November 2023 Professional Engineer’s Perspective: Some Insight on the PE Exam Process

It is November, and the 2023 ASPE Tech Symposium in Bellevue, Washington is a month behind us. As I have done for many years, I attended the biennial Tech Symposium for the educational offerings, to see many friends and my peers, as well as enjoy the Product Show and the various committee meetings.

This year I had the pleasure of representing the Professional Engineer Working Group (PEWG) at a meeting on Sunday, October 1, to provide those who attended with a status update on where ASPE’s efforts stand. The meeting drew 20+ people who wanted to know what they could do to assist in the effort. Given that the effort is currently before NCEES EPE (National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying Examiners for Professional Engineers) Committee, I had no direct answer to that question.

A Debate Begins

However, after much consideration and discussion within the PEWG, we decided to post a message on the ASPE Connect Open Forum with suggestions on how to assist. So, on October 19, 2023, a discussion thread titled “NCEES Mechanical Suite of Exams—Plumbing/Piping” was posted on behalf of the PEWG. The intent was to simply let those with interest know how they might assist in advancing the multi-year effort that ASPE has made to get a plumbing/piping exam module placed within the NCEES Mechanical Engineering suite of exams.

In the thread, some long-time Registered Engineers began to debate why ASPE was advancing this effort. Bear in mind, these engineers took their exams many years ago, so they are most likely unaware of NCEES’ current exam philosophy or how the exams are administered today. At the time these individuals took their exams in the 1990s, the exams were still pencil and paper exams, and you could take reference materials with you into the exam room. Also, in that period, the exams had moved away from the primary engineering disciplines (Civil, Electrical, Mechanical, Architectural, etc.) to exams that had subdisciplines under those primary headings.

In the case of the NCEES Mechanical Engineering exam, the subdisciplines are HVAC and Refrigeration, Mechanical Systems and Materials, and Thermal and Fluids Systems. It was pointed out that the Thermal and Fluid Systems subdiscipline covers subject matter applicable to plumbing and piping engineering (hydraulics, heat exchangers, etc.). While this position is not without merit, it does not truly validate that the MCC (Minimally Competent Candidate) has the minimum knowledge and proficiency to be considered qualified in the expanding area of plumbing engineering.

The Reality Is That Engineering Is a Very Broad Area of Knowledge

It is not reasonable to expect any one person to be knowledgeable in all of the areas covered within the field of mechanical engineering. While we as engineers may use the same underlying principles, they must be applied in differing ways depending on the application. If you have worked within the consulting world and been involved in the production of civil, mechanical (HVAC&R and plumbing), electrical, and fire protection documents, you know how much of a challenge it is to be fully knowledgeable and qualified in all of these areas.

As engineers, we tend to specialize because protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare requires us to have an in-depth knowledge of that specialty. If it is a small or simple project, a qualified engineer can successfully handle both the HVAC and plumbing design. However, if the project is larger and more complex, that same engineer most likely cannot have sufficient knowledge or expedience to adequately design both the HVAC and plumbing systems within the time limits of the schedule.

Where Does Plumbing Fit?

As offered by one engineer who took the Mechanical Engineering exam’s HVAC&R module, 90 percent of the exam was based on Q=1.08*cfm*delta T and Q=500*gpm*delta T. There was nothing about fixture units, sewage lift station sizing, water temperatures that can burn you in three seconds, medical gases, water quality, etc. Providing a rigorous plumbing-focused exam would not weaken the requirements for professional registration in any way. It was this same reasoning that elevated the HVAC&R exam module to its current status. However, I know from my own experience that the HVAC&R exam lacks any real testing related to anything outside of the comfort and environmental treatment of the building envelop.

As the PEWG has advanced ASPE’s efforts through the NCEES PAKS (Professional Activities and Knowledge Study) process, there have been discussions about placing more plumbing-related questions in the HVAC&R exam. However, some ASPE members pointed out that adding plumbing questions in the HVAC&R exam would unfairly reduce the subject matter expected and required of HVAC&R candidates. To place plumbing/piping questions within the exam, some HVAC&R material would need to be eliminated, which would reduce the value of testing for the MCCs sitting for that exam. It would also not be a quality test for the MCC candidates within the plumbing/piping (P/P) profession.

Simply stated, it is not considered to be an acceptable solution to address these similar but drastically different specialty disciplines of Mechanical Engineering. If the purpose of these exams is to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare by ensuring that an exam candidate has the minimal qualifications and expertise within their area of practice as a Professional Engineer, then we need to properly test their subject matter knowledge.

Do Any of the Current Exam Have Questions About Plumbing?

Let’s look at the current NCEES exams that are available and see if any of them have in-depth coverage of what a plumbing engineer actually covers in their designs.

NCEES offers 16 examinations in which an MCC can obtain professional registration. Utilizing PE Exam | NCEES as a link, one can review the exam specifications for each of the offered disciplines. Out of the 16 exam possibilities, only seven exams include any knowledge areas that potentially test the knowledge/skills utilized by a plumbing engineer. Of these seven exams, only four exams actually touch on knowledge and skill areas related to plumbing: HVAC&R, Architectural Engineering, Thermal and Fluid Systems, and Fire Protection. However, each of these is geared to test the knowledge and skills of those who specialize within those specific areas. Yes, the underlying engineering and physics principles are the same, but they are applied differently as they relate to the specialty.

Thus, there needs to be an exam that is based around the specificity of plumbing/piping that truly tests the knowledge, skills, and tasks that comprise plumbing engineering. The only other option would be to provide more plumbing-based questions within the existing exams, but, as previously stated, that approach would dilute the number of questions needed by those testing within those specialties. This, in my judgment, would be unfair to those test-takers and lessen their ability to show expertise and competency in their own specialty.

Let’s Look Back at the Development of the Engineering Licensure Laws

Wyoming was the first state to pass an engineering licensure law in 1907. At a 1920 meeting in Chicago, seven of the then-existing state boards founded the Council of State Boards of Engineering Examiners (CSBEE) with “National” being added in 1931. The NCSBEE approved the Model Law for Registration of Engineers and Land Surveyors and created the National Bureau of Engineering Registration. By 1950, all of the states plus Alaska, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had engineering licensing laws in place. In 1960, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands become member boards of the Council.

The first Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination was administered in 1965. This was followed by the Principles and Practices of Engineering (PE) examination in 1966. Prior to this point, one became an acknowledged engineer by being interviewed by senior engineers to determine your knowledge and skills set.

The NCSBEE was changed to the National Council of Examiners (NCE) in 1967. The following year, the U.S. Virgin Islands became a member board. In 1984, all member licensing boards began using a uniform national engineering examination, and in 1989 the organization changed to the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

As of 2002, the exams were administered in the breadth-and-depth objectively scored (multiple-choice) format. NCEES exams were first offered in South Korea in 2008, followed by Egypt in 2009 and Saudi Arabia in 2010. In 2012, exams were offered in the Emirate of Sharjah and Turkey, and the Council voted to transition the exams to a computer-based format. In 2014, the FE exam is administered via computer-based testing for the first time with seven freestanding discipline-specific exams, and Taiwan becomes a member board. In 2015, NCEES exams are offered in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.

The Science Behind the Exams

NCEES uses a psychometric process: the field of study concerned with the theory and techniques of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge and abilities. It is through this process that all exam specifications and test questions are developed in support of the computer-based testing process. This process is used to identify the need for a specific exam, followed by a task analysis. This process is known as the Professional Activities and Knowledge Study (PAKS). The PAKS committee works to determine and understand what specific tasks are unique to a proposed area of specialty exam. These tasks are then put into a survey that is sent to as many PEs who have been registered within the last five or more years as well as to the various professional societies to seek a wide breadth of opinions.

The result of this survey process is then used by a second PAKS committee to evaluate the results in an effort to develop an exam specification. At this point, the PAKS committee will include many of the original members as well as some new members to get differing perspectives on the tasks necessary to appropriately measure the knowledge and skills expected of the test-taker.

The PAKS committee is structured from a diversified group of licensed engineers based on age, gender, geographic location, practice size, years of practice, and ethnicity. In my experience, around 15+ members attend any specific PAKS meeting. As indicated, the initial “needs” committee will have differing members from the “tasks” analysis to the “specification” development sessions. It is a unique process with many differing points of view, all managed by a psychometrician. Everything goes through the psychometric process for statistical validation.

Once the PAKS process has been completed, any exam proposal is advanced to the NCEES Board of Directors for review and signoff. In the case of engineering exams, the Board will pass the proposal to the EPE (Examiners for Professional Engineers) committee for approval, revision, or rejection. It is not a short or quick process, but one that is metered and deliberate to ensure the protection of the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

The Ultimate Goal: Protecting Public Good

NCEES offers two types of engineering exams: the FE, which covers the fundamentals of engineering principles and physics across a broad breadth of engineering, and the PP, which is intended to evaluate the knowledge, tasks, and skills needed of a new engineer to perform in their area of expertise.

The PP, which is known as the Principles and Practices exam, is not testing for one’s knowledge of “principles,” as that has been tested under the FE exam. It is really testing to ensure that the candidate has a minimal and sound understanding of the tasks, knowledge, and skills needed to practice within a specific discipline of engineering. This is all with an eye to ensure that a Registered Professional Engineer always has the public’s health, safety, and welfare paramount in their thought process.

While this is not meant to limit any engineer’s areas of practice, it can be a means to validate their expertise in a specific discipline. It is an opening to a lifetime of learning and application to this specific area of practice as well as a path to expand one’s expertise in other areas. Regardless of education, degree, or exam, one’s expertise is determined by their peers as they know and understand what is needed to practice in a specific area. If one’s peers confirm that this individual is competent as an engineer, then the public’s good is protected. On the other hand, if one’s peers question an individual’s expertise in any specific area of practice, that individual should probably not be practicing in that area.

About the Author

David D. Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a registered Professional Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, Co-Chair of the College of Fellows Selection Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2008–2009 President of the Engineering Foundation of Ohio, 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers, and 2012–2014 Central Region Director for the National Society of Professional Engineers.

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

Want news delivered right to your inbox?

Sign up for our free newsletter, delivered every other Thursday.

Scroll to Top