This one's for Mark
Guys that have known each other for a long time and are now cruising toward sixty don't much notice each other's age. It's like a bunch of bananas going from green to yellow to slightly brown all together. It is what it is.
"What did you do to your shoulder?" I asked.
"I was moving stuff. I hurt it a few weeks ago. It's not getting any better." He shrugged. "What can you do?"
"I threw out my back last year," I said. "I just moved the wrong way and that was that. It took me months to get straightened out. We don't bounce as high as we used to."
"Gotta go to work, though," Mark said, and I nodded. Yes, we do.
Mark works for a local contractor now. His father was a plumber and he drew Mark into the business. Mark had other dreams at the time, but a man has to make a living. My father once told me that I should be in the heating business because it gets cold every winter. It's like money in the bank, he explained, the next best thing to a Civil Service job. It wasn't my dream, but once you start a journey, it's difficult to change, especially when you have a family.
Years ago, Mark worked at a local supply house, and then for a local oil company. He tried it on his own for a while and now he works for a local contractor. It's a good company and they've been around for a long time.
"I wish I could go on your website," he said, but I don't have the time. I'm working six days a week and I try to get to sleep by nine-thirty. I'm up real early.
"When I get home from work, I eat, and then sit with The New York Times. I love reading. I read Plumbing & Mechanical as soon as it gets here. I start with either you or Siegenthaler and then read the rest. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. All of you write about the business, but it's not the business in the trenches. Guys like me need you to write about that."
He reached into an envelope and took out a few dozen photos of a job that has been going on for two years. It's a house being built for people who have too much money, and it has miles of pipes and wires.
"Look at the size of this place," Mark says. "The architects didn't give us more than a closet for a boiler room. And the interior desecrators make it even worse."
That's was one I hadn't heard before – interior desecrators. He said it several times while we were eating. I didn't made much of it, just remembered it.
"What about the engineer?" I asked. "The engineer should be looking down the road toward service. He should be working with the architect to get you the space you need. If you can barely get the equipment into the room, and the pipes, wires, and everything else are all competing for space inside thin walls, the engineer needs to step up. Who's doing the engineering?"
"That's part of the problem us guys in the trenches face, Dan. The engineer, if you want to call him that, is the rep. The rep sells us on the equipment and lays out a sketch, but when things start going wrong we can't get hold of him. I call with a problem that's, like, right now, and the guy calls back in maybe three days. I tell him what's going on and he tells me I'm doing a great job. And then the next thing I know, the rep is handling another line, or the guy that did the layout for the rep has moved to another company and guys like me are left there to make it all work."
I shook my head. "You're not the engineer. You can only do what someone tells you to do. You're not responsible for that part of the job. You're there to install, not design."
"And even that's a problem, Dan. They want me to install a three-inch pipe inside a wall that the architect specs to have exactly three-and-a-half inches of internal space. The outside diameter of that pipe is three-and-a-half inches. It can't be done."
"Then it can't be done," I say.
Mark holds up his right hand, as if he's holding a Nextel. He's moving his thumb in and out. "You didn't get that done yet? What's taking you so long? When you gonna be finished? Let's get going? We're losing money!"
On the other end of the Nextel is, of course, the boss. Or someone from the other trades.
"I'll tell them not to sheetrock that wall and the next day it's completely sheetrocked, so now I've got a fight on my hands. And all the while, there's hammering, banging, and the air compressors are going off, and the older I get, the more the noise gets to me. And these guys with the nail guns are using ten times as many nails as carpenters used to use. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam! So if I have to drill for a pipe, I've got to grind a dozen nails out of my way, and all of this takes time. And now they're using these high-tech support beams that we're not allowed to drill through. How can I get pipe from here to there? This is what you need to tell about, Dan. This is the real business."
"I don't think it will change much if I do," I said. "Most of the people who read my stories are people who are going through the same thing as you're going through."
"No, I think the suppliers and reps will see it, Dan, even the architects. I know some architects who get Plumbing & Mechanical every month. And the owners will see it too. People read you.
"And I don't want to bother you, but I hope you can tell about what we're going through in the trenches. In the magazine, you all write about business, and this is part of the business, I know, but it's a different part, and no one's writing about it."
"I'll write about it," I said.
Mark smiles and rubs his sore shoulder. "I get this snowmelt job," he says. "The rep is showing all these circuits and each one is 360-feet long. We start pulling the tubing according to his sketch and we get halfway through the circuit and we're out of tubing. He hadn't figured the tube to and from the manifold box. I call the rep and find out he's in New York City at a convention. Can't call me back for a couple of days. What am I supposed to do? When he finally gets back to me, he tells me to use more tube and run the water hotter and that should work. What if it doesn't? He tells me I'm doing a great job.
"The first time it snows, the owner is screaming because the snow is melting over where the tubes are, but not everywhere. At least not fast enough. No one has told the guy what to expect."
Mark starts talking on the imaginary Nextel again. "You finished yet? Let's get moving! We're losing money!"
The check came and I fought him for it but he insisted on paying. "I invited you," he says, and I tell him I'll get the next one, which I hope will be soon. I need to spend more time with Mark and with guys like Mark. None of us is telling their story often enough.
You know what I think? Any job that needs an architect is a commercial-grade job. This job should also have a professional mechanical engineer in the mix. The owner needs to just suck it up and hire the engineer, someone who can take on full responsibility for the mechanical systems, and take on the architect and the interior desecrator. That engineer needs to explain to the architect that looks are one thing, but the place needs to be plumbed and cooled and heated, and the air needs to be cleaned. And all this mechanical equipment takes up space and has to be installed in a way that makes it serviceable because everything mechanical will eventually break down.
This idea of having the rep act as the engineer on a project is just nuts, and it's guys like Mark who pay the price for such a silly practice. The owner has money for everything else. Let him hire an engineer.
And I think that unless this happens, contractors should refuse to do these jobs.
Oh, and if you're an Über Contractor who knows all there is to know about everything mechanical and don't need an engineer to guide you and save you from the architects and the desecrators, good for you.
I'm not speaking for you today.
Today, I'm speaking for Mark. He's the ordinary, hard-working guy who's just trying to get the job done right and get home without an ulcer.
This one's for Mark.