50 Years—A Look Back at the Life and Career of an Accidental Plumbing Engineer, Part 2

Part 2: Career choice leads to challenges…and opportunities.

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

Following up on Part 1: How a process piping designer discovered that plumbing engineering can be…wait for it…fun, here are some of the opportunities and challenges presented to me due to my decision to explore a career in plumbing engineering.

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Freeze-Dryers. Photo courtesy of Serail, Inc.

I worked for a large design-construct firm that specialized in pharmaceutical and biotech facilities and was one of two or three plumbing engineers among 900 other employees. We had just completed the design of a rotavirus vaccine facility in Pennsylvania, which was to receive three lyophilizers, or freeze-dryers, which were being manufactured in France.

The purchase contract called for routine inspections of the equipment during manufacturing, and the project manager sought to fulfill our company’s role by sending the process engineer to the plant. The engineer answered that he was too heavily involved in his next project to break away for a few days. The project manager and lead process piping engineer also had commitments and were not able to go, so next in line was the plumbing engineer. With my process piping background, I was the logical next choice and got to spend a few wonderful days in Paris and the French countryside. Being available has its merits!

Challenges Add Color

While working for a well-established A/E firm in New York City, I inherited a portion of a project to design a brand-new research and development facility for a well-known cosmetics firm in upstate New York. The project’s architects and engineers did a marvelous job creating this innovative facility for the researchers. However, one laboratory had gone largely untouched. This was the pilot laboratory, where the researchers would formulate small batches of lipsticks, creams, and the like using small, jacketed pressure vessels, some no larger than a soup pot. None of the other plumbing engineers claimed the experience to lay out detailed piping arrangements or were willing to try. To them it seemed to be career suicide.

The Pilot Lab

The challenge was to reproduce the rat’s nest of piping and controls that had evolved in the old facility over the last 75 years and assemble the systems into a series of stations where any size or type of kettle could be connected and receive the same combination of steam and condensate, chilled water, plant cold water, compressed air, and vacuum through pipe connections available at each station—all contained within stainless steel service chases and controlled by a programmable logic controller (PLC). The planning stages involved reviewing the existing conditions, interviewing the researchers, hiring a consulting process engineer to prepare P&IDs largely for controls sequence and specification, and presenting concepts to the client in the form of full-scale mock-ups. The results were amazing, as can be seen in the picture, and the new pilot laboratory is the vision of cleanliness and order unlike anything in which the researchers had ever worked. As a bonus, I had a lot of fun executing this task because I was pretty much left alone to do what I had to and received whatever resources I asked for to get the job done. Facing challenges is what makes for a colorful career!

Enjoying the High Line

The High Line Before Opening

During a recent tenure at a rather unique, high-end consulting firm in New York, I had the distinct pleasure to be the lead engineer for the High Line, New York City’s premier elevated park, which is built on about 1.5 miles of abandoned, elevated railroad structure. The firm won the project in a design competition through collaboration with the landscape architectural firm Field Operations.

When I came aboard, the project had already finished Schematic Design and was progressing in Design Development. The plumbing design included drainage of the park’s many green roofs, providing potable water for irrigation and a water feature, surface preparation, and waterproofing. This latter item, even though outside any MEP consultant’s sphere of expertise, was somehow included in our scope of work, and there was no way around it. I love a challenge, however, and, undaunted, worked with the landscape architect and selected a versatile, cold-applied membrane that was easy to apply, easily repairable, and guaranteed for 30 years.

As part of the membrane installation we had to set the high and low points of the concrete topping layer to allow drainage while maintaining adequate thickness on top of the existing, undulating surface. The low points determined the drain locations, and the task of rerouting a mile or so of drain pipe was undertaken.

The drainage plumbing, though seemingly mundane, had several pitfalls to overcome. For one, the structure makes several turns along its coursing above and through the city streets. The sloping drains had to follow these turns while running within the beam pockets, which were aligned with natural centerlines rather than curving with the structure’s path. Plus, although the original designer showed drain lines in the Schematic Design turning at every conceivable angle, I understood that only commercially available cast-iron fittings could be specified to keep the project within budget. Thus, this involved making turns with fifth, sixth, eighth, and sixteenth bends and locating penetrations through steel members, calculating every invert along the way to ensure we would not exceed structural tolerances, drop below the steel, or infringe on DOT headroom clearances.

Drinking Fountain on the High Line

Another surprisingly overwhelming challenge was supplying domestic water to the site. Because of the total length and concentration of needs, we provided four supplies to the High Line. That was the easy part. The hard part was working with the City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to get the documents approved. We had to have several meetings to convince the DEP that this was not a building and should not be processed in the same manner.

Other hurdles to clear involved backflow preventer installation applications. New York City has some very specific and rigid regulations regarding the placement of backflow prevention devices—for very good reason. However, we did not have the luxury of mechanical equipment rooms or the building elements usually associated with these devices, so we had to place them where they don’t usually go and convince the DEP that it was okay. The drinking fountains selected did not include a drain connection. Instead, the water spilled onto a grating panel behind the fixture and flowed to an area drain connected to the High Line’s drainage system.

The High Line Water Feature

The park also includes a water feature that essentially bubbles a thin veneer of water through concrete planks, which then flows down a gently sloped run, into a trench, and back to the treatment equipment. Although the design was accomplished by a fountain consultant, we still had to provide a home for the equipment, a water supply, and drainage. Some of the pumps and metering equipment needed to be located below the deck, within the structure below and hanging above the street. All I can say is that it was not fun trying to drain the low point of the equipment when its elevation was already lower than my lowest drain and pumping was not an option—nothing a little creative materials selection and smooth-talking couldn’t handle, though. I had to convince some entities that a visible pipe was okay in this case.

I currently work near one of the access points to the High Line, so it is gratifying to be able to enjoy what I consider one of my most challenging projects!

Hiding Piping Behind Glass

Apple Store

One commercial project I worked on, an Apple Store, had all of the earmarks of a process project concerning the attention to detail. The Apple Corporation demands the best from its architects and consultants because each flagship store must stand alone in uniqueness. This store was to have a glass arched roof supported by a stainless-steel truss and purlin system. Of course, the more such unique and expensive systems such as this are displayed, the less architects and owners want to see evidence of anything mechanical. In this case, the sprinkler system was no different. How do you hide sprinkler system piping when there is no ceiling to hide behind? The concept was to place the sprinkler pipes in between the stainless steel roof purlins. This was an assembly of two stainless steel plates between which the overhead lights, smoke detectors, and sprinkler piping would be supported.

The riskiest part of this project was the constructability. The placement of the pipes did not allow for a craftsman to get a wrench in to tighten the fittings. If I went with a welded system, the prefabricated pipe assembly would have to be placed between the plates from above, but the roof supports prohibited that. In the end, the contractor elected to feed the individual sections of branch pipe between the plates from behind, so temporary openings were created, accessed from the low roof behind the high glass roof through which the contractor inserted the sections and made up each joint. It is remarkable; you really cannot even tell the building is sprinklered!

Stay Tuned

In the final part of this series, I’ll explain why it wasn’t always fun and games, but in the end it was worth it.

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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