Massachusetts plumbing code book

Code red: Support the state’s plumbing code

Sign the petition to preserve the state’s plumbing code

Massachusetts’ plumbing code dates back many decades and is one of a handful of statewide codes that remains in effect. It has served–and continues to serve–the industry along with the Commonwealth’s residents who rely on safe plumbing well and has widespread support. The code serves as a model and is a point of pride for the state’s plumbing board and the plumbers who operate under it.

An outside organization, however, is threatening to replace the homegrown framework with its own code. This has outraged plumbers across the state and has caused them to rally against the effort. Local 12 and the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA) have joined forces with many other industry partners to defeat the takeover attempt. The broad coalition has developed a petition to support the Massachusetts plumbing code and urges all plumbers as well as everyone in the state who cares about the trade to sign it. You can help by going to the site,

The International Code Council (ICC), one of two organizations that publishes national plumbing codes, has been aggressively trying to get states to adopt its code. It recently targeted New Jersey.

“ICC marched in and tried to convince the state to switch to its code,” says Peter Kelly, regional field manager for the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO). ”New Jersey’s plumbing industry wasn’t having any of it.”

IAPMO offers the Uniform Plumbing Code and the National Standard Plumbing Code, also known as the New Jersey Plumbing Code. While the association oversees it, the Garden State’s plumbers consider it as their code. By banding together, the industry was able to thwart ICC and retained New Jersey’s existing code. According to Kelly, IAPMO helped develop a Web site to support the opposition efforts. 

He says that the association has always supported Massachusetts’ code, and has offered its support by creating, which is modeled after the site for the New Jersey campaign. Kelly credits Chris Costa, president of the Bristol County Plumbing Gas Inspectors Association, for organizing the opposition efforts and coming up with the plan to create an online petition and Web site.

This isn’t the first time that ICC has pitched its code to the Commonwealth. A number of years ago it approached the state’s plumbing board, but was rejected by then-chairman Paul Kennedy.

“They went behind Paul’s back to the governor’s office, which ordered the board to allow ICC to present its case,” says Wayne Thomas, executive director of the Plumbing Heating Cooling Contractors of Massachusetts (PHCC). Ultimately, the board stuck with the state’s code. Now it is back in the state trying to replace the code with its own. “It’s sparking outrage,” Thomas adds. “It’s time to go on the offensive.”

The Massachusetts code was created long before model codes existed and has been steadily updated over the years. It is more restrictive and safer than the national codes. It is also tied into the state’s plumbing and gasfitting license and its training and education requirements. 

“Massachusetts has the finest plumbing code in the country,” says Andrew DeAngelo, GBPCA executive director, adding that its high standards are one of the chief reasons the state has some of the best drinking water in the U.S. “Codes are made for a reason. Strict codes are a good thing.”

Thomas says Massachusetts is one of the only states with such a comprehensive system in place and that replacing the code might jeopardize the licensing and curriculum as well, not to mention people’s health.

“We are an old state with an old infrastructure and unique needs,” Thomas notes. “We’ve had a code that’s worked for a long, long time.”

“The whole industry would be affected,” adds Kelly, should ICC get its way. Everyone would have to learn a new code, the inspectors would have to be re-educated, and the exam would need to be updated. “It would be a snowball effect.”

The online petition at has generated thousands of supporters, but its organizers are hoping to gather many more signatures. They encourage plumbers to show their support and help spread the word.

“Union and non-union sectors certainly have their differences,” Kelly says. “But when it comes to something like the plumbing code, they are united. It’s unilateral support.”

“For an outside group to come in and weaken our code in the name of making money is immoral,” adds DeAngelo. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it–especially this.”

Fossil fuels ban would strain power grid

Electrification alone would not curb emissions

Climate change is real. We need to cut emissions and get on a path to net zero. Those are points on which the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association and Plumbers Local 12 along with building, labor, business, and other organizations in the state agree. There is disagreement, however, about the ways which the Commonwealth should achieve a renewable energy future.

One such area of disagreement is the fossil fuel ban that is part of the state’s climate law that was introduced and passed last year. It includes a provision for a pilot program that allows 10 communities to prohibit fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. Restricting gas and oil and moving to alternatives such as electric heat pumps for heating and cooling would place tremendous pressure on the region’s power grid–which, in turn, is largely powered by fossil fuels and would therefore do little to address the state’s sustainability goals. The ban would also have a number of other negative consequences, including an increase in the cost of energy for residents who can least afford it and higher construction costs, which would hamper development.

“We shouldn’t just be increasing our reliance on electricity and shutting off gas at the same time,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “We would be eliminating one source of energy without the ability to replace it. It defies common sense. It is, in my opinion, a reckless approach.”

Brookline first passed a similar ban in 2019, but it was deemed unconstitutional by then-Attorney General Maura Healey. Other municipalities tried to follow suit, which were also considered unlawful.

The climate law requires communities to get local approval and file a “home rule petition” seeking special permission from the legislature to participate in the pilot program. Thanks to pushback from the building trades and their partners, the program includes carve-outs, or compromises. Health care, life science, and biotech construction projects, for example, would be exempt from any fossil fuels ban. These buildings require massive amounts of energy and would need considerable electricity in the absence of gas. Also, participating municipalities would have to guarantee that 10% of its housing stock be affordable as defined by the state’s Chapter 40B statute. This concession from the state would help protect some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable citizens from the effects of the ban.

The cities and towns that are vying to participate in the program include Cambridge, Brookline Newton, Lexington, Arlington, Concord, Lincoln, Acton, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury. The Martha’s Vineyard town of West Tisbury has since withdrawn from the program because it does not meet the affordable housing requirement. Boston and Somerville are among the cities hoping to take its place. The state’s Department of Energy Resources is supposed to issue regulations and details about the program, such as what constitutes a “major” renovation and how to best protect affordable housing, by July. The participating communities would then start the two-year pilot later this year or in early 2024.

As critics have pointed out, many of the municipalities hoping to join the program are comparatively wealthy and don’t represent a cross-section of the state. It’s one thing to impose a fossil fuels ban on single-family homes in a well-off suburb. Bringing Boston into the equation, with its mix of housing and economic diversity, would test the viability of the program, however.

All-electric buildings add about 20% to construction costs, which are then passed on to homeowners and landlords (who subsequently would pass it on to their tenants). In a region that is already plagued by high real estate prices and rents, that’s a challenging proposition. In fact, it is so worrisome, Governor Baker was considering vetoing the climate bill. He was concerned about the gas ban’s impact on affordable housing, something the state desperately needs. The increased cost of construction would make communities that prohibit fossil fuels less desirable to developers that build affordable housing.

Even after he signed the bill, the governor had misgivings. “I’ve thought for a long time that the cost and supply of housing in Massachusetts is, in fact, one of our most existential threats,” Baker told the Boston Globe when discussing the pilot program.

Forced to use heat pumps and other electrical appliances, homeowners and renters would then have to contend with significantly higher energy costs. The state has one of the nation’s highest electric utility rates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, households in Boston, Cambridge, and Newton paid 75.3% more for electricity than the U.S. average as of October 2022.

“Heat prices would soar if working families in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Mattapan or towns like Lawrence or Lynn have to heat their homes with electricity,” says Andrew DeAngelo, GBPCA executive director. “The gas ban raises issues of economic equity.”

Banning gas in buildings would shift the energy burden to the electrical grid. But how is electricity generated?

“Gas and nuclear are the lion’s share of the grid’s resources,” says Local 12’s Fandel. “That inconvenient truth seems to get lost in translation. The disconnect is frustrating.”

ISO New England, the independent, not-for-profit corporation responsible for keeping electricity flowing across the region reports that in 2022 gas accounted for 52% of the electricity generated in Massachusetts and its neighboring states. Combined with nuclear, the two sources were responsible for nearly 80% of the grid’s total output. Oil and coal were also part of the mix. Wind and solar generated just 7% of the region’s electricity needs.

“Electricity is great. But it’s not 100% clean energy,” notes DeAngelo. “We simply don’t have enough wind and solar to support the state’s electrical demands.”

By banning fossil fuels in construction, that would increase demand for electricity and likely increase the need to fire up the state’s peaker power plants, most of which are old and inefficient and burn oil. They generate high rates of greenhouse gases and pollutant emissions for every unit of electricity generated.

So, what’s the solution? DeAngelo thinks we need to be open minded and take a more pragmatic approach. Hydroelectric power could play a greater role, for example. We should also explore alternatives such as green hydrogen, which is 100% zero-carbon emitting.

“We don’t think it’s prudent to abandon the pipe infrastructure,” DeAngelo adds. “It can be an important piece of the puzzle in our transition to clean energy.”

Lab space record set in Boston

There seems to be an insatiable demand for lab space in the Boston area. In fact, according to Bloomberg, the region now has more biotech projects under construction than anyplace else in the country and will likely soon top the San Francisco Bay Area for bragging rights as America’s life sciences hub.

When the article was published in the spring, the Boston metropolitan area had 32 million square feet of life-sciences space, just slightly behind its West Coast counterpart. However, Boston had a staggering 62 million square feet under construction or proposed, a figure that dwarfs the Bay Area.

There are many factors underpinning the construction boom, including the region’s renowned universities and hospitals, its existing infrastructure of major pharmaceutical companies, its history of biotech startups, its young, well-educated workforce, and its longstanding reputation as a hotbed for research, science, medicine, and innovation.

The multitude of projects have been a boon for the Boston building trades and for plumbers in particular. The technically complex projects require lots of plumbing–much more than office buildings, residential complexes, and other types of jobs.
With the high demand for biotech, and the uncertainty about office space in a post-pandemic, remote work-savvy, recession-wary world, many developers are rethinking office buildings and reconfiguring them into life science spaces. For example, 10 World Trade in the Seaport was first envisioned as 585,000 square feet of office space. When its owner, Boston Global Investors, lost its financing, it added some floors devoted to lab space and was able to get the project back on track.

Can the boom continue unabated? Will the demand wane? Will a wobbly economy derail the sector? It’s hard to predict the future, but even with so many projects in the pipeline, there appears to be no end in sight. Regardless of what happens, Boston remains poised to take the crown as the lab space capital.

Farewell from The Pipeline’s editor

For the past 25 years, I’ve had the honor of writing, editing, and producing The Pipeline. Now it’s time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.

It has been a wonderful experience working alongside the folks from Plumbers Local 12 and the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association. I hope you have enjoyed reading about their work as much as I have enjoyed sharing their stories. What has impressed me from the start is the great rapport the two organizations have with one another. They may not always agree about everything, but, despite the conventional wisdom about labor and management relations, they have always been respectful, professional, and open to compromise. That is a testament to both groups’ level-headed leadership through the years and up to the present day. They understand and appreciate the symbiotic nature of their partnership, and they have a shared sense of destiny and purpose.

My grandfather was a plumber, so it has been particularly joyful for me to learn more about the profession. I have been onsite at small, residential projects as well as huge high-rise buildings under construction. It has all been fascinating and illustrative of the vital role that plumbers play.

While I will no longer be producing the Pipeline, I am not retiring from writing altogether. I will continue to travel around the country and the world covering theme parks and attractions. It doesn’t have anything to do with the budling trades, but if you are interested in topics such as Disney World and roller coasters, consider subscribing to my free email newsletter at

I look forward to reading about the plumbers in future issues of The Pipeline, and I wish my friends and colleagues at Local 12 and the GBPCA–as well as you–all the best.

– Arthur Levine

O'Connell Plumbing Local 12 support Afghan refugees Newburyport MA

Plumbers lend a hand to refugees

With a war raging, mass shootings, and other unrest, the world can often seem like an unsettling and unfriendly place. But amid the chaos and confusion, it’s heartening to find acts of kindness and compassion that demonstrate the basic decency to which most folks aspire. There are inspiring stories, even in dark circumstances, that can help restore one’s faith in people. This is one of those stories.

When the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, conflict and the threat of violence displaced even more Afghans from their long-suffering, war-torn country. Millions of them sought refuge in other places. A few Afghan families ended up in Newburyport. The community opened its doors and its hearts to welcome them. Local 12 and the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA) heeded the call and supported the efforts.

It was Hugh Kelleher, a longtime Newburyport resident, retired Local 12 member, and retired executive director of the GBPCA, who made the connection. He read about the refugees’ plight in the local newspaper and learned that the city’s religious leaders were seeking help and donations to provide shelter for the Afghans. When Kelleher saw that the temporary housing lacked some basic plumbing needs, that piqued his interest.

“Over the years, there have been many projects that Local 12 and the contractors have helped out on,” he says. “I thought this would be a very worthy project.”

Kelleher contacted John Marani, president of the GBPCA, and Tim Fandel, Local 12 business manager, seeking their assistance. Both were eager to help, and the organizations’ trustees decided to get involved. The two groups joined forces and funded a grant to underwrite the cost of labor and materials needed to perform the plumbing work at the living space provided by the Unitarian church, one of the city’s participating houses of worship.

As Rebecca Bryan, minister of the First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist Church, explains, its congregation is hosting a large Afghan family in Parish Hall, a building adjacent to the church. Typically used for Sunday school classes and social functions, the converted living space did not have a shower, nor a washer or dryer. Bryan, who serves as Newburyport’s chair of Interfaith Coalition of Clergy, reached out to Kelleher, who had helped do plumbing work at the temporary housing provided by the city’s Episcopalian church for another refugee family.

Kelleher brought in Kevin O’Connell, owner of O’Connell Plumbing and Heating in Salem, to look at the project. Together, they determined that a shower could be added to the existing bathroom; a closet could be converted into a second bathroom, with a toilet, shower, and sink; and a washer and dryer could be installed in the hall. They also realized that a larger hot water heater would be needed.

“Honest to God, they didn’t just help out,” the minister says about the plumbers. “What they did was remarkable. They just made it happen.”

When Norman Fine at supply house F.W. Webb heard about the project, he offered a hot water heater, gas piping, and all other plumbing materials at a greatly reduced cost. Thanks to the grant from the union and the GBPCA, the Local 12 members working for the Salem shop got paid for their work, but O’Connell did not add any profit to the job.

According to the contractor, an architect from the church volunteered to draw up plans for the project. That was indicative of the broad-based support that the community provided.

“We had to move some heavy supplies,” O’Connell says. “The next thing I knew, the Newburyport High School basketball team showed up to help.”

Over 100 people have been involved with the refugee family at the Unitarian church alone, Bryan estimates, helping them learn English, book medical appointments, and navigate services, among other things. Hairdressers, bike shop owners, and others in the city have stepped forward to do their part.

O’Connell can empathize with the refugees and understands the outpouring of support. “It’s terrible to be uprooted from your home, having to live someplace completely different and foreign,” he says. “It had to be extremely disorienting and frightening for them.”

Mohammed, one of the members of the family, had been a security guard at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. When the American security forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban moved in and took control of the city. They began going house to house to interrogate the residents and paid a visit to Mohammed.

“They knew that he had helped the U.S.,” Kelleher says. “The Taliban were not going to be fans of this guy.”

He and his family ran out the back door, escaped to the airport, and somehow got on a plane. Their journey took them to Qatar and then Germany, before landing in the U.S. and staying briefly at military facilities in Virginia and New Jersey. Eventually, the refugees made their way to Newburyport.

The family is enjoying the newly outfitted home in the church’s hall and is appreciative of the help they’ve received from the plumbers and others in the community. Likewise, Bryan says that she and the congregation are grateful for the plumbers’ support.

“I can’t say enough positive things,” she adds. 

The living space is full of life, laughter, and good food, according to the minister. The family have made Newburyport their home. When one of the daughters graduated eighth grade, she was given an award for perseverance. “I could cry,” says Bryan, when sharing the accomplishment. “The whole city has embraced them, and they’ve embraced the city.”

The goal, eventually, is to help the family find permanent housing in the area. The organizations that have been helping all the Afghan families in Newburyport hope to create three properties that would be designated for refugees in perpetuity.

Maxim Hetmanchuk E.M. Duggan Ukraine benefit

E.M. Duggan steps up to aid Ukraine

It can be overwhelming and disheartening to hear the daily drumbeat of a crisis such as the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine. People can feel hopeless. Or, like the folks at E.M. Duggan, they can take action.

The GBPCA contractor organized a clothing drive and delivered the goods to the Christ of King Ukrainian Church in Jamaica Plain, which, in turn, shipped them to the war-torn country. Among the items collected were blankets and towels as well as clothes. With the support of Len Monfredo, the company’s principal, Duggan also had t-shirts imprinted with the message, “Glory to Ukraine,” imprinted in the country’s national colors. Ukrainian soldiers often share the phrase when greeting one another. The shirts were included in the donation.

Alex Motorny, Duggan’s safety manager, who was born and raised in Ukraine and still has family there, translated the phrase so that a local vendor could imprint it on the shirts. He also translated a letter, which in part states that the donated items should be thought of as a “hug from those around the world who care about you.” The letters were tucked into bags along with the shirts. Motorny said that he was moved to tears by the letter and by the actions of his colleagues.

“E.M. Duggan cares about their employees and about the people in Ukraine,” he says. “It’s very kind and generous of Len and the rest of the company to do such a great thing. I’m very touched.”

Because it can be difficult to track donated items amid a crisis and determine whether they reached their intended destination, the letter also included instructions asking recipients in the Ukraine to contact Duggan. Company members were thrilled when Maxim Hetmanchuk, a wounded Ukrainian soldier being treated in a hospital, sent a message indicating his appreciation for the donated items and kind wishes. He said that he cried when he read the letter. The soldier later sent a photo of himself wearing the specially designed shirt.

Hydrogen in our energy pipeline

With increasingly dire reports about the acceleration of climate change and its consequences, calls to address the existential issue have become more urgent. Per state law, Massachusetts has an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% from 1990 levels before 2030. The figure rises to a 75% reduction by 2040 and to 85% by 2050. Among the ways that Massachusetts could help hit the targets is by incorporating hydrogen into the energy mix.

The gas contains the highest energy content fuel by weight and only emits water vapor when burned, which makes tapping its potential appealing. Is hydrogen viable as an alternate fuel source? The jury is still out, and there are some hurdles to overcome. But it seems to hold a great deal of promise.

“As far as we’re concerned, we are for an all-of-the-above approach” when it comes to planning our energy future, says Wendell Hibdon, director of energy and infrastructure for the United Association, the parent organization of Local 12. “Let’s consider everything.” Everything, he says, should include hydrogen.

The gas has many potential uses, including fueling cars, trucks, and other vehicles, generating electricity, heating homes, and powering appliances. It’s those last two applications in which plumbers and gasfitters would get involved. PCA contractors and the Local 12 members they employ could play a significant role in bringing hydrogen to the state’s homes and businesses.

“The beauty of using hydrogen for heating and to operate appliances is that the piping infrastructure to deliver it already exists,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “It’s installed and maintained by plumbers and gasfitters.”

More than 50% of Massachusetts homeowners have natural gas piped into their houses. Approximately 60% of homes in the U.S. rely on gas heating. It’s not as simple as converting those systems to pure hydrogen, however.

Blending hydrogen and natural gas

While more research needs to be done, it appears that existing heating systems and appliances such as gas ranges and clothes dryers would likely have to be retrofitted or redesigned to accommodate 100% hydrogen. In its pure form, the gas can also cause embrittlement of cast iron pipes. Of the 21,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in Massachusetts, about 2,800 miles is made of cast iron. (The remaining infrastructure, which is made of steel and polyethylene plastic, is compatible with hydrogen.)

A blend of hydrogen and conventional natural gas, however, has been shown to work with both the existing distribution piping system and end-user appliances. Hydrogen hybrid fuel is being used in Asia and Europe. For example, a hydrogen pilot project in Scotland, which has been in operation since last May, is being conducted by National Grid U.K.

The utility’s American counterpart, National Grid, announced a similar program in December for the Long Island town of Hempstead in New York. Dubbed the “HyGrid Project,” it is delivering hydrogen-blended gas to about 800 homes in the community. Hydrogen is also being used to fuel at least 10 municipal vehicles there.

“We believe that hydrogen can transform the energy industry, and we are on the forefront,” says Rudolph Wynter, president of National Grid New York. “This exciting project show that hydrogen blending can be used to decarbonize the existing networks.”

The ratio of hydrogen being used in the Hempstead program is currently 5%. According to the utility, it will slowly increase the amount of hydrogen in the blend with methane to 20% over a three-year period. Initial research indicates that residential appliances can operate without issue up to a 28% blend of hydrogen. The more hydrogen that is blended into the mix, the more carbon emissions can be reduced per unit of energy produced.

National Grid, which also operates in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, has stated that it wants to expand the use of the hybrid fuel and is considering other pilot programs. That is precisely what a recent UMass Lowell report calls for.

Study urges development of hydrogen policy in Mass.

In conjunction with Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), a multidisciplinary panel of experts convened by UMass Lowell studied the opportunities and challenges of developing a hydrogen-based economy in the state and throughout the Northeast. In a report published by the university’s Rist Institute for Sustainability & Energy in November, the organization concluded that hydrogen utilization could provide both economic benefits and help Massachusetts reach its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Some critics argue that hydrogen would prolong reliance on natural gas and that they would rather see gas pipeline networks phased out. In its place, they call for switching over to electric heat pumps and appliances. As the UMass Lowell report points out, however, such a large-scale conversion would be costly and would impose a burden on those least able to afford it. In contrast, by displacing natural gas with hydrogen, end users could keep their existing heating systems and appliances, and there would be no extra cost to them. The transition would be virtually seamless.

Also, making the switch to electricity for heating and appliances would place more of a demand on the state’s electrical grid, most of which relies on natural gas-fueled power plants. The state is years, and possibly decades away from generating enough electricity through offshore wind and other green sources to meet its needs.

“There’s a long haul to electrify every home in Massachusetts as well as to electrify every business,” says Bob Rio, a senior vice president at AIM. “We think there’s an opportunity here to use hydrogen to reduce greenhouse gases.”

The UA’s Hibdon agrees. “We can get started blending hydrogen with natural gas, and it will reduce carbon emissions right off the bat. To me, that’s a win-win.”

Another benefit to a pipeline system that would incorporate hydrogen, according to the UMass Lowell report, is that it would be more reliable in storms. Most heat pumps rely on above-ground power lines, which can be vulnerable during adverse weather conditions.

Although hydrogen is a common and readily available element, it can be challenging to produce it as a fuel source. Most hydrogen today is produced through a process known as steam methane reforming, or SMR, and is considered “grey.” The process itself yields carbon. “Blue” hydrogen couples SMR with carbon capture to reduce emissions, but that process is costly. The preferred color for hydrogen is “green,” which refers to hydrogen generated by using renewable power sources like wind or solar energy. “Green” hydrogen is being used on Long Island for the HyGrid Project.

The UMass Lowell study recommends that Massachusetts develop a comprehensive hydrogen policy that would integrate the use of hydrogen to reduce or eliminate carbon for heating homes and other buildings. It also calls for utilities to establish optional pilot programs that would blend hydrogen with natural gas. And it advocates for the creation of a renewable procurement standard for natural gas utilities and suppliers that would allow hydrogen to qualify for renewable energy credits in the state.

“We want to be involved and help make hydrogen a viable option,” says Hibdon. “We want to help lower carbon emissions.”

How do you get water to the middle of nowhere?

Local 12 volunteers build wash stations for Navajo Water Project

“People need water and sewerage,” says Rick Carter, Local 12’s training director. “Most people take running water and indoor plumbing for granted.” That is, until something fails. Then they realize the critical role that plumbers play. Some folks, however, don’t have ready access to life’s most basic needs. For example, one in three people live without a sink or a toilet–that’s 67 times more likely than other Americans–on the Navajo Nation, a vast swath of land that spans Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Plumbers are rising to the challenge.

The United Association (Local 12’s parent organization) organized the Wash Station Challenge over the summer. The goal was to construct 20 outdoor wash stations targeted for remote areas in Navajo Nation. As part of the UA effort, volunteers at Local 12’s training center built two of the units.

The UA first got involved with the Navajo Nation two years ago when it partnered with the International Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Foundation (IWSH) and the DigDeep organization’s Navajo Water Project to build a water tank, septic system, bathrooms, and more in New Mexico.

“It was like that show, ‘Restaurant Impossible,’ ” says Tom Bigley, director of plumbing services for the UA. “I called it ‘bathroom impossible.’ But we got it done. It was very rewarding.” Bigley serves on the board of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), and IWSH is the association’s public charity.

Last year, Plumbers Local 400 in Wisconsin helped develop and build a prototype wash station. Its success led to this year’s Wash Station Challenge. Amid the pandemic, the Navajo Nation has experienced some of the highest infection rates in the U.S. With running water scarce on the reservation, people have limited ability to wash their hands and help prevent the virus from spreading. The wash stations are intended to support and enable handwashing in local communities and remote households to help halt COVID’s spread and promote public health and hygiene awareness.

“When Harry Brett and Tim Fandel learned what we did, they offered to help with future projects,” Bigley says.

“We are honored to be asked to help and happy to do so,” says Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. He notes that the joint labor-management group that the union has with its affiliated contractors provided the funds for the project’s materials. “It was very generous of them,” Fandel says.

The stations, which are about five-and-a-half feet wide and deep, contain a 210-gallon water tank and a sink assembly with a drop-down steel mesh countertop on one of its sides. The tank is inside an insulated cabinet and includes a heating element to prevent the water from freezing during the winter. The mobile units sit on steel frames with large wheels.

“They look like chicken coops that are bound for the moon or like the Mars rovers,” says Bigley with a laugh.

A wash station in use at Navajo Nation.

The first step in assembling the stations was to build their frames, which involved welding aluminum stainless steel and carbon stainless steel. The training center’s welding instructor, Bobby Niles, and two apprentices in Local 12’s welding program came in Saturdays and some nights to work on the frame. Other instructors and apprentices handled the units’ shells, which included wooden doors. The stations were built in the training center’s new annex shop.

Some of the stations use electricity. The off-grid models that Local 12 built include solar panels. Training center instructor Johnny Tierney, who is a licensed electrician, wired them so they would be self-powered.

“There was a lot of cutting and fabrication to build the stations,” Carter says adding that they took from May to September to complete. “We have great instructors and apprentices who wanted to be involved and donated their time.”

Navajo Nation UA Wash Station Challenge Local 12 Boston
Left: Local 12 volunteers welded the frames for the wash stations. Right: One of Local 12’s stations under construction.

The training director says that several partners got involved with the project as well. For example, Ferguson Plumbing donated the sinks and the water tanks. Local 12 neighbor Gilbert & Becker, which is a roofing contractor, put metal skins on the exterior of the stations to make them weathertight. When the units were completed, the company also supplied a forklift to load them–all 1,100 lbs. of them–onto moving trucks for shipping.

Bound for the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Carter says that the location is “literally in the middle of nowhere.” Because there is no street address, the shipper had to use GPS coordinates. Once they arrived on site, DigDeep distributed and installed the washing stations. “Hopefully they will get years of use out of them,” Carter says.

“I think everyone’s aware that Native Americans have been treated unfairly,” says Bigley. “Our people like to work with their hands, and this is a way that we can help. It really resonates.” He adds that the UA will continue working with Navajo Nation, and that the next challenge will likely be bathroom units.

Whatever the project, Carter and Fandel say that Local 12 stands ready to help.

Turning off the PFAS tap forever

Plumbers help keep people and communities safe by providing access to clean drinking water. But what happens when a community’s water supply is compromised? That’s the predicament in which several Massachusetts cities and towns find themselves.

About a year ago, the state issued directives requiring public water systems to test for dangerous polyfluroalkyl chemicals, known as PFAS for short. 20 percent discovered levels that exceeded regulations. Some, such as Wayland, began distributing bottled water to households. Other affected communities include Natick, Randolph, and Wellesley.

The group of chemicals share a carbon-fluorine bond that is among the strongest known to humans. That makes them especially effective for items designed to be non-stick or water- and stain-resistant. These include non-stick cookware, rain jackets, dental floss, and ski wax. The strong chemical bond also makes PFAS extremely persistent in the environment, hence their nickname: “forever chemicals.” They are often found in drinking water and groundwater.

“They are very difficult to get rid of once they are created,” says Kyla Bennett, Ph.D., science policy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in Boston. PFAS have been linked with health issues ranging from cancer, developmental delays for children, and immune problems. They have been shown to affect wildlife as well as humans. “We have to turn off the PFAS tap, literally and figuratively, to stop them from affecting us,” adds Bennett.

U.S. manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to stop making the two most common PFAS chemicals. They are among the six that Massachusetts is targeting. The problem is that the country continues to import and use products that contain the chemicals. And there are more than 9,000 variations that fall under the PFAS umbrella. When states such as Massachusetts identify some that are problematic, manufacturers develop a slightly different formulation. “It’s a never-ending game of whack-a-mole,” Bennett says. “It’s an untenable situation. They are ubiquitous.” Instead, regulators are starting to think about targeting PFAS as a class and banning them altogether.

What can communities and individuals do? Bennett’s hometown of Easton first gave residents $75 rebates to purchase home filters that are certified to remove PFAS. Now, the DPW has installed a small system where residents can fill up jugs and containers with filtered water. The town is talking about building a high-tech filtration system for the entire water supply. Its $10 million price tag makes it a costly consideration for a small community, however.

As is the case in other communities, Easton is also blending the water it pumps from the town’s seven wells, three of which are contaminated. That dilutes the PFAS and brings it under 20 parts per trillion, the level the state has established as the cutoff. Bennett says many scientists think the limit is too high and should be closer to 0.1 parts per trillion.

In addition to regulating the amount of PFAS in drinking water, lawmakers are trying to target the source of the chemicals. There are bills in the state legislature that would ban PFAS in certain products. Other states, including Vermont, have imposed such bans. One of the items that contains the chemicals is pipe thread seal tape, a plumbing staple. Bennett says that plumbers should be looking for alternatives that don’t have PFAS.

Drinking water isn’t the only concern. In addition to ingesting the chemicals, people can also inhale them when they are aerosolized and absorb them through the skin (when showering, for example).

Massachusetts is one of the leaders tackling the PFAS issue in the country. But the chemicals are so pervasive, the federal government should ideally be involved. To date, the EPA has not imposed any regulations. That may be changing, however.

In July the U.S. House passed the PFAS Action Act, which would require the EPA to set a federal standard for the chemicals in drinking water. The legislation is making its way through Congress.

“The writing is on the wall. Eventually PFAS will be banned,” Bennett says. “We have to keep ourselves safe until we get there.”

Local 12 Plumbers Boston training center

Training center back to “normal”

As with nearly everything, the pandemic wreaked havoc with Local 12’s training center. But, after coping with major interruptions and modifications the past two academic years, apprentice classes and other programs at the center have returned, more or less, to regular operations.

The only major concession to the ongoing threat of COVID-19 is that students, instructors, and visitors must wear facemasks in the facility while they are in classrooms. Night classes for journeyman training, which had been temporarily cancelled, have resumed.

“We are trying to get back to normal,” says Rick Carter, the training center’s director. “But I think we are all still in COVID shock. Some people are having a hard time rebooting and returning to normalcy.”

When the pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, the training center switched to remote learning. For classes that emphasize hands-on instruction and participation, the model proved to be difficult. Carter says it was not conducive to the kind of high-quality training for which the center is known.

In fall 2020, in-person classes returned. To maximize social distancing, however, the class sizes were reduced to about ten apprentices. That meant the center had to expand its schedule and present more classes to accommodate everyone. Many hand sanitizer stations were installed, the HVAC system was upgraded to improve ventilation, and other modifications were made. It was not ideal, but it was significantly better than conducting virtual classes.

This academic year, the center is back to pre-COVID-sized classes and a regular schedule. Carter says that it’s good to put most of the pandemic-era modifications in the rearview mirror. “Hopefully we never have to go back to that.”