CHRONICLES: PIPE DREAMS

An 1893 advertisement for an indoor bath tub.

Alot of people, when they think of a plumber, they just think of a guy with a plunger in his hand,” says Lance Albin, business manager of Local No. 60, Plumbers and Steamfitters Union. “One of the biggest things we fight is the misconception about our trade.” Albin himself is a journeyman plumber.

New Orleans residents in the midst of re-building are well aware of the need for plumbers. Few know that licensed master plumbers have been well trained and tested in a years-long program of practical education. Plumbers, in effect, are knowledgeable technicians able to handle the modern underpinnings of life today.

The word plumber comes from plumbum – Latin for lead – and plumbers have been around for much of history. In New Orleans, however, the plumbing trade developed slowly.

New Orleans plumbers even have their own historian. Roger Baudier (best known for his histories of New Orleans Catholic parishes) published a series of articles including, “Sanitation in New Orleans” published 1956 and ‘57 in the trade journal, Southern Plumbing and Heating Retailer.

Prior to 1820, New Orleans’ first water system relied on hollowed cypress logs to supply fire hydrants, but those who could afford them had cisterns for home water supplies – and these required some piping. Later in the century, the plumbers of New Orleans were capable of handling all the water and gas lines serving the 1884 Cotton Exposition in Audubon Park.

Louis Luderbach, a plumber, claims to have installed the first residential enameled bathtub on St. Charles Avenue in the 1880s. Indoor piping for wash water and gas lighting was essential, but since the city had no sewer lines, indoor toilets were still connected to cesspits and bathtubs might empty under the house.

By 1915, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board was fully operational, sewerage and water lines were in, and the plumbing trade began to grow. By 1921, there was a New Orleans Master Plumbers Association and Delgado Trade School was offering plumbing classes.

Delgado no longer trains plumbers, but Local No. 60 holds classes for 200 apprentices at facilities in Metairie and at a new location on the Northshore. (Apprentice classes include men and some women, and about half of Local No. 60’s membership is black.)

“Our apprentices go to school two nights a week for five years, and they work full time on the job the rest of the time,” Lance Albin explains. Classes might include math, theory and even computer design. An apprentice earns $12.94 an hour – and the contractor adds health insurance and retirement coverage to that. “Apprentices also get two pay raises a year – provided they do what they are supposed to do, get a good evaluation and pass their classes,” Albin adds. After five years, they can become journeyman plumbers (at base pay of $23.52 an hour), with the chance over time of becoming a master plumber and owning their own plumbing company. While Local No. 60 offers courses, the State of Louisiana runs the licensing and examination program.

All that work can pay off. “A lot of our members make more money than folks who went to college,” Albin notes.

Members of Local No. 60 include the largest plumbing contractors – those who work on hotels, schools and office buildings. There are specialized fields such as piping for medical gases, and air conditioning for places as large as the plants at Michoud – but New Orleans plumbers can handle them all.

Firms that handle residential plumbing repairs are often non-union, and as Jim Finley, owner of C. N. Finley Plumbing, says “it’s never been a problem. We’ve had great rapport with the various labor leaders …” Finley is the national vice president of the National Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors, and is also chairman of the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Plumbers.

Finley’s late father founded the firm in 1934. (”He came down here from Minnesota as a merchant seaman and became a foreman at the old Kussman Plumbing Company,” Finley says.) Jim Finley, trained as a master plumber, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Louisiana Tech, had hoped to make a career in the Air Force but his father’s illness brought him home to run the family company.

Finley notes that Katrina put the state examination program on hold for a while, but the testing center in Baton Rouge is open again. There’s a written and practical test for journeymen plumbers, and the master’s exam – while it may be taken with open books – is a rigorous eight-hour long ordeal with three separate sections.

Plumbing has come a long way since the 1920s – when there was a “Bath a Day Club” promoted by plumbing manufacturers to sell plumbing, Finley notes. The public today has high expectations for their kitchens and bathrooms.

Homeowners in Louisiana can actually do the plumbing in their own residence (subject to inspection and approval by the Sewerage and Water Board in New Orleans) but the two main objectives of safe plumbing remain: keeping potable water from pollution and keeping sewer gas confined and sewers properly vented.

Some problem pipes need special treatment, beyond the expertise of even the handiest homeowner. Master plumber Richard Cancienne began his plumbing career cleaning drain lines and today, as owner of Cancienne Plumbing and Tunneling, he takes advantage of the most modern technology to diagnose problems in pipes.

Early on, Cancienne says he could tell by the sound of the pipes where the buried problem was. But, by the early 1990s, cameras gave him an extra advantage. “I got everything at Radio Shack at first,” he remembers. Today his specialized cameras go underground and picture the problems needing a fix. Richard’s son Christian works with him – plumbing families are a New Orleans tradition.

Dan Rein, now retired, began working with his uncle Caspar Wahlig, and when Rein became a master plumber in 1954 the firm of Rein and Wahlig began. Rein and his extended family all lived in his grandparents’ home, a towering Victorian residence on the corner of Marengo and Danneel Streets.

“I went through all three phases of the plumbing business,” Rein recalls. “When I started, it was cast iron pipe and you caulked it with oakum [frayed hemp fiber] and poured in hot lead to seal it.” Then there was stainless steel, with rubber gaskets. Today, with plastic pipe, “all you need is a can of glue and a saw!”

Rein admits that there was one thing he never enjoyed about the plumbing business: frozen pipes. “All these broken pipes at one time – I didn’t like to rely on peoples’ misfortune to make a living.” he says.
Reflecting back on his plumbing career Rein notes, “I enjoyed it. It gave me the opportunity to meet some real nice people. The most satisfying things I got out of the business are the friendships with people I worked with.” Rein adds, “I’d like to thank my customers for the opportunity to service their plumbing needs throughout the years.”

Any career that has friendships as a bonus deserves to be taken seriously – and anyone with a stopped-up drain or a leaky pipe owes respect to the problem-solving plumber.

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