Pipe Dreams

Water goes in, water goes out. If there is a problem, call the plumber. That’s the extent most people think about plumbing. But, if you’re running a huge facility, with miles of pipes, you’ll want to check out what people are saying and doing about plumbing.

Plumbing is more than a part of a building; it’s a part of the quality of life. “I assist in the recruiting and retention of students,” boasts Byron Patterson, director of physical resources for Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas. “Sixty percent of potential students decide on a college within the first 15 minutes of visiting a campus. If I can keep the grounds and buildings aesthetically pleasing, and plumbing is a big part of that, then I can help attract students.”

This comes from a man whose campus went from the choking dust of a four-year drought to the deluge of this summer’s floods. What Patterson is most proud of is his department’s Total Quality Manage-ment approach to maintenance, including plumbing.

Keeping Your Head Above Water

“By attacking known plumbing problems and fixing them right the first time, we have virtually erased our workload,” Patterson says. “We went from having three or four after-hour plumbing calls a night to just one or two a month.”

Preventive maintenance for valves, systems and sewers also remains paramount. “Don’t wait until you have a 25-ft. geyser,” jokes Robert Quirk, director of facility management at California State University, Long Beach (CSU). “Valves need to be exercised to check for faults, and sewer lines demand yearly maintenance.”

One way Quirk keeps the sewers in good condition is with a small video camera. By snaking it through the lines, the operator can check pipe integrity, dips and flow backups. While this “sewer colonoscopy” technology is about 10 years old, price points have come down far enough for CSU to afford its own equipment. “We used to contract with a specialty firm to do this,” remembers Dewayne Wolf, associate director of facilities, CSU. “Having our own equipment helps us keep ahead of the preventive maintenance curve.”

Technology also helps Bernie Kelly, pipe mechanical trades 1 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, keep on top of his plumbing issues. “We have a central monitoring system that lets us know the status of all of our systems, including plumbing,” he says. “It alerts us to a problem before someone even has time to complain.”

That kind of customer service promises to keep everyone happy, but what if there is no stock on hand to fix the problem? One campus probably contains a variety of pipes in various materials and vintages. That means stocking lots of replacements and thinking ahead. “We carry 1/4-in. to 2-in. fittings of every plumbing material on campus,” says CSU’s Quirk. “For anything else, we have good relationships with suppliers just 30 minutes away.”

Material World

Pipe materials vary greatly depending on what’s being piped, local codes and personal preference. “Plumbing is a lot more than water supply,” explains Wolf. “There are storm drains, natural gas systems and laboratory materials.”

Certain equipment is a given. Drinking water calls for copper piping while lab water, which often carries chemicals and acids, does well in a product called Enfield. “It’s great,” says Darrell Freeland, plumbing foreman for Montana State University in Bozeman. “Nothing can eat through it.” Stainless steel is used for injectable and de-ionized water.

For the draining water, plumbers are torn between cast iron and plastic PVC. A proven workhorse, cast iron costs about 25 percent more than PVC, according to ACU’s Patterson, and is harder and more expensive to install. Yet he wouldn’t trade it for a truckload of PVC: “Cast iron will hold up through anything. PVC isn’t a bad choice, but I have repaired some collapsed sections of it. Also it’s safer because cast iron doesn’t burn and give off fumes in a fire.”

Not everyone shares Patterson’s love of cast iron. Roger Harrison, facility supervisor for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has to use cast iron because of state standards, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. “Through the years, the ground chemicals eat up cast iron,” he says. “That wouldn’t happen if we used plastic. I would like to see us switch entirely to PVC.”

Look, No Hands

While that controversy rages, everyone does agree that the new electronic fixtures are a wonderful innovation. Sinks turn themselves on and off while toilets and urinals flush automatically, thanks to an incorporated motion detector. Not only do these devices save water, they save pipes as well. “Solid waste, if left standing, leaches minerals and ruins the plumbing,” explains Freeland. “These fixtures may cost more upfront, but it is money well spent.’