“People may take for granted the luxury of water coming into their home and wastewater leaving their home,” says Mike Perrotta, estimator and project manager at GBPCA contractor Harding and Smith. “But there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes.”
He should know. Harding and Smith (H&S) is one of the Boston-area shops that specialize in process piping for the water and water treatment industry. While most plumbers tap into existing water and sewage systems to build projects, the Local 12 plumbers that work for H&S build and help maintain the water supply and wastewater plants that are at the heart of the systems. It is important, if often unheralded infrastructure work that is essential to the lifeblood and wellbeing of communities. It is also unique work that involves massive-scale piping and requires highly skilled plumbers.
Dating back to 1975, H&S initially focused on water and wastewater piping, including the makeover of the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant that serves Boston and 42 communities in Eastern Massachusetts. Perrotta says that he was an apprentice when the project started and remembers the prison that used to sit among the rolling hills on the island. Many GBPCA contractors worked on the huge job. H&S, Perrotta says, was instrumental in a lot of the project’s work.
“The scale of the Deer Island rebuild was massive,” says Perrotta, noting that some of the pipes were ten feet in diameter, and the plant’s outfall tunnel, which extends over nine miles, was 24 feet in diameter. “It was a major engineering feat.”
So how does a crew approach projects that involve such huge piping? “A lot of it is upfront pre-planning,” according to Perrotta. Instead of cutting pipe in the field, H&S prefabricates it using computer-aided design to ensure that the pieces fit together properly. On site, the plumbers need to use special hoisting and heavy rigging procedures to handle the piping.
“It’s the hands-on work that is really important,” says Perrotta. There are heavy tools involved, as well as large flanges and bolts. Plumbers need to carefully calculate the piping’s center of gravity before moving it. “It’s a unique skill,” he says and adds that H&S does a lot of in-house training by pairing older, veteran plumbers with younger ones–in the industry’s longstanding tradition of apprentice training. “We have to get it right. Safety is the top priority,” says Perrotta.
More recently, H&S has been using a lot of fiberglass-reinforced plastic for piping. Among the projects on which the shop is using the material is the MWRA’s Chelsea Creek Headworks pumping station. Perrotta explains that the shop builds the fiberglass out until it is the right thickness.
H&S does work on smaller-scale water projects for municipalities as well. It recently replaced the pump system for the water plant operated by the town of Ipswich, for example.
Because communities cannot function without water and wastewater systems, Perrotta says that a lot of the work H&S does is performed on a tight schedule. Often, its crews will work through the night with the goal of bringing everything back on line by the morning. It takes a lot of forethought and careful planning.
While water and wastewater plants remain one of the core specialties of the mechanical contractor, H&S has expanded its services and capabilities through the years. It also handles instrumentation and control systems, for example, and does work for the power and biotechnology industries among others. In most cases, however, the shop is still working with large-scale systems and pipe.
Other projects on which H&S has worked include drainage piping systems for Fore River Bridge in Quincy, standpipe work for the MBTA’s subway system, and a new pumping system for the Department of Transportation’s O’Neill Tunnel in Boston.