Chicago Plumber Proud to ‘Protect the Health of the Nation’ – Now More Than Ever
November 19, 2020
By Ryan Smith
This organized labor profile was underwritten by the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130.
Social distancing at work isn’t a problem for Jason Reed.
A large portion of his shifts is spent tucked away in the bowels of unoccupied buildings or subterranean tunnels in order to install new water and sewer systems for some of Chicago’s biggest commercial projects.
He’s a plumber, yes, but not like the stereotype many imagine: the handyman armed with a plunger who makes house calls. Instead, the veteran of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130 works with Hill Mechanical, a Chicago-based contracting firm.
“I’m definitely not your typical plumber that goes and plunges a toilet. This is way more intricate than that and very sensitive,” says Reed, 40, of North Kenwood. “If I don’t do my job right, I could put other people in danger.”
Reed said he identifies strongly with American plumbers’ long-held slogan, “The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation,” especially because he’s been assigned to so many hospital projects. His 22-year resume includes construction projects for the University of Illinois Hospital, Cook County Hospital and the sprawling 14-story Rush University Medical Center pavilion at Ashland Avenue and the Eisenhower Expressway.
Failing to keep urinals, toilets, and sinks at hospitals clog-free and operational can jeopardize facilities’ sterile environment and put patients and health care professionals at risk. Hospital drains, for instance, are notorious breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant superbug bacteria. The threat of COVID-19 spreading through plumbing has complicated matters even further this year.
The delicate nature of hospitals plus the age of the city’s infrastructure requires a lot of study and planning. Reed describes plumbing the Rush Hospital building as a “putting together a jigsaw puzzle” using both new and old pieces because he had to retrofit to a century-old system.
“To make it usable and reliable and efficient was a big challenge,” Reed says.
Even something seemingly as simple as installing pipes for sinks can be daunting when you’re dealing with structures at the massive scale as, say, Chicago’s sixth-largest hotel. Reed was a general foreman for the plumbing of the Marriott Marquis, completed in 2017, which meant providing clean water for 1,205 rooms.
Calibrating the water pressure for all 40 stories of the hotel wasn’t easy.
“We had 220 PSI coming in, but that’s way too much for somebody to wash their hands with right? So you break it up with stations called pressure-reducing stations. There’s really a nice science to this work,” says Reed.
Reed revels in perfecting the practical science of plumbing and the fact that he gets a rare peek at Chicago’s guts and sees how the City That Works works from the inside.
“The fun part to me is that you start to dig and see the history of Chicago through old structures, old bricks, and underground systems. “I see how everything was done way before I was born and think, ‘Wow, how did they do this?’”
It seems as if the passion for the trades that Reed first discovered as a young high school sophomore at Dunbar Vocational High School in Bronzeville still burns bright. He credits a shop teacher Ted Smith, for giving him hands-on experience and his father, a former lineman for Illinois Bell, for inspiration.
“My dad was like: ‘You can go to college and do whatever you want, but if you work with your hands, nobody can ever take that away. And you’ll always be able to feed your family and feed yourself.’
“So I kind of took that to heart.”