Technology today advances at an astounding pace. The advent of the electronic revolution coupled with new, better and readily available materials and products have seen our industry explode in areas that, heretofore, plodded snail-like into grudging acceptance.
Take, for example, the acceptance and use of PEX and other plastics that are ubiquitous today. Forgive an old guy for bringing this up, but it wasn’t that long ago that galvanized steel pipe, threaded and coupled, gave way to red brass pipe, which gave way to copper tube for potable water systems. Hub and spigot cast iron soil pipe, cut with a hammer and cold chisel, gave way to No-Hub (I can remember a time when, on the East Coast, inspectors would red-tag NoHub used in remodel work). NoHub gave way to DWV copper and DWV copper eventually gave way to PVC/DWV and ABS/DWV.
Radiant heating applications for in slab or below floor use were always made of copper tube. Today, there are many plastics that have replaced copper for that application. Not only are these space-age materials better in almost every way than the material that they replace, they cost considerably less and require less (sometimes a lot less) labor to install. Risking nasty-grams from the copper tube manufacturing industry, it can be said that the failure rate of plastics like PEX versus copper tube are remarkably superior in most applications. Likewise, ABS and PVC for sanitary soil/DWV use is considerably less labor intensive than cast iron or DWV copper and they provide service as good as, or better than, the aforementioned cast iron pipe.
There are, of course, applications and uses for these first generation materials, but they are being overtaken and surpassed by the newer technologies and materials at a rapid pace. Also, the skill sets of the trade are changing to accommodate these new materials. There is little or no use in learning how to wipe lead bends to brass ferrules, or lead burn, when modern materials preclude the need for such skills. Computer skills, communication and training on methods for joining, installing and otherwise manipulating the newer materials make much more sense today than those antiquated skills, much is the pity.
Embracing the future
The question then becomes: are you keeping up with the advancing technologies and materials? Perusing this magazine and other trade publications, one might think that there are new materials, systems and products coming out every day. That is not far from the truth. However, most of these products are variations on a theme. Take line inspection and locating technology as an example. The desired result of purchasing this type of equipment is to inspect the interior of soil or drainage pipe for deterioration, stoppages or other flaws, as well as electronically locating the line below a slab or underground. While there are several companies that make this type of tool, the tools all do the same thing. The bells and whistles may be different, but the inherent technology is the same.
When considering incorporating new materials of technologies into your business, keep in mind your ultimate goal; making money! Discount the “WOW!” factor when adopting a new piece of equipment or using a cutting edge, but untried, technology and keep your eye on the bottom line. Investing in a new “toy” that gets scant use and/or is a service headache might be fun at first, but if it doesn’t make you money, pass on it.
Conversely, buying an expensive new tool that you actually need can sometimes give you heartburn too. You know the tool or piece of equipment in question will be a benefit to your company, but you can’t bring yourself to part with the cash to buy it because you can’t quite see the payback or benefit immediately.
Keeping your flexibility
Trying to keep current in our rapidly changing industry can be a daunting task, but blindly embracing new technologies and materials without benefit of proper research and experience (yours or others) can be just as damaging to your bottom line.
It is truly a great time to be in the trade. The changes are so dramatic and there are so many of them it can be almost overwhelming. The real trick is to balance your desire to incorporate new and better technologies and materials into your business while keeping the things that “got you to the dance” going.
In some cases, architects, owners and engineers will specify new products or procedures on your project(s). In such a case, you have no choice but to use the new products/methods specified. Look at instances like this as an opportunity to expand your knowledge and become proficient in the use of new materials/technologies while being paid for it. Never be afraid of new technologies, but approach them with caution and make sure you have done your due diligence. Maintain your ability to either embrace the new or back off if such action is warranted.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].