What an Expert Looks Like: 10,000 hours

This past Friday, I spent time with our plumber in a small mechanical room on one of our projects. We were trying to figure out why we were not getting water pressure into the house from the main water line out on the street.

I sat on a small step ladder and chatted with him while he replaced the main valve on the water line. That’s the valve right before the water meter. It’s where you go to turn off all of the water going into the house when you have a leak. This valve was more than 50 years old. Though the valve looked OK, he figured it was the first and cheapest section to look at as the source of the water pressure problem.

Once we’d agreed to an approach to the problem, we started talking about business, and life, in general. That conversation was peppered by some details about what we were seeing during the valve-replacement process. Meanwhile, I watched this expert at work. Here is what he had to do to replace the valve:

  • Disconnect the water meter and the grounding cable for the electrical service from the copper water line
  • Mop up a small amount of spilled water
  • Prop up a flashlight to point on the area of work – it was a small space to work in
  • Gently heat the suspect valve with a propane, not acetylene, torch. He explained that propane was not as hot, and so easier to control.
  • Prop up the torch on a metal wrench to get the right angle on the valve and free his hands while it heated (time span 5-7 minutes). The open pipe spat steam and hot water as it heated.
  • Make a few phone calls to his office about other ongoing projects and questions from his office while watching the pipe heat
  • Pull out a set of pliers from his tool bag, preparing to grasp the now hot valve and pipe sections
  • Discuss next steps with me should the valve turn out to not be the problem while grasping the very hot pipe section and valve and pulling it out of the water line. He had to tap it a few times to break it loose.
  • Turn off the torch, placing it and the hot pipe sections and valve safely out of the way
    Cut without measuring, clean and prep a new copper section of pipe to go into the water line and select a new replacement valve
  • Prep and clean the new valve, while explaining to me its high temperature silicone interior components
  • Fit the new components and seat into place
  • Relight the torch, heat the new components, solder into place
  • Clean solder joints
  • Reattach water meter and grounding cable to main water line
  • He performed all of these technical tasks — some of which are rather dangerous — smoothly and without really thinking about them, just like you might brush your teeth. He could talk to me at the same time without a pause in his speaking. We were talking, at that point, about some business issues we were both dealing with at our offices.

    He did another tricky thing: He used a pipe fitting to turn the female end of a water hose into a male so he could attach the hose to the main, run the hose into the laundry tub, and then test for flow.

    I commented on the tricky use of the fitting, how that was very cool and smart. He told me that when he was a kid, his dad, who passed the business down to him, would make him clean the work truck and re-sort fittings. At the time, he thought that was “so stupid!”, but now he doesn’t even have to think about what fitting to use. His hand goes right to the one he needs.