Much of our learning in life comes from a consistent curiosity. Sometimes it can take years before we have an epiphany about something that may have puzzled us in the past. Experiencing that feeling of calm satisfaction wash over us after the initial spark of understanding is sometimes known as “Zen.” Other words associated with “Zen” include contemplation, meditation and absorption. That feeling of understanding — enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation — can happen unexpectedly after wracking our brains for hours under pressure to solve a critical path issue or years later after giving up on something that got the best of us.

Recently, I experienced Zen-type enlightenment at an ASPE (American Society of Plumbing Engineers) meeting. The speaker was giving a presentation on water quality, and while a lot of what he was saying was familiar, there were a few things that were new and some things that finally “clicked.” Those “aha” moments are what keep us going sometimes.

Years ago, I worked to renovate an old motorcycle that had been under a friend’s deck for a couple decades. I had read a book called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” once, and had a notion that there was some virtue in exercising one’s own rational problem solving skills. Eventually I got the old motorcycle running, but there was one issue that I never fully understood until that recent ASPE meeting.

The gas tank on the motorcycle had some rust in it. I put a filter on the fuel line, but lo and behold, the rust got through the filter and clogged the tiny hole that the gas needed to go through to get to the engine. I lined the tank with some goop designed for the task and that did the trick. I understood that somehow the rust went from being in the gas to changing into a powdery solid, but I didn’t understand how. I was absorbed with the rusty gas tank issue because it was the last thing that kept me from feeling the wind through my helmet, open road rolling below. I would contemplate how the rust made its way through the filter, satisfied that I was able to solve the issue by lining the tank, but never quite fully understanding it.

Plumbing engineers are tasked with understanding water chemistry as we design all types of systems. At a minimum, we should have a basic understanding of the domestic water that comes into a building that people use for drinking and washing. Most of us skip merrily along through our careers knowing that water comes from the municipality ready to use; just plug and play. As we work with clients who have more specific needs, we might get asked questions like, “Is the water soft or hard?” or “What is the pH of the water?” or “How is the water chlorinated?”

Water chemistry questions may come up when there are specific requirements at the point of use. One of the most common applications I’ve been seeing lately is humidification. Usually, if a design needs make-up water for humidification, there will be a requirement for the water to fall below a maximum hardness threshold. This I can understand — if water has too many minerals in it, the minerals will come out of the water and cake on to metal components. This might sound like an over simplification, but it seems to me if something comes out of the water and “sticks” to something else, there is probably some sort of chemistry involved.

Remembering basic chemistry, elements are the most basic things that make up our planet. Elements, summarized in the periodic table, are made up of atoms, and atoms are made of things like protons, neutrons and electrons. If you weren’t sleeping in class, you should have an image in your mind of something that looks similar to our solar system — a sphere in the middle with a bunch of smaller circles orbiting around it. This is known as the Bohr model because Niels Bohr came up with it in 1913.

Now, imagine yourself riding bumper cars. As you try to race around the track looking to give your fellow carnival goer the whiplash they deserve, crash! You’ve globbed onto a bunch of other unsuspecting strangers. This simulates what a molecule is like, and the most stable of molecules will require a Carny to come over and give you a shove.

My own Zen moment came from the understanding that the rust that clogged my carburetor pilot jet was a chemical reaction. The elements that make up the most common type of rust are Iron (Fe) and Oxygen (O). When the Iron and Oxygen glob together to form that familiar reddish-brown powder that lets us know when something is falling apart, the molecule is designated as:

molecules of rust

As those little molecules of rust made their way from the inner wall of my gas tank, into the gas and through the $3 inline gas filter, how did they decide to congregate in my pilot jet? I think the answer lies in chemistry and formulas.

I’d like to postulate that the rust molecules,〖Fe〗_(2 ) O_3, mixed with air which contains O2, and aspirated up from the carburetor bowl and created more rust. A simple balanced chemical formula would be something like this:

simple balanced chemical formula

Plumbing engineers need to understand the equipment that a client is planning on using in their space and what type of water is required for each piece. Equipment like humidifiers come in all different types, constructed out of a variety of materials. Providing the most pure water because we assume it will best minimize scaling could actually damage the components in the equipment. If you stay curious and keep learning, you will maximize your potential and align yourself with others who are willing to teach and learn, you may see an increase in those Zen-type moments where you feel a calm sense of satisfaction and confidence in your endeavors.