Plumbers Training Institute 2021 Spring

Why We Need a More Gender Diverse Workforce

In 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that there are about 537,000 licensed plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters in the United States. But – only 2.3% of them are women.

Think about that for a second.

In the entire United States, there are less than 12,000 licensed female plumbers. To put that into perspective, you can fit the entire population of female plumbers into one section of Yankee Stadium. 

To understand why plumbing (and most trades industries) have been consistently male dominated for decades, we decided to see what the women in the industry today are saying.

According to Contractor Mag, two big hurdles that often keep women from pursuing a plumbing career are: 

  1. Gender stereotyping
  2. A lack of awareness among young girls (and young people in general) about all trades

First, we’ll share some stories from female plumbers who have experienced discrimination during their work, so we can acknowledge it and work on reducing gender discrimination/stereotyping. Then, we’ll highlight some women who are working on increasing awareness for plumbing as a viable and rewarding career.

Stories of Resilience

If a woman wants to pursue a plumbing career, there are still many people out there who may not take them seriously or think they’re doing “men’s work.” 

“Women wanting to get into the trades need to be prepared for some pushback,” says Linda Hudek, owner and plumber at LH Plumbing Services, LLC in Ohio. “Especially if it’s not at a family-owned company… that’s just the way of life.”

Alayna Chavez of Cool Today in Florida didn't let her gender discrimination experience detour her from working to bring more women into the industry.

Alayna Chavez of Cool Today in Florida recalled a time where she faced gender discrimination on the job.

“I had one customer who didn't accept me to do the work of a ‘man's job’ on his property (setting a toilet). So I gave him what he wanted and let him have another male plumber come out to do the job. Let's just say my technician stood up for me when the customer wondered how the company could send a woman out to set a heavy toilet and guarantee that it wouldn't leak. ‘She can install heaters, I'm sure a toilet is nothing to her,’ my technician told this customer.”

Is that type of “pushback” worth it for women who are interested in becoming plumbers? According to Leah Adelman, owner of Leah the Plumber in Saskatoon, Canada—absolutely

“The plumbing trade is the least picked by women, but I think it’s the most open to receiving women in the trades,” she says. “It’s a profession that’s well paid and you can live a good lifestyle on what you make as a plumber.”

Despite many female plumbers feeling like the profession is worthwhile for women, plumbing has had an “image” problem for many years that has kept it off the radar for many girls thinking about what they want to be when they grow up.

Plumbing’s “Marketing” Problem

Jayne Vellinga, the Executive Director of Chicago Women in Trades, said one reason there are so few women in the plumbing business is because they never hear about it growing up when ideas about a career are formed. 

“Gender stereotyping begins at a very early age,” Vellinga said. “Women don’t know much about the [trade] careers or benefits of the career. It’s just not presented as an option to women, either as students or adult students looking for work.”

Vellinga said hands-on work, for both boys and girls, has been cut out of the school system due to the push for everyone to go to college.

Courtney Wilkinson, vice president of Texas-based Benjamin Franklin Plumbing said “she was lucky” because her dad, the business’s founder, encouraged her to learn about all aspects of the business and plumbing industry as a whole.

Courtney Wilkinson, vice president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing of Arlington in Texas. Sourse: plumbermag.com

But Wilkinson recognizes that not every girl gets an upbringing like hers. That’s why she, and many others, are working on bringing plumbing to more girls at an earlier age.

Once it’s safe to do so again, Wilkinson’s company wants to visit local high schools to help educate students on trades careers.

“Just educating is what we’re trying to do. So once things open back up and they start allowing visitors back in schools, we can get rolling with that again,” Wilkinson says. “For years we couldn’t get into high schools at all to talk about our trade. So if we couldn’t even do that, what are the chances of getting a female into this industry? It’s slim to none.”

Other larger organizations like the National Center For Women’s Equity In Apprenticeship And Employment have created helpful resources, like this guide for apprenticeship outreach, to increase interest in the trades among women.

Another effective method for bringing more women into the plumbing world is word of mouth. Laura Ceja, the Special Representative for Training and Outreach at the United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, & Service Techs said women have to “take the lead and encourage other women to become plumbers and change the way the world sees our profession.” 

“Now, more and more, I hear women tell me stories of other women they met in the industry or a strong female role model in their life that changed the way they saw plumbing and encouraged them to become plumbers.”

Benjamin Franklin Plumbing has also picked up on this word of mouth encouragement method.

“Word-of-mouth has been our best recruiting method for women so far,” said Wilkinson. “I think as an industry we need to change and put in the effort — when we’re advertising for a technician or just spotlighting our female techs. I think that’s one of the best ways to approach this.”

Picture: Men vs Women graphic over the years

While the number of women in plumbing has risen over the years (but not by much), the industry still has a long way to go to achieve a more balanced workforce. That’s why we encourage you to participate in the simple yet effective “word of mouth method!” Whether you’re a man or woman, encourage your daughters, nieces, or even granddaughters to consider working in the rewarding industry that you’ve called your own for many years. With your help, there’s hope that we can increase the 2.3% to a much larger number by the time the next census comes.

Texas Storm Recovery: Stories “From The Frontline”

Last month, we wrote about how Plumbers Without Borders (PWB) organized a massive effort to bring plumbing supplies and volunteers to help Texas families recover from February’s devastating winter storm. While that blog was intended to bring more awareness to the volunteer effort, in this one we’ll focus on the current situation and the stories of those who answered PWB’s call for help.

Current Situation “On the Ground”

Before we get into the stories of plumbers across the nation who have helped in Texas, it’s important to remember that although it's been nearly three months since Winter Storm Uri, the recovery effort hasn’t slowed down. Here’s the experience of just one Austin, Texas-based plumbing contractor. 

Brad Casebier, owner of Radiant Plumbing, said they had 1,300 people on a waitlist at one point, and they’re still struggling to keep up.  

“We can do about 50 to 60 calls a day, and we’re still booking 300% over our normal rates. There’s not enough plumbers in Austin when things are normal. We typically run with an overage of calls, and now we have this backlog of all the normal service calls. It's going to take us a long time to get back to normal, and we’ll never catch up without outside help.”

Thankfully for local plumbers like Casebier, outside help was already on the way.

Outside Help Arrives

PWB Executive Director Carmela DiGregorio said after the word got out that Texas needed help, people from all over the country jumped into action. About 40 volunteers—including plumbers, apprentices, helpers and family members—came in weekly waves from California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Virginia. Many drove non-stop for several days.

She also explained that most of the plumbing problems tackled by volunteers involved burst water lines—from the incoming water to the fixtures in the house—often requiring plumbers to work in very tight and uncomfortable crawl spaces. Their focus was primarily on helping the most vulnerable residents: the elderly and under-resourced, disabled and uninsured people who were without water.

“Everyone, no matter their skill set, found many ways to help, including family member-business owners experienced with dispatching and assessing work orders, who proved extremely helpful in keeping the work rolling,” said PWB President and Chairman Domenico DiGregorio.

These are some of their stories:

Volunteer Stories

Retired master plumber Paul Mitchell, who spent a couple of months in the hospital recovering from COVID-19, trekked to Texas with his wife, Diane, a business administrator; their son Joel, a civil engineer; and their mechanically gifted grandson David. 

They pulled a trailer on a 1,200-mile journey, loaded with thousands of dollars of plumbing supplies donated from their church, friends and neighbors. In their first week, they restored water for 120 families in a multi-unit building.

“Everyone that we met was so appreciative of the help,” Diane Mitchell says. “I just want everybody to have their water back.”

Grandview, MO-based Morgan Miller Plumbing rescheduled work and gathered monetary donations as well as donated plumbing materials before loading up a plumbing service truck. Tosha Everhart and Jeff Morgan drove to Dilley, Texas, “with enthusiasm that they would soon be able to restore water to vulnerable residents who were without water for nearly a month,” according to the company’s Facebook page.

Taylor Edwards, an apprentice plumber from Tennessee, spent two weeks working with the team from Omega Plumbing of California. When asked what he learned from his volunteer experience, he says that "there's nothing better than lending a hand to someone who needs it most.”

Taylor Edwards, an apprentice plumber from Tennessee (center) with the team from Omega Plumbing of California. Source: Contractor Magazine

What’s Next

Today, according to Contractor Mag, hundreds of families who lost access to water after the storm now have safe water to drink.

“While volunteer plumbers—and all plumbers in general—are still hard at work helping countless families to get their broken pipes repaired, the scope of the remaining work is mainly about the remediation of water damage,” Domenico DiGregorio explains. “Community organizations throughout the state have mobilized to help residents with debris clean-up caused by burst pipes and broken fixtures that destroyed so much of the homes’ interiors. Restoring homes to a safe, livable condition will undoubtedly take months of work yet.”

Water Mission is winding down and finishing up with the remaining volunteers, but it’s contracted with some local plumbing companies to take care of any remaining projects.

If you were one of the volunteers who worked in Texas, we’d love to hear your story! Email us here and we’ll feature you in a future blog!

Tax Tips for Plumbing Professionals

The tax filing deadline may have been extended to May 17, 2021 for sole proprietorships and single-owner LLCs, but it’s never too early to start preparing! That’s why we’ve compiled some tax tips specific for plumbing contractors, courtesy of Phil Wuollet, a CPA from Arizona.

Know How to Report Income

One of the biggest tax issues that plumbing businesses deal with, according to Wuollet, is the different accounting methods. The two common methods, which impact how and when you report income on your financial statements, are cash basis and percentage of completion.

Cash Basis

This is the simpler of the two concepts most often used by smaller plumbing businesses. It means that when a business receives money, it recognizes it as revenue. 

Traditionally most plumbing contractors like to see things on a cash basis since it is straightforward and the tax obligation is in the same year the cash is received.

Percentage of Completion

Many bigger plumbing businesses that make over $25 million in revenue use the percentage of completion method. With this method, revenues and expenses of long-term contracts are recognized as a percentage of the work completed during a period. 

For example, a plumber contracted to install a system in an apartment complex can record revenue based on how much of that job is complete. If you complete 50% of a job, you record 50% of the revenue.

The way you record your revenue is dependent on your individual situation and Wuollet recommends discussing which option works best for you with a tax professional.

Take Advantage of AMT

Wuollet says even though no plumber needs to be a tax expert, it’s still important to know about some of the key things that affect them, like the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).

AMT Tax Form
AMT places a floor on the percentage of taxes a filer must pay to the government by recalculating income tax. Source: CREDO CFOs & CPAs

AMT places a floor on the percentage of taxes a filer must pay to the government by recalculating income tax. This happens by adding certain tax preference items into gross income.

The biggest problem most contractors have with AMT, according to Wuollet, is that they generally calculate AMT income using the wrong method. 

Small plumbing companies may find themselves out of compliance with AMT because they calculated their original income and AMT using the cash basis method instead of the preferred percentage of completion method. It is an area where many plumbers may not be compliant and it is due to this one simple mistake.

Understand PPP Loan Compliance

If your plumbing business took advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), there are a few factors to consider for tax filing. 

Generally, the federal government treats these loans as tax-free grants if a company used the money to maintain payroll during the pandemic. However, they can be a bit more complicated than that, says Wuollet. 

If your company had other debts, the PPP loans may have included covenants requiring your business to maintain a certain amount of assets to its liabilities. A loan covenant is a clause in your loan agreement that requires the borrower to do or refrain from doing certain things.

Secondly, some states do not maintain the same rules as the federal rules. The federal rules allow the forgiveness to be treated as a tax-free grant as well as allowing a deduction for the expenses paid using the PPP money. Companies will need to review the rules with their state to see if the loan forgiveness is taxable income.

Learn State’s Sales Tax Policies

Income tax from state to state is generally uniform, but sales tax is all over the place, says Wuollet. If your business recently started operating in multiple states, you’ll need to be ready to deal with different tax laws. 

Some states charge sales tax on materials while others pay sales tax on the job itself. In Arizona, for example, sales tax is different for repair jobs and large projects. If you do a repair, you pay taxes on the materials. If it is a large improvement/new construction job, you pay sales tax on the entire job itself. 

Understanding the sales tax in the states you work in will save you a lot of time and money when it’s time to file your taxes.

Tax time doesn’t need to be complicated and stressful, says Wuollet. By taking the time to organize everything and consider tips like these, filing your taxes will be a little easier.

If you want to look at more tax help resources, here’s a short list:

 

Plumbing Nonprofits Seeking Volunteers for Texas

In our last blog, we talked about how Winter Storm Uri created a major plumbing crisis for millions of people across Texas. Now, nearly a month later, the recovery process is still ongoing, and Texans need plumbers now more than ever. 

That’s why Plumbers Without Borders (PWB), a Seattle, WA-based nonprofit that normally works to bring clean drinking water to different countries, is shifting its focus to Texas.

Volunteers Wanted

Earlier this month, PWB partnered with Water Mission, another nonprofit water engineering organization, to set up and organize a volunteer effort to help the 14 million people affected by the winter storm.

“Nearly half of the residents in one of the largest states in the US are experiencing a plumbing catastrophe due to burst pipes from freezing temperatures and significant power outages,” said Water Mission CEO and President, George C. Greene IV, PE. “With such a broad need there is a huge demand for skilled labor and not enough hands to do the work.”

Plumbers Without Borders is working with many partners to bring vital services to the people of Texas. Source: PWB Instagram

According to PWB, what’s needed most right now are licensed plumbers who can drive to the Austin area with their tools and potentially plumbing pipe/fittings, since there is no guarantee piping materials will be available upon arrival. Plumbers with experience in retrofitting systems damaged by freezing temperatures are ideal.

PWB is asking volunteers to serve for a minimum of two weeks. All efforts are prioritized to address the most under-resourced residents with the most urgent needs, such as seniors, individuals with disabilities, and families without insurance.

In order to make the two week volunteer service time possible, plumbing manufacturer American Standard made a donation to help cover food, lodging, and any other expenses plumbers encounter while serving the community.

In a statement, Gene Barbato, the VP of Marketing at American Standard said “we understand that plumbers protect the health of the nation, and we are honored to partner with Water Mission and Plumbers Without Borders in these recovery efforts to mobilize skilled plumbers and provide much-needed supplies as quickly as possible. We ask any plumbers who can lend a hand, to please consider volunteering.”

How to Volunteer

PWB has a sign up sheet for local and out of state volunteers. Click here to enter your information and get started. You can also contact PWB at (206) 390-5000 or info@plumberswithoutborders.org if you have any questions.

Out of State Volunteers

If you live in a different state but still want to help, click here to apply for a provisional license that allows you to work in Texas.

Or, if you’re unable to physically travel to Texas and help, here’s a list of charities gathered by Texas Monthly that you can support.

Plumbers From Across the Nation Aid Texas in Storm Recovery

Last week, a major winter storm swept across many parts of the American south. The storm wreaked havoc in many states. But in Texas, it caused an ongoing power outage crisis. After the storm finally passed and temperatures started to rise, many Texans wanted to start recovering and get back to normal. But, as many plumbers know, extended power outages coupled with a quick freeze/thaw cycle brings one thing: burst pipes.

A broken water line flooding a church in Richardson, Texas is just one example of the plumbing issues Texans are facing right now | CREDIT: TONY GUTIERREZ/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK

Texas Facing Plumber Shortage

Temporary Regulation Changes - Only A “Band Aid” Solution?

Burst pipes, major leaks, and the many other plumbing related issues that emerged in the wake of the storm have exposed a major statewide workforce shortage. The need for plumbing services has become so overwhelming that Texas Governor Greg Abbott worked with the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners (TSBPE) (which the state tried to completely abolish in 2019) to create three temporary regulation changes.

  1. The Governor waived regulations for certain qualified Plumber’s Apprentices to allow them to perform plumbing repairs without ‘direct’ supervision by a licensed plumber so long as the qualified Plumber’s Apprentice works under the general supervision of a Responsible Master Plumber.
  2. Plumbers who were previously licensed by the TSBPE but whose licenses have expired for a period longer than 2 years may reinstate for a fee and without the current examination requirement.
  3. The yearly Continuing Education requirement is waived for all licenses and registrations with expiration dates in February, March and April of 2021.

Why Is Texas Struggling To Attract Plumbers?

While these temporary “band aid” measures are in place to get more Texas plumbers working again, many plumbers are arguing that there simply aren’t enough plumbers in Texas to meet demand. 

Chris Taylor, a field manager for Radiant Plumbing in Austin, said demand for plumbers has outpaced the number of available technicians. Radiant is currently receiving triple its normal number of calls per day, and the company has over 2,500 customers awaiting service.

“It’s heartbreaking, really. You’ve got a lot of people, thousands of people, that need help, that are desperate,” Taylor said. “And there’s nothing you can do for a lot of them because of the reality there’s not enough people out there to do the work.”

According to The Texas Tribune, factors like the state’s low minimum wage, a lack of cultural respect for “blue collar industries,” and a focus on college being the only path available after high school is keeping “plumbers from moving to Texas and young people from entering the industry.”

Out-of-State Help Arriving Just In Time

During last week’s storm, Gov. Abbott also signed orders allowing out-of-state plumbers to obtain provisional licenses to work in Texas. According to the Washington Post, Frank Denton, the TSBPE chairman, and his agency have been working long hours to accelerate the approval process for non-Texan plumbers. 

Out-of-state plumbers can submit an application that requires them to provide their licensing information and insurance coverage that meets Texas state standards. Because the demand is so high, the board has been working to process the applications in less than a day, Denton said.

“We are certainly inviting them to come to Texas. That’s for sure,” he said. “As a result, we’re trying to expedite and make it as seamless as possible.”

Good Samaritans From the East

Once this measure was in place, master plumber Andrew Mitchell, his apprentice (and brother-in-law) Isaiah Pinnock, and both of their respective families drove for 25 hours straight from New Jersey to Texas in order to help those in need.

The story about the brothers-in-law has garnered national attention, making plumbers throughout Texas and across state lines offer to send supplies as they run out. Other people who caught wind of their work through social media have offered financial help.

The generosity from others allows Pinnock and Mitchell to better help families who aren’t able to afford the costly repairs needed to restore some order in their lives, Pinnock said.

“A lot of people who go without water is because of financial reasons,” he said. “Yesterday, we went to a subdivision of very small houses and fixed income, and we could not feel right leaving them without running water.”

Pinnock said he and Mitchell coached “handyman uncles” and family members through repairs at about six homes in that neighborhood, leaving without much in their own pockets.

How You Can Help

If you would like to lend your expertise to the residents (and plumbers) in Texas who need all the help they can get, click here

If you know anyone who would like to become a licensed plumber or go from a journeyman to a master so they can go to Texas to help, click here then choose your state.

Or, if you’re unable to travel to Texas and help, here’s a list of charities gathered by Texas Monthly that you can support.

Here’s Why Industry Experts Are Feeling Optimistic About 2021

While there’s no doubt that 2020 was a difficult year for most of the country (and the world), plumbing industry professionals are looking to 2021 with cautious optimism. Below we’ll go over a summary of the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s (NKBA) annual Market Outlook Report, as well as some 2021 predictions from industry experts. 

NKBA StudyPredicts Large Kitchen & Bath Remodel Project Increase

According to the data gathered by the NKBA, 2021 residential bath and kitchen remodeling projects are expected to grow to $158.6 billion in 2021, a 16.6% increase from 2020.

“Last year, homeowners started the work of improving their living spaces with DIY projects. This year, with early distribution of the vaccine and other measures to reduce the public health impact of the virus, we expect to see continued renovations and more projects requiring our members,” said Bill Darcy, NKBA CEO.

NKBA research analyst Robert Isler says plumbing professionals should expect to see a shift to more “higher-end” and labor intensive home renovations in 2021. In 2020, more homeowners completed DIY-level projects due to a reluctance of having anyone in their homes. But in 2021, surveyed homeowners are expecting COVID-19 risks to diminish therefore want to address delayed remodels.

Industry Expert Predictions

Recently, Plumbing & Mechanical Engineer Magazine asked many plumbing industry experts for their opinions on what 2021 holds. Here are some of the highlights. 

Supporting NKBA’s project growth report, Kerry Stackpole, FASAE, CAE, CEO and executive director of Plumbing Manufacturers International said “individuals are choosing to invest disposable income into home improvements — many of which are plumbing related. We expect this general trend to continue into 2021, and according to the most recent PMI Market Outlook reports, retail sales of building materials and supplies through outlets such as Home Depot and Lowe’s continued to grow into the third quarter of 2020.”

Bruce Carnevale, CEO of Bradford White Corp., expects to see connected technology really start to take a foothold in the industry in 2021.

“Most of the growth in connected technology is going to be driven by the regulatory environment,” he says. “Washington, for example, has instituted requirements for grid-enabled products, which requires connected technology for heat pump water heaters. Demand for the technology will begin to hit critical mass in 2021, so that is definitely poised for growth.”

What a New Administration Might Mean for the Industry

According to Dominic Sims, CEO of the International Code Council, there are two key considerations for the industry to watch for now that Joe Biden is president: his support for increased infrastructure spending and workforce development.

“The president’s infrastructure platform calls for a significant investment in the country’s water infrastructure, as well as workforce training,” Sims says. 

Throughout the campaign, Biden supported investments to repair water pipelines and sewer systems, replace lead service pipes, upgrade treatment plants, and the construction of 1.5 million homes and public housing units. He also proposed a $50 billion investment in workforce training including community-college business partnerships and apprenticeships. 

“Programs to increase interest in the trades is critical for the HVAC industry, given much of the plumbing, mechanical and HVAC workforce is reaching the age of retirement. Without an emphasis on programs to increase interest in the trades, the industry could be facing a severe shortage of talent that will limit its overall growth and innovation,” Sims said.

Possible Challenges

There are plenty of reasons to be excited for what this year holds, but there are also potential challenges. 

“This is usually the time of year when local governments start making projections on proposed budgets,” Sims notes. “However, the tax base is a driver for most local economies, and this has been all-but non-existent for more than three-fourths of 2020. A September 2020 report from the Brookings Institute, a non-partisan think tank, projects that as a result of the pandemic, state and local income tax revenues will decline 4.7% in 2020; 7.5% in 2021; and 7.7% in 2022.”

Sims thinks the cost of lower tax revenue could bring greater delays in inspections and permit approvals which could, in turn, create “a ripple effect for all related industries.”

Despite these challenges, there are plenty of things in the plumbing industry to be excited about in 2021. What are you looking forward to? Let us know on social media!

Tips For Making Older Homes More Efficient

In this recent Plumber Magazine article, master plumber Anthony Pacilla shares some insight on how to convince customers that newer, more energy efficient water systems are worth the investment. Below is a shorter version for easier reading, but you can read the entire article here

Differing Situations

As a plumber, it may be obvious to you that newer systems like tankless water heaters, ultra-high-efficiency toilets, or rain collections systems are valuable for water conservation. But for people who live in older homes and in parts of the country with plentiful water supplies and relatively inexpensive utility costs, the benefits aren’t as clear. Most people in areas like this don’t look at their appliances or water waste as a worthwhile investment.

So how then can you “sell” customers on more efficient products? Start small.

Thinking Small

You don’t always need to overwhelm customers with big-ticket, state-of-the-art (and expensive) items. Instead, try to think of case-by-case opportunities where you can pair a “green solution” with an immediate result.

One simple example is telling a customer about the benefits of a lower water heater temperature. Not only does hotter water use more electricity to make, but it also wears down the water heater quicker. That sort of tangible suggestion resonates with a customer more than hypothetical energy savings after an expensive product installation. Or if you work in a warmer climate with a customer who has an electric water heater, tell them how a heat pump water heater takes humid air and uses it to heat the water. 

Making a Difference - Step By Step

For many homeowners, smaller changes are better for their home and their budget than large upgrades. If you can learn how to tie simple solutions into real-world applications, you can make customers feel like they are making a difference with their bills, while simultaneously helping the environment.

What are some of your favorite suggestions to give customers? Let us know on social media! 

New Wastewater Surveillance Programs Are Saving Lives

Back in July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that they were “getting their hands dirty” by tracking COVID-19 data from an unexpected source: wastewater.

The goal of the newly formed National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) is to work with states and local entities to collect COVID-19 data from wastewater testing and provide: 

  • An efficient pooled community sample.
  • Data for communities where timely COVID-19 clinical testing is underutilized or unavailable.
  • Data at the sub-county level.

Why Test Wastewater?

Lawrence Goodridge, a microbiologist who teaches at the University of Guelph, says “wastewater surveillance works because many infectious agents are excreted in bodily fluids, before and during active infection.”

It also allows local health officials to gather data without relying on people knowing that they’re sick and seeking medical help. To address a virus like COVID-19, which is often asymptomatic, Goodridge says “we need active surveillance systems that don’t rely on the actions of sick people.”

Wastewater surveillance first emerged back in the ‘60s when researchers at Yale University conducted several experiments to assess the effectiveness of polio vaccination. They tested sewage in Middletown, CT for various strains of the polio virus before, during, and after the vaccination program.

Wastewater Warnings

Monitoring wastewater also helps identify potential viral outbreaks before anyone visits a medical facility with symptoms. In 2013, researchers in Sweden reported that wastewater surveillance provided warnings of outbreaks of norovirus and hepatitis A virus, two causes of foodborne viral disease, two to three weeks before identifying any sick people.

Observed and theoretical time lags between infection and detection of increasing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in wastewater and the health system. Source: nature.com

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), COVID-19 “can be detected in wastewater up to seven days before infections lead to increases in clinical cases.” This early detection can “alert public health agencies of a potential surge in cases in a specific community and allow additional precautions to be put in place to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Local-Level Data Collection

With the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continuing to rise in the US, multiple states are starting to adapt wastewater surveillance measures.

In November, Michigan announced the creation of a COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Pilot Project, headed by both the MDHHS and the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). The pilot project is working with 29 local health departments, 19 laboratories, and at least 135 partner agencies/organizations to establish a “standardized network of wastewater monitoring systems across Michigan that will test wastewater for the presence of this virus.” You can click here to view an interactive map of current locations undergoing wastewater surveillance in Michigan.

Michigan’s Testing Process

According to the EGLE, Wastewater entering sewage pipes or wastewater treatment plants is sampled for COVID-19’s viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) pieces. The wastewater comes from homes or buildings in the corresponding service areas and represents sewage from the total number of people in that area, not individual people.

Samples are then analyzed by a laboratory to determine the number of virus gene copies present, which are then compared to the wastewater flow that occurred on the sample day and the population that contributed to the flow.

Depending on the turnaround time of the laboratory, results can be available up to seven days prior to routine notification of clinical test results to public health agencies. As an example, Michigan State University recently conducted local monitoring of wastewater, which identified a spike in COVID-19 one week before clinical and public health identification of a COVID-19 outbreak in East Lansing related to a local restaurant.

As plumbers, your work is truly vital. By ensuring everyone has properly functioning and efficient waste drainage systems, you’re contributing to effective wastewater surveillance and saving lives in your community! What are your thoughts on wastewater surveillance? Let us know on social media!

New Space Toilet Design Makes Long-Term Space Travel Possible

Back in June, we wrote about the increased demand for more eco-friendly and efficient “low-flow” toilets, and the potential plumbing challenges they can bring.

While low-flow toilets mainly rely on gravity to help use less water, imagine designing or installing an ultra-efficient toilet where there’s no gravity. That’s exactly what NASA engineers figured out for their astronauts with the new Universal Waste Management System (UWMS).

Image from nasa.gov

During a recent resupply trip to the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts installed the UMWS in order to measure how well it “recycles” liquids for long-term space travel. Yes, that means all liquids.

“We recycle about 90% of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat,” explains NASA astronaut Jessica Meir. “What we try to do aboard the space station is mimic elements of Earth’s natural water cycle to reclaim water from the air. And when it comes to our urine on the ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee!”

According to NASA, the UWMS was mainly designed around astronaut feedback relating to comfort and ease of use. It’s 65% smaller and 40% lighter than the old current space station toilet, and features improved integration with the ISS water system that aids in recycling more urine, which the astronauts do drink after it is filtered and processed.

How Toilets  Work In Space

With no gravity to rely on, space toilets use air flow to pull urine and feces away from the body and into the proper receptacles. A new feature of the UWMS is the automatic start of air flow when the toilet lid is lifted, which also helps with odor control. 

By popular (astronaut) demand, it also includes a more ergonomic design requiring less clean-up and maintenance time, with corrosion-resistant, durable parts to reduce the likelihood of maintenance outside of the set schedule. Less time spent on plumbing means more time for the crew to spend on science and other high-priority exploration focused tasks.

The Importance of Efficient Plumbing for Future Space Missions

As NASA prepares to return humans to the Moon and looks forward to the first human mission to Mars, life support systems like the UWMS will play a major role in keeping astronauts healthy and safe as they live and work farther from Earth than ever before.

Creating plumbing systems that operate at maximum efficiency is important for roundtrip missions to Mars, for example, which take about two years. The long journey means no opportunities to top off the water supply, which is why NASA’s goal is to reach 98% recycling rates before the first human missions aboard a proposed Mars transport vehicle.

The next time you spot the ISS moving through in the night sky, remember that the work you do is just as important in space as it is here on Earth.

Source: NASA.gov

How to Fight Jobsite Complacency & Stay Safe

When it comes to workplace safety, it can become easy to overlook the “small things.” For example, using small tools like a hammer or drill without a second thought. Or when someone takes seemingly “small risks” by failing to use fundamental personal protective equipment (PPE).

But “small” is relative. Losing a finger is not as horrific as losing a limb, but it is still disabling nonetheless and oftentimes is avoidable. No matter what you’re doing, think small — like good company safety managers do.

In this blog, we’ll cover ways to mitigate potential safety mistakes related to “small” hand tools and PPE by summarizing some U.S. Department of Labor guidelines. In short, those guidelines include:

Use the right tool for the job

You already know that a screwdriver is not a chisel, nor a Crescent wrench a hammer. But most of us have been guilty of using one hand tool to mimic another for the sake of convenience – even though they’re poor substitutes.

 The screwdriver lacks a chisel’s tempered and sharpened edge. The adjustable wrench is without a hardened, flat surface designed for a percussive strike. Misusing a tool, therefore, is not only ineffective in most cases, but also unsafe. The unhardened edge can shatter, sending shards toward your eyes; the rounded surface of the wrench can slip off and strike your hand instead.

“I’ve been there and done that. Everyone has,” says John Flanagan, safety manager of North American Pipeline Services in Freehold, New Jersey. “Usually it is using a wrench instead of a hammer or a hammer as a pry bar — the right idea, the wrong tool.”

Examine each tool for damage before use, and do not use a damaged tool

If the handle of a tool, whether plastic, wood or metal, is cracked or burred, tag it as damaged and ask your supervisor for a replacement. A cracked handle can fracture when pressure is applied, possibly injuring the user.

You might be tempted to “fix” the handle with something like duct tape. But all that does is impart false confidence in the tool’s integrity.

Avoid Complacency and Properly Use the Correct PPE

Failure to don the correct PPE, such as eye and face protection, when using hand tools is mostly a consequence of complacency.

“When an employee has done something a million times, there is a complacency risk,” says Chris Ravenscroft, owner of Koberlein Environmental in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. He says the risk is increased by the fact that jobs in the field, versus in a factory, present a variety of unique situations and conditions. However, the hand tools remain the same in every case, and protective gear is designed to work in all those situations and conditions.

Operate a tool according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

If a drill job has the potential to penetrate a live electric circuit, safety rules require using an insulated drill to protect the user against shock. Wrapping the handle of an uninsulated drill in electrical tape – get this - does not insulate it. Shocker, right?

Despite what seems like common sense, some time-pressed workers do it anyway for psychological comfort. These are often the same employees who can be seen passing a drill from one level to another by dangling it from its cord, a mishandling that can lead to damage of the tool or injury of another worker.

Beyond the Labor Department guidelines

While the Labor Department guidelines are helpful, they don’t cover every contingency. How about falling hand tools, for instance? If a falling wrench doesn’t strike and injure someone working below, the tool’s fall at least requires a worker to descend to a lower level and retrieve it.

“A lot of times a worker doesn’t attach a tool to a tether, uses the tool, and then goes on working and the tool falls out of his pocket or hands. And there you go,” says Kyle Irwin, founder of Irwin’s Safety, a Canadian safety management firm. “In most cases, if they are tied off, then the tools do not become a hazard. The problem is you don’t see that tying-off happening enough.”

Bad safety habits are generally universal in nature, but local conditions can produce one error of judgment over another. For example, working in colder climates usually means bulkier clothing, increasing the chance of clothes being snagged by a rotating machine or catching fire if unknowingly pressed against a hot drill bit.

Ravenscroft listed a couple of small tools that in his experience have proven to be the most problematic for workers. One is a device that spins wire cable to scour clogged pipes.

“It requires hands-on operation, and that requires a level of awareness. It calls for the right kind of gloves that don’t catch the material and cause it to twist.”

The other tool is an Arctic Blaster, which uses hot water and steam to thaw pipes through a hose. “It’s very efficient, but it’s a personal burn hazard and a fire hazard. Techs know when they take these tools off the truck that they represent real danger,” Ravenscroft says. To offset the intrinsic danger of the thawing tool, its use is addressed in annual training and the process of working with the tool is reviewed regularly.

A sometimes-unspoken issue in respect to wearing PPE is comfort. Is discomfort a reasonable excuse for not donning a hard hat or bulky gloves? 

“Yes and no,” Irwin says. “There definitely is ill-fitting equipment. But there are so many pieces of equipment manufactured: find one that will work. The larger problem is avoiding manufacturers’ recommendations. When using a respirator or dust mask, it should be a good fit, but a lot of people just grab a mask. That can give you false security that you’re being protected.

“Do what the manufacturers say you should do. It is the responsibility of an employer to see that employees follow the recommendations. It all boils down to everyone in a program taking some responsibility for himself.”

Flanagan acknowledges that equipment can be uncomfortable. “They are hard hats. I was in the service and had to wear a helmet. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing.” On the other hand, as safety manager, Flanagan says he tries to provide PPE that will be used. “I go out and order a couple dozen pair of gloves and say, ‘Here, try them out. Let me know how you like them. If you say it doesn’t work for you, OK, we’ll try something else.’ I try to accommodate each crew.”

Ravenscroft acknowledges that comfort “sometimes is an issue. So, making sure PPE is available and comfortable is as important as the expectation that employees will use it. We try to be understanding. Safety committee members are close to operations, and they know that safety glasses fog up and what can be done in that environment. We try to find the best glasses we can. The best might cost twice as much, but we’re not going to save a couple dollars and provide PPE that doesn’t work for our employees. It’s a balancing act.”

Seemingly small decisions like these by safety committees and managers are vital. They have a large impact on the lives of employees working in potentially dangerous situations.

Do you have any job-related safety stories? Let us know on social media!  

The unedited version of this article can be found here

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