50 Years—A Look Back at the Life and Career of an Accidental Plumbing Engineer, Part 3

Part 3: It’s not all fun and games, but in the end it’s worth it.

by Anthony J. Curiale, CPD, LEED AP, FASPE

This is this final part of my series on the life of an accidental plumbing engineer. In Part 1, you can learn how I discovered the career of plumbing engineering, and in Part 2, I detail some of the opportunities and challenges presented to me due to my decision to explore this career. Here, I’ll wrap up by explaining how skills and networking within ASPE helped me survive and thrive through some trying times.

Varied Skills Lead to Success

In recent years, I’ve begun to encourage younger and like-experienced engineers to branch out and take on projects and even situations where they learn new skill sets, as my experience in marine, process, clean room, and other sectors of design has added value to my overall worth as an employee.

Weapon Station Earle Ammunition Pier (on right)

One instance where the specific skills needed for one sector helped in another comes to mind. I worked for an A/E firm on a project to design a new pier for the U.S. Navy at the Weapon Station Earle Ammunition Depot in Leonardo, New Jersey, to home-port two Auxiliary Oiler vessels, the AOE-3, USS Seattle, and AOE-4, USS Detroit. The ships were currently home-ported at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. The new pier is located about 2 miles into the Sandy Hook Bay, where if a catastrophic explosion of one of the ships were to take place, most of the concussion would dissipate before reaching shore, whereas at the location in Norfolk, a catastrophic explosion would take out most of the base as well as the nearby civilian population. The move was a good idea and long overdue.

During the early stages we had to visit the naval base at Norfolk to get a feel for the utilities needed for offloading sewage, connecting power lines and potable water hoses to the ship, and such. Unlike Norfolk, which had utility stations located at regular intervals along a seemingly endless wharf to allow a ship to maneuver near to one of the stations, the pier at Earle was limited in length and the ships would likely moor at a fixed location every time. You most likely would want to locate the stations where needed, but the problem was that the Navy wouldn’t release general arrangements of the ship to us so we had no way of knowing where the connecting stations were. Also, we couldn’t get on board the ship due to restrictions in place while loading ordnance, so we tried to wing it and see if we could figure out the distance from the bow or stern to the stations.

However, I remembered that during my marine engineering days, each ship has a frame spacing, usually 12 or 18 inches, measured from the point where the waterline intersects the hull at the bow. Frames are numbered from one through whatever and are the coordinate system used to locate items aboard a ship. I saw a couple of sailors leaning over the starboard side about where one of the shipboard transfer stations was located and shouted, “What frame?” He disappeared from view and came back a moment later and shouted, “Thirty-five!” So I had my location.

Upon return to the office, I was able to ascertain that the frame spacing was 18 inches and used the locations given to me by the sailor to locate the stations. It pays to maintain a varied skill set and value each learning experience.

ASPE Member Networking Helps Save the Day

On a recent occasion, our engineering chief stopped by my desk to ask if I could help with a project that was in construction. The water pressure at a bus repair facility the firm designed in Richmond, Virginia was experiencing low-pressure problems. The administration building portion of the project site was scheduled to open in a week, and the toilets on the third floor would not flush. They wanted to have the designer of record address the situation, but he was on vacation and unavailable.

I made the requisite call to the site construction manager and ascertained the problem and some of the conditions at the site. It was clear that the required demand pressure was not being satisfied, and after looking at the calculations it was also clear that the pressure available was much lower than the designed available pressure.

I knew I couldn’t give these guys the service they needed from my perch in New Jersey because I’d have to divide attention between current projects, email, and other distractions, so with my supervisor’s consent, I went home, packed, and drove down to Richmond. I walked into the construction trailer first thing the next morning and introduced myself, sat down, did the necessary research, made some calculations, and confirmed that we needed to add a pressure booster system for the building.

I thought I was done, but as my new construction manager friend gave me a tour of the repair facility, a “two-story building,” I counted steps on the way to the second level. Some quick math in my head confirmed my fear: we were going to have the same problem in this building because the water line serving the building came from the same street main, so I needed to add a booster for this building as well.

Now here’s where ASPE member networking pays off. I contacted the Richmond Chapter President and asked for the contact information of the most reliable pump rep in the area. He hooked us up, and by the end of the day the pump rep was working on a proposal for the two systems. We could not fit these pump sets in the building because of the current piping arrangements and lack of available space, so we agreed to have them live outdoors in heated enclosures. The backflow preventers were already located in a heated enclosure near the property line, but we needed to purchase some new enclosures in which the pump sets could live. We decided on one enclosure for each pump set and had to have a new electrical line run to power them. All told, the complete booster installation cost the owner several thousand dollars, but he was pleased that the issue was given such a high priority and his scheduled opening would take place as planned.

Now, I don’t enjoy treading on another designer’s ground, especially if there are some errors and omissions on the table,  but when the project designer came back we learned that the incoming design pressure should have been sufficient to operate the system without boosting the pressure. As it turned out, the water purveyor added an entire neighborhood development to the city main, which was never in their long-range plans. They were supposed to utilize a higher-pressure main for this addition but they connected to the wrong main and did not want to rectify the situation, so the existing main now operates 10 to 15 pounds per square inch (psi) lower without warning.

After the project was complete, I received some very nice messages from the company VPs and felt pretty good about being able to make a difference.

Traveling War Stories

What I have considered one of the most exciting facets of our business was the opportunity to travel and visit other places. My career path has taken me to several U.S. and foreign cities. Large cities like Los Angeles, Corpus Christi, Texas, New Orleans, Paris, Berlin, London, Dublin, and Beijing are quite exciting and offer lots to see and some great cuisine. The not-so-large places such as Brandenburg, Kentucky; Baytown, Texas; Paulsboro, New Jersey; Buffalo, New York; and Columbus, Ohio offer a more subtle, old-world charm that most vacationers don’t experience.

I know that traveling for business is not high on some people’s lists and the experience certainly has gone from enjoyable to downright odious since 9/11 and COVID-19, but the fact remains that I’ve had the privilege to get around and see some of our beautiful nation as well as some places no one will ever come close to visiting. Plus, I can’t even put a price on the pleasure of meeting so many interesting people over the years, and the tales of airline travel—oh, if you only knew!

On one particular flight home, I sat next to a dear old lady on her first flight, and she was distressed by the experience of her first landing. She sat by the window, and as we neared the ground in some pretty gusty conditions, I leaned over and assured her, “Ma’am, these pilots are skilled professionals. They make hundreds of landings in these conditions all the time. There’s nothing to worry about.” About that time, I happened to glance out her window, and I noticed that the ground was coming to meet us much more quickly than I was used to. WHAM! The landing gear probably worked to its design capacity on that touchdown. I looked at her eyes, and they were like frying pans. I said as calmly as I could, “That’s normal. It happens all the time!”

During one visit to London, I was able to work in a weekend to see the sights. I can’t explain the feeling you get standing next to the graves of such popularities as Sir Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth, William Wilberforce, Charles Darwin, and others at Westminster Abbey. On a visit to York, I visited a cathedral built on the thousand-year-old ruins of a Roman barracks. They found the ruins during a foundation shoring-up project and made a museum out of them. Maybe you weren’t aware, but the 9/11 Memorial Museum wasn’t the first museum to be built to focus on the foundations of a building.

Of course, I would be lying to imply that all of my travel experiences were good. Some have been downright horror stories. For instance, I’ll never forget one of my first business trips. I was working in California and had to spend a few days at the Ingersoll Rand compressor plant in Painted Post, New York, to assist in an analysis of the compressor piping we had designed for a hydrogen plant in Florida. This particular type of analysis could only be done with an analog computer, and there were only two in the nation, one being in New York.

I was scheduled to be there for a week, so I packed accordingly and made the trip from Los Angeles to New York LaGuardia and then took a commuter flight up to Elmira, New York. I got off the plane, but my luggage didn’t. I was told this happened often and that the luggage usually comes up on the next flight. It didn’t.

I took a cab to my hotel, called my contact, explained what happened, and arranged for him to pick me up at the hotel the next day. We went about our business, and at intervals I made the occasional call to the airport to see if my luggage had arrived. It hadn’t.

LaGuardia Lost and Found

It went on like that for the whole week, and I concluded business in the same pair of jeans and tee-shirt. I flew back to New York and spent a day with my parents. They met me at the airport, and we decided to see if they had my luggage somewhere. I followed an airline employee into a cavernous room, the kind you see in the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with 12-foot-high racks of luggage extending as far as the eye could see. The fellow said to us, “Feel free to look through it all.” I was blown away. There was no chance I would find my luggage. Just then, I glanced over and couldn’t believe my eyes! Sitting on the floor right next to the door was my suitcase! We went back to my folks’ place, where I finally changed clothes and we had a lovely evening together. When I arrived back in LA that night, my wife met me at the airport, and when we went to pick up my luggage, guess what? They lost it again, and I haven’t seen it since!

Plumbing Saves the Day

Being a plumbing engineer has also saved me from some dreadful situations. During the early 1990s, we went through a recession after Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait. Things were not going well in the process piping field. I was working at a large, multi-discipline design-construct firm, but since one other fellow and I were doing all of the plumbing work, we were busy enough. On the process piping side, however, guys were being given one choice: accept work in another office or get laid off. This was hard for most of my colleagues, so I decided that since my coworker agreed he could handle all of the plumbing work, I would volunteer to work in our Charleston, West Virginia office and maybe save someone his job.

I went down to work there on what was to be a six-month-minimum stay. I was there for just over a month, however, when I was called back to the New Jersey office. It seems that my plumbing colleague had gotten snowed under and they needed me back. When the other guys got back after their assignments were up, they each got laid off, but I was working overtime. Go figure!

In closing, and as I look back over these narrations, I realize that I have been very fortunate. Most of the fellows I worked with in the power, petrochemical, and pharmaceutical industries have either left the business, retired early, or remain unemployed. I am fortunate to have had this training because it made me a better, more informed plumbing engineer, and I am content to be where I am today. Without these past challenges, I wonder if I would be able to face the trials we face with BIM, lower fees, tighter schedules, and architects who seem determined to push the envelope of code interpretation to the breaking point.

Most of all, I hope that some if not all of you have similar experiences to relate to burgeoning engineers. I, for one, would love to read about them. Maybe what we relate will inspire some young engineers to face challenges and create their own war stories.

About the Author

Tony Curiale, CPD, LEED AP, FASPE, began his career as a draftsman in the marine engineering industry fresh out of college. He quickly excelled in piping engineering and design and advanced in the power, petroleum, petrochemical, and pharmaceutical industries. He has 50 years of experience in sustainable design, plumbing, fire protection, marine, power, and process piping covering various domestic and foreign biotech, pharmaceutical, petroleum, petrochemical, marine, and commercial industries. His career has seen him on high-profile projects ranging from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to Avon’s state-of-the-art R&D facility, as well as other challenging assignments like the High Line and World Trade Center Memorial Pavilion in New York City.

During the economic downturn of the mid-1980s, he made a radical career decision to enter the buildings and facilities sector as a plumbing design engineer. He received his Certified in Plumbing Design designation in 1987 and has maintained it ever since.

Mr. Curiale is a Senior Associate at Cosentini Associates in New York City, responsible for the engineering and design of several high-rise buildings and mixed-use facilities. Past President of ASPE’s New Jersey Chapter for three terms, he also is a member of ASPE’s renowned Kenneth G. Wentink College of Fellows.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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