asked him if digging out, by hand mind you, two 8-by-8-by-6-ft. deep septic tanks holes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, setting the tanks and then throwing enough dirt in beside them to keep them from floating out just in case it rained that night, all before dusk, was a real day’s work, he laughed, “Lawd, I won’t ever say you ain’t done a real day’s work again, Mr. Craig!”

Q: Didn’t they have backhoes and other excavators back then?

HHC: Some of the larger contractors who could afford them did, but I never used or rented one, not starting out at first.

Q: Why not?

HHC: Because all my competitors were like myself, small and just starting their companies and they also hand-dug most of their holes and ditches out too, and if I had included the price of a backhoe and/or operator in my bid for the job, I wouldn’t have got the job, that’s why.

Q: If plastic pipe replacing cast-iron and steel pipe has been the single greatest innovation in plumbing in the past 55 years, what do you think was the greatest single plumbing product or item that has come along during that time?

HHC: Without a doubt, the single-lever Moen faucet. You remember how much Moen brass I sold over the years, thousands of them.

Q: I do.

HHC: We still have the original Moen kitchen faucet on that Elkay stainless steel sink that was installed in 1964, literally 40 years ago. The cartridge’s been replaced a half a dozen times since then but the body of it is still in almost new condition, will last another 40 probably. Moen’s simply that great a product. In the days before modern plumbing showrooms, you remember how I used to bring customers here to show off the fixtures in our house?

Q: Yes.

HHC: And that faucet there helped sell a lot of units and made a lot of my customers happy. That’s what I miss most about being retired now, miss my customers.

Q: They were legion and all swore by you.

HHC: Fifty-five years in the trade, 50 years of being in business for myself, only two unhappy customers in all those years and we eventually made those happy too.

Q: Any regrets?

HHC: None.

Q: If you were a young man of 25 or so, would you go back and do it all over again, knowing what you know?

HHC: Yes, in a heartbeat. I loved the plumbing business and the plumbing business was very good to me.

Q: So, you would recommend plumbing as a career to a young person starting out?

HHC: Yes, but let me say this: I think for most young people wanting a career in construction, they should consider the electrical trade first, then plumbing, then heating and air conditioning, in that order.

Q: I didn’t expect you to say that. Why would you recommend the electrical trade over plumbing for a young person?

HHC: For most young people, not all. Because the electrical trade has a higher status and potential to make more money than plumbing or heating, mainly because the licensing requirements are tougher and with the Internet and communications and all, the future is brighter for licensed electricians than it is for Master Plumbers.

Q: But you just said you’d still go back into plumbing if you were starting out all over again.

HHC: I would, because I love plumbing, and as long as there will be people there will be a need for plumbers. Plumbers more than any other trade have improved the health and quality of life for most of the people in this world. But mainly I’d go back into the plumbing business because I love the people.

Q: What about the future of plumbing and plumbing technology? Any thoughts?

HHC: Gravity will always make water roll downhill and people will always need clean water and safe sewage disposal so there will always be a need for qualified plumbers. Remember when we got that “Record-O-Fone” answering machine, one of the first in that state? That helped our customers stay in contact with us, as cell phones do now. I remember when copper pipe began replacing galvanized water pipe in most new houses being built, resulting in labor savings of half-a-day’s time and making for better-tasting water from the tap too. Technology will continue to improve pipe and fixtures, but plumbing will always be plumbing, and this world will always need qualified licensed Master Plumbers to run plumbing businesses.

H. Kent Craig notes: At age 83, my father is the oldest licensed Master Plumber in North Carolina. He retired with honors.