“I’m a plumber!” No, you’re not!

Saw an interesting news item in the Providence Journal last week while in town for the NAOHSM show.  There’s seems to be a big whoop-de-doo brewing in the town of North Kingstown over plans to replace 7,500 antiquated residential water meters with new, high-tech wireless models (click here to read the full article).

The bids for the work were in and ready to be opened, but the state’s plumbing inspector warned the town that it could only award the contract to a company operated by a plumber licensed in the state of Rhode Island.

Seems pretty straight forward, no?

Well, it seems that no one could remember that particular requirement ever being enforced. The contract wound up being awarded to a licensed Rhode Island company to replace 3,500 meters for $526,000.00.  An Ohio firm that specializes in water meter replacements had bid $388,000.00 to replace all 7,500 meters.

Local utility officials in Rhode Island say they’ve replaced tons of meters over the years and have never been required to have a licensed plumber do the work.

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.  On the one hand, the question is whether water meters are considered part of the city water distribution system or the residential plumbing system.  If they’re part of the city water distribution system, it would seem logical that the local utility has jurisdiction.  If they’re considered part of the home’s plumbing system, then the state plumbing inspector has jurisdiction.

That’s a question that’s way too hard for me to answer.

Here’s the part that bugs me.

The city of Newport, RI (the mansion and yachting capital of New England) is planning on replacing 14,000 water meters at a cost of $2.6 million dollars.  The mayor says if they hired licensed plumbers for the work, the cost would triple.  Then the mayor took a reporter to the city Water Department and “replaced” a water meter herself.

“It was easy.  Now I’m a plumber.”

Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but I know I worked pretty hard to earn my plumbing license.  Yeah, replacing water meters isn’t the hardest thing to do in plumbing…if all goes well, you simply loosen a couple of nuts, drop the new meter in, tighten them up, wire up the “wireless” controls, and off you go.

But anyone who’s worked on plumbing knows gate valves are an iffy proposition at best.  Old gate valves that haven’t been closed in years are very likely to snap and break in either the open or closed position.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Now we need a real plumber, not a moonlighting mayor.

Listen, I get the fact that hiring plumbers to do this work (which has traditionally not been a requirement) will cost the taxpayers lots of money.  Apparently, the state legislature is now considering a bill that would clarify the situation and exempt water departments from hiring licensed plumbers for this work.

That’s all politics.  The part that gets under my skin is mayor of Newport saying, “I’m a plumber.”

No, you’re not.  And if I lived in Newport, you’d have lost my vote.

It’s always bothered me how plumbers are portrayed in “pop” culture, like we’re cartoon characters.  Even Norman Mailer’s classic “Plumber’s Helper,” portrays the plumbers as Laurel and Hardy-like clowns. Do a Google Images search of “plumbers,” and see if you like the results.

The PHCC, among other organizations, works hard at trying to change that image (love this poster!), and portraying plumbers as highly skilled professionals.  But as Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I still can’t understand why this clown drives his business truck around town painted like this.  The only thing I can think of is that dude from American Idol…

“…lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground.

And don’t get me started on “plumber’s crack” jokes…

We can’t change the world and its perceptions.  We can’t change how our brethren choose to portray themselves.  But we can control how we portray ourselves and the image we present to our customers.

Years ago when I was running my Dad’s plumbing and heating business, I asked a customer for some feedback on how well we were doing our job.  I was expecting glowing reports of our technical prowess, and praise for how quickly we responded to her calls.

“You’re not going to like this, but you need to shave.”

Now at that time, I was sporting a pretty impressive beard.  At least that was my view.  Her opinion was that it made me look like cross between Grizzly Adams and a Manson family dropout.

“You should also get some shirts with your company name on them,” she said.  “I know you, but if I didn’t, I’d be a little uneasy if you showed up at my door with no outward identification, especially since I’m home alone.  It’d help if you looked more professional.”

Ouch!

I was young. I had no clue.  I didn’t think it mattered that much.

We took her advice to heart.  I met up with the business end of a razor and we found some nice embroidered work shirts and generally spruced up corporate appearance.  And we felt more professional.

My good friend Jim Hilpipre isn’t a plumber (but that isn’t his fault.  He came a good family, but somewhere he went off the tracks), but he is a professional.  The first few times he came over to the house to install my ultra-slick NTI Matrix, he put on booties before coming in.  It was a nice gesture, and he does it whenever he goes into anyone’s house to work.

I know another guy who carries spare uniforms in his van, since he realizes plumbing can be dirty work.  If one uniform is soiled during the course of a day, he changes into a clean one before his next stop.

Professional.

Another contractor I know of trades in his work vans every two years.  He feels it’s important to have reliable, dependable and presentable vehicles on the road.

I’ve even heard of a contractor who advertises the fact that all of his service technicians take regular drug-tests.  He promises to send his customers clean, straight and sober technicians.  The unsaid message is that all the guys who fail the tests work for his competitors!

But I’m preaching to the choir here.  The folks that need to read this generally don’t participate in online forums, go to training, market themselves and think about improving their professional image.

But we can’t control that, and we can’t let that element drag the rest of us down.

What do you do to enhance your image as a professional?

How do you cope with customers who view you a “just a plumber?”

How would you respectfully respond to the mayor of Newport’s claim that she, too, is a plumber?

I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.

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