To close the series, our participants provide an assessment of current and future challenges all plumbing engineers face - including LEED and jurisdictional code compliance.



Aware of the small but growing number of women plumbing engineers, pme this past year has printed an exclusive roundtable series featuring several women plumbing engineers. Part 1 ran back in Sept. 2008, and Part 2 appeared in May 2009. The editor of pme welcomes your feedback on this series. Look for other exclusive roundtables in the future.

What are the greatest challenges plumbing engineers, in general, and women plumbing engineers, in particular, face today?

Bowman: One of the greatest challenges that plumbing engineers still face is that many within the industry still do not understand all that is involved with the design. Meaning, many think that the only thing we do is run water and waste and that it is really easy. Well, it is not! There are many calculations, codes to read and many other items to know. One of the biggest challenges that women plumbing engineers face is themselves. You must be confident to be a woman engineer in general.

Johnson: The job is more challenging simply because projects move at a much faster pace than they have in years past. However, I believe the greatest challenge for engineers of any discipline, regardless of gender, is balancing family life and career. Among other things we must nurture the children in our lives and are often the primary caregivers for our family members. Because both family and career can be time-intensive, these familial responsibilities can clash with a strong commitment to do our jobs well.

Wengender: The greatest challenge I have been facing is the workload demand. If there is a nationwide recession, it hasn’t hit the types of clients who are hiring my firm. We have been very busy for a long time. It is important to feel like you have enough time to design and produce quality documents for construction. Getting calls in the field from contractors about omission or errors is frustrating. And as much as I enjoy my career, I also need to ensure I have plenty of time to spend with my family. Finding the perfect balance between work and home can be a challenge.

Thomas: One major challenge for plumbing designers is water conservation. With this area of the country being draught stricken, we are constantly looking for ways to conserve water. There are often solutions for water conservation but the owner does not have the financial resources for the initial cost or the possible additional maintenance costs. These challenges are faced by all plumbing designers. Many feel construction is a “man’s world.” Thankfully, this perception tends to be disappearing in the industry.

Torborg: The greatest challenge is figuring out the differences in plumbing codes and practices from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Even if the jurisdiction follows a model code, there are always amendments and exceptions to their adopted plumbing code. I find this especially challenging when working throughout the entire country. 
I have experienced times when my directives to the field are not taken seriously, but directives from a male engineer are acted on immediately. What works for me is to balance assertiveness with humility.

Balz: I feel the greatest challenge we face is the diminishing population of plumbing engineers. At our chapter meetings, I see more and more people retiring. I see younger faces, but it seems like they are fewer than those retiring. I think we will be seeing more and more projects being done by fewer people. 
Acceptance in a male-dominated field I think is the greatest challenge faced by women plumbing engineers. However, I have noticed more and more acceptance now than I did when I first started in the industry. I think as time goes on, women will be commonly accepted.

Hunter: I think the biggest challenge from the plumbing fixture side is continuing to make our products work at high performance levels on less and less water. With the emphasis on green design and the real water shortages seen in some areas of the US, the demand for high efficiency toilets and urinals has grown tremendously.
I think the biggest challenge faced by women plumbing engineers is getting the opportunity to establish credibility in their chosen area. I took every opportunity that presented itself to learn something new and increase my depth of knowledge and experience.

Kocherhans: Everywhere I have worked, the plumbing end of a project is usually considered the part that can be thrown together at the last minute, and a lot of engineers consider themselves above doing it. It used to be that there were no plumbing engineers/designers, the mechanical engineer did it all. But now most firms have their own plumbing engineers/designer. Plumbing engineering for women is difficult because we need to learn not only the engineering part but also what happens in the field, and that is something that we as women don’t usually get the opportunity to do.

Enriquez: Plumbing engineers will be challenged to get fully involved in sustainable development and design. The greatest challenge faced by women plumbing engineers is to demonstrate that they are equal to their male counterparts, if not better.

How prevalent is green design/LEED in your daily work?

Johnson: Two years ago, the term LEED was simply not introduced during discussion of project scope. Today LEED is mentioned on a daily basis, often multiple times each day. Our region has not accepted the initial cost associated with LEED and, although it may be discussed in application, most buildings do not LEED certify. However, regionally the low-flow fixtures are being requested and installed much more often for the water savings alone. I believe that LEED benefits and design concepts will eventually become the design standard as our environmental and traditional resources decrease.

Wengender: Most clients are becoming concerned with designing around energy efficiency. Elements of green design are becoming more common on even simple projects. Even when projects aren’t going for LEED certification, elements can be added to improve energy efficiency without large cost implications. We keep up to date with these requirements and incorporate whatever green elements make sense for our client. I think this will become as commonplace as ADA requirements in the near future.

Thomas: Community Tectonics Architects has offered classes for testing preparation for the LEED certification exam. We realize the need for energy conservation and how the building design can be one of the driving forces. Many owners question possible ways for energy conservation, but often the project budget cannot afford these designs.

Torborg: As an engineer, I’m aware of the need to save resources and limit our impact on the environment. I’m impressed with the green building industry champions. Their message has impacted the general public in addition to those who design and construct buildings. The challenge in green and LEED design is to achieve a positive net present value for engineering initiatives.

Balz: Green design/LEED is very prevalent in my daily work. The majority of projects I work on are either going for LEED certification or want to design to the LEED standards without applying for the certification. More and more clients want to do their part to help the environment, especially by reducing water and energy consumption. The trend now is for projects to seek higher levels of certification. A couple of years ago just being certified or going for LEED Silver was normal. Now I see more clients pursuing LEED Gold or Platinum ratings. This is quite a challenge for laboratory buildings.

Hunter: The demand for high efficiency toilets and urinals has grown tremendously and will continue to be a primary focus of our development.

Kocherhans: LEED has not been really big in my office yet. We do have a couple of engineers certified in LEED, and we have had a few projects, but there are not that many LEED projects locally. I am sure that will change in the future and I look forward to learning more about the requirement and hope to be certified myself in the future. There are always new fixtures and new equipment coming out on the market that conserve water and energy. I try to keep up with these and look forward to actually putting them to use on LEED projects.

Enriquez: The majority of our current projects embrace and incorporate sustainability/green building design/LEED as part of our base design. This is very much the philosophy of my current company and is also required by most of our clients and owners.

How can women increase their presence in the plumbing engineering field?

Bowman: Women can become noticed for their work and knowledge. Women need to be strong and assertive within their position and with the people they work with. I have found that many people respect my ideas and proposed solutions because I am a strong person. Also, do not be afraid to say that you do not know something. I think many women are concerned that they will look incompetent to their male counterparts. You actually look better to say that you do not know something and will have to look into it than saying one thing and changing it later.

Johnson: My advice to any woman who wants to become a presence in plumbing engineering is: [1] Learn your craft - knowledge is key; [2] Become an active professional by building a strong network; [3] Make the decision that you want to succeed and go for it; and [4] Each day you have an opportunity to choose what you want to do and do well.

Wengender: Since day one of entering my college mechanical engineer classes, I realized that women are a minority in this industry. In my office, the ratio is more equitable, when you include the architects and interior design staff. But on a construction site, there are definitely fewer women. This fact has never been a major factor in how I am able to perform my job or how I am perceived. As school curriculums encourage all students to participate in math and science, and stereotypes for gender in these roles change, I think more women may end up in this type of career.

Thomas: The presence of women in plumbing engineering has increased since the beginning of my career. Early in my career, I would attend local and national ASPE meetings and attendance at these meetings by women was typically very sparse. This number seems to have increased each year. It would be beneficial if women would participate in local society chapter meetings to “network” with other designers. We should also attend trade shows as another way to meet vendors and possibly local contractors.

Torborg: Women engineers need to teach and mentor others, especially young women, about engineering. Women naturally excel at engineering because of our ability to be patient and attentive to detail.  Women also tend to be great communicators and speak well in front of others. Presenting and “selling” ideas to others is an important part of being an engineer.

Balz: It is hard to convince anyone to go into plumbing engineering since few people outside the industry really know what we can do. I think we need to convey to those entering college that plumbing engineering is more than toilet rooms and roof drains. There is a wide array of opportunities. Women already in the industry can help increase our presence by being active in the field. That can be done by sitting in on code committees, being a society officer, attending technical classes, and even presenting classes and seminars.

Hunter: Education is the first step to getting started. But most importantly, I think women engineers need to be encouraged to keep an open mind about working in non-traditional areas. They should not be afraid to take opportunities to learn about things they’ve never dealt with before and to get their hands dirty. It can lead to a very challenging and rewarding career.

Kocherhans: I see more and more women getting into the field of engineering. Women need to be made aware of all that is involved in the design of plumbing systems and the opportunities that exist for plumbing engineers/designers. If women would become more involved in their local ASPE or ASHRAE chapter and the activities that are presented, then maybe other women would get involved and realize that there are a lot of opportunities to succeed in this field. I personally think it would be great to see more women involved.

Enriquez: Be involved in engineering organizations like ASPE - not just by being a member but by being part of the board of officers. Attend seminars and training sponsored by any government or state offices. Join some of the architectural organizations’ committees that involve engineering participation. And always voice your opinions in any engineering discussions and meetings.

The Participants

Angela Bowman
Bowman works for Capital Engineering Consultants, Inc. in Rancho Cordova, CA, as an engineer. She joined Capital Engineering in Nov. 2004 as part of the healthcare team and has been assigned some of the biggest projects that our office has seen in recent years.

Carol Johnson
Johnson, CPD, LEED-AP, is senior plumbing and fire protection designer for Whitaker and Rawson, Inc., which was founded in May 1996. Johnson joined the team in May 1997. Since then, the firm has grown from six to 25 employees.

Jennifer Wengender
Wengender has worked for Clark Patterson Design Professionals, an architectural and engineering firm, for the past 10 years. She is the senior plumbing/fire protection designer at the firm and has been in the engineering field for 18 years.

Penny Thomas
Thomas is a project manager by Community Tectonics Architects, a full-service architectural and engineering firm located in Knoxville, TN. Thomas has been with this firm for four years, but she has worked in the plumbing design profession for more than 21 years.

Renae Torborg
Torborg is a lead mechanical engineer for Target Corp., designing the mechanical systems for new and remodeled Target stores around the country. Prio to joining Target, she worked as a mechanical engineering consultant in St. Paul, MN.

Susan Hunter
A degreed mechanical engineer, Hunter has spent her entire professional career in the ceramic industry. Currently, she is the vitreous china (VC) manager of product development for Gerber Plumbing Fixtures LLC and Danze, Inc.

Sarah Balz
Balz is a piping project engineer for Affiliated Engineers, Inc., located in Madison, WI, and has worked with the firm since 1996. She specializes in the design of plumbing, specialty gas piping, and fire protection systems for research and development projects.

Suzanne Kocherhans
Kocherhans is employed by Heath Engineering, a consulting engineering firm located in Salt Lake City, UT. She was hired as a plumbing designer and has been with Heath for five years, but has been working as a mechanical/plumbing designer for 17 years.

Vivian Enriquez
Enriquez is an Associate and the Plumbing Group Discipline Leader in the Los Angeles Office of Arup North America Ltd. She has more than 30 years of plumbing and fire protection experience on a wide range of projects, including high- and low-rise buildings.