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Interview with Master Plumber Ronnie Jackson



For our first interview in the "Ask the Expert" section, we decided to sit down with one of our favorite experts, Master Plumber Ronnie Jackson, with a list of questions about what a Master Plumber does, how someone can become a Master Plumber, and ask his advice on what plumbing issues homeowners (or potential homeowners) can keep an eye out for.

Master Plumber Ronnie JacksonWe have worked with Ronnie before - his "Learning to Solder" video series is featured here in the Learning Center as well, and we thought his experience and insights gained throughout his career would be helpful to others looking to break into the industry and homeowners alike.

Q: Can you give us a little background on how long you have been a master plumber and how you got started in the trade?
A: I entered the formal plumbing trade March 11, 1974 and began strict formal and informal training. Along with a full panorama of experience in various channels. The Master Plumber title was applied when I was 30 years old. I had just received my contractors license from the State of California while project managing the plumbing and hydronic piping on five hospitals. As informal training, I was mentored by fine men, who revered the Plumbing Arts & Sciences which protects the health of the nation. These men demanded and expected excellence in trade for their leadership and sharing a life's worth of experience. Plumbing life has been a good life filled with opportunities.

Q: How does someone pick the right master plumber?
A: Education from a formal and recognized plumbing school/program and a rounded journeyman experience. Avoid those that have spent too much time in a specific installation practice, for instance the production housing market where a task is limited to installing a particular product like gas piping. A Master Plumber will have pursued and acquired recognized local and state credentials. As manufactures offer and or solicit certificate programs, a Master Plumber would be recognized and endorsed as an installer or service technician. There is value in the understanding of the local and state plumbing codes and appropriate pairing with other mechanical or building codes, as well as having ownership or access to such codes. The ability to read and ascertain building plans and specifications has added merit.

Q: How has the industry changed in the last ten years and where do you see it heading in the future?
A: The future.... having conducted many (100's) of Certificated Training programs/sessions, I have seen a diminishing aptitude in the plumbing trade. There are fewer all encompassing plumbing tradesmen. Rather the plumbing trade will continue to be more specialized and segmented. Meaning for example, a mainline sewer technician could or would not attempt to calculate a fuel gas alteration and/or install with any confidence and a single housing Drain, Waste and Vent (DWV) installer would not attempt to direct the excavation for a 750 gallon Grease Interceptor for a restaurant.

Q: What is one of the easiest fixes that home owners have the hardest time doing?
A: If the toilet(s) are continuously running and replacing certain and typical parts is not a long term solution... then consider testing the water pressure in the house. If the water pressure is over 65 psi the flushing mechanism might be impacted. Consider installing a water pressure regulator or inspecting the existing one. It is usually located in front of the house. The operation of appliances like ice makers and dishwashers could improve also.

Q: Where can the biggest gains be made when remodeling a house for resale value?
A: Curb appeal... a buyer might ask themselves "What will my friends and family see in the choice I made?" Often times the presentation of a home is the garage door. It’s attractiveness and workability should be considered. Landscaping should look like it has been attended too, but not exotic and costly to maintain. Plumbing-wise: New toilet seats with the "Slow Closing" feature. Most buyers will lift the toilet seat for inspection. Faucetry can be replaced without spending a lot of money. First time buyers usually come from the apartment community where the cheap industrial, form & function faucet is vital only to the maintenance team. Consider larger handles and higher spouts. The three most important and used rooms are the Kitchen, Bathrooms and Bedrooms. Two of which have plumbing. When showing these rooms remove all clutter and don’t go overboard on decorative accouterments.

Q: What is the best way to learn to be a master plumber?
A: Make the decision early in your career. Enter an indentured training program that employers will recognize. Pursue employers that have a mixed business channel. These channels are but not limited to: residential, light commercial, heavy commercial, institutional, industrial, military and utilities.

Q: Are master plumbers busy consistently throughout the year?
A: Usually so... often they have more work than they can possibly get to. The results of their work is obvious, value is delivered and received. Value engineering is applied as a result of an experienced life holding true to the discipline of the Plumbing Sciences. Adaptability to new products and methods is easily accomplished. Much like other industries, Operating Engineers, for example. A Master Mechanic sustains the life cycle of very expensive equipment and can counsel from a cost/benefit position as required. Master Plumbers ordained with insightfulness and confidence are always busy

Q: What is your favorite work to do as a master plumber?
A: Easy answer....Commercial remodel/restoration. All adaptability, insightfulness and discernment is exercised. The challenge is to stay on Critical Path and within budget.

Q: Any funny stories you have from your time as a master plumber?
A: The Mission Inn, Riverside, CA (1980) proved to be the most interesting contract ever. The Mission Inn was undergoing a major renovation in 1980, I was a journeyman plumber on the project working for Gems Mechanical. They had a contract for plumbing and hydronic piping. Engineering had decided that the old boiler room in the basement would be used for the major portion of the new mechanical air conditioning equipment like chillers, boilers, water heaters and pumps. In this same space were the original coal fired brick and mortar boilers. These had not been used for some time, but were ornate and interesting to look at. The chimney or flue for these boilers ran up through the middle of the Mission Inn and above the roof line. Engineering decided that this abandon chimney would be used for inter-floor piping. The piping would be fire protection standpipe(wet and dry), electrical and control conduits. It was an oval space approximately 20" X 48" X 5 stories made of brick and mortar, Since I was the smallest plumber, weighing less than 130 lbs it was decided that I would ride the makeshift bosun’s chair.

The chair was really not a chair at all. It was pipe with some foam insulation, attached to a rope which was attached a 12" pulley at the top of the chimney. The rope then traveled back down (past me) to the basement and attached to a Ridgid 300 pipe machine. The pipe machine allowed another plumber to change my elevation as needed. Another pipe machine with the same type of rigging delivered prefabricated pipe and fittings to my location...controlled by the same plumber. A third pipe machine was utilized for pipe fabrication. Over a period of 3 days I fitted five stories of fire standpipe, installed a temporary lighting system, shouted out measurements, managed tools, rotor hammers, electric cords and refreshment. Refreshment was a cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee that fit through a future core opening for a fire hose connection. At the end of each day I was lowered to the basement. It took several minutes and some assistance to get out of my bosun’s chair. I was very stiff and had little feeling in my legs. I looked like a true ?chimney sweep?. The only clean spot on me were the whites of my eyes. Two of the three evenings I was driven home by others due to exhaustion and poor feeling in my legs. The funny part.... my wife’s expressions each evening and comical antics necessary to help me in the shower. She used a automobile window squeegee to scrub me down. Would I do it again...certainly.

Q: What are some warning signs in plumbing that homeowners should keep an eye out for?
A:

Water service and water distribution:

  • A house built before 1968 could have galvanized water piping below the slab floor. Life expectancy for a galvanized water system is less than 25 years. Sewer lateral What materials were used for the main sewer lateral onto the property.
  • If vitrified clay was installed and trees are planted near by, there can be repeated sewer cleaning cost or damage.
  • What is the pressure? Especially at night. If the water pressure is over 65 psi then a water regulator should be installed.

Water Heaters:

  • Per current codes "Flammable Vapor Ignition Resistant"(FVIR).
  • Temperature and Pressure (T&P) valve, installed per WH manufactures recommendations
  • Earthquake strapping
  • Expansion Tank to protect from thermal expansion
  • Gas fueled WH should have clean flues and fitted solidly
  • Gas fueled WH should have sufficient "make up" air for proper combustion.

Other:

  • Footings- should not be made of stone like river rock. Check concrete footing for cracks.
  • Electric service panel should be in keeping with current codes. Many Homeowner Insurance companies have denied new policy applications over this issue.
  • Roofing- Ask when the roof was last replaced. Is the warranty on the roof void by virtue of a new homeowner.
  • Chronic termite services
  • Swimming pools in current code compliance, especially the main drain at the bottom