Be honest. How many of you have found it easy to explain what you do to for a living to your family and closest friends? I ask because it’s never been that easy for me. I’m often referred to as the “writer” in the family… or the guy who knows a fair amount about the construction industry (based on an earlier job where I covered the asphalt, masonry and concrete industries for 12+ years)… or (for the past two years) the plumbing guy. And I regularly receive a steady stream of related questions.

My consistent attempts to clarify that my plumbing knowledge is niche-oriented as an editor focusing on the needs and interests of commercial plumbing designers (no disrespect to contractors intended) somehow gets lost, a victim of selective hearing.

Figuring that plumbing designers face the same obstacle, I posed the opening-paragraph question to designers interviewed for last month’s cover story (“Women in Plumbing Engineering,” Sept. 2008), but added a follow-up question as well: Is it hard to convey to others the importance of plumbing engineering?

Consider some of their responses…
Angela Bowman (Capital Engineering Consultants, Inc.)
“Most of my family and friends understand what I do but they do not understand all the detailed work and calculations that go into it.  Many think that you just place pipe and valves.  They have a tendency to mix up a plumber for a plumbing engineer. Once they get the general idea as to what needs to be accomplished for the design, they can follow along.”

Carol Johnson, CPD (Whitaker and Rawson, Inc.)
“My family does not grasp plumbing design or what the work entails. When I try to explain what I do I find the translation intriguing. After overhearing a litany of questions from my sister, my eight-year-old niece explained to her that, ‘Aunt Carol saves people’s lives.’ So yes, ‘I save lives,’ ‘I save buildings from fire,’ ‘I make the poo-poo water clean,’ and most of all, ‘I know how things work.’”

Renae Torborg, P.E. (Target Corp.)
“My grandfather and father, having worked in construction, understood the concept of plumbing drawings, but others felt I just ‘drew lines.’ After I completed several major projects and my family received nightly descriptions of my daily events and details of each building I designed, they began to understand that these ‘lines’ actually represented something that was dictated by codes and calculations. They now seem to understand the concept of what I do.”

I didn’t ask them the headline question because I assume they hear it enough - particularly someone like engineer Susan Hunter, vitreous china manager of product development for Gerber Plumbing Fixtures LLC and Danze, Inc.
“My friends and family generally understand that I develop toilets and other bathroom fixtures and work closely with the factories to bring a good product to our customers.  They know from real-life experience the difference well-engineered plumbing fixtures can have on their daily life. No one likes a plugged toilet.”

Just as I suspected: De-plugging follows design. (With a plunger nearby, just in case.)