Being a plumber… how hard can it be? This is what happened when KATIE GLASS joined the ranks of women learning to fix pipes and cisterns themselves

  • Fed up of having to wait weeks for a plumber, UK writer Katie Glass decides to learn the trade herself
  • READ MORE: Being a plumber, electrician and gardener is the best way to stop AI taking your job as the ChatGPT revolution gathers pace

I’m about to call the 50 millionth plumber for help, when the solution suddenly dawns on me – I just need to become a plumber.

Since I, along with half of London, moved to the countryside during lockdown, water-flow issues have become the bane of my cottage life.

I write this to the drip of the outside tap; downstairs a radiator has broken, and water is pooling on my bathroom floor, emerging from god-only-knows-where.

A perfect storm of Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine has left Britain some 250,000 construction workers down. 

A recent report by property groups claims the UK needs to find another 100,000 new plumbers, electricians and carpenters a year for the next three decades to keep up with demand. 

At Trades Training School in Edinburgh, students come from all over the world; often, like Katie, keen to equip themselves with the skills to tackle work on their own houses

According to the Office for National Statistics, in May there were 37,000 vacancies in the construction industry, down from 49,000 last October, which was the highest in decades.

And yet plumbers can make £60,000-plus a year, which doesn’t surprise me given how busy they are. The ones I contact tell me they’re not free for six weeks or book me in and then ghost me. I’ve had better luck on Tinder. 

I endured the freezing winter waiting for a plumber to fix my central heating and had to stop using the toilet last month when the cistern leaked. (Taking mad dashes to the local café was not fun.)

Enough! I decide to enrol myself on an intensive five-day plumbing course at Trades Training School in Edinburgh.

In a warehouse on an industrial estate overlooking Arthur’s Seat, Taylor Swift is playing. Tilers, plasterers and plumbers are learning their trade in a warren of classrooms, to a medley of radio pop. 

I make my way to the plumbing classroom, where students’ cubicles are laid out like mini bathrooms: wash basins, toilets and showers all waiting to be plumbed in.

Antony O’Neil, 45, an ex-marine who runs the centre with his wife Gillian Martin, 44, tells me students come from all over the world; often, like me, keen to equip themselves with the skills to tackle work on their own house. 

He says if he had to generalise, plasterers are the roughest, plumbers the poshest. 

On my course are Eddie (a school caretaker) and retired child psychologist Steve. Our teacher is Iain. He may be only 43 but he has perfected his grumpy old plumber routine. 

He says things like: ‘There’s a special place in hell for people who tile around a basin’ or ‘Who paints copper pipes white?!’

Soldering on: Katie gets to grips with copper piping during the five-day intensive plumbing course at Trades Training School in Edinburgh

I think of my own bathroom and blush.

We start with the basics, which is a relief. Until now, the only thing I’ve known about plumbing is ‘lefty loosey, righty tighty’. We talk through pipe sizes, materials and fittings. 

In the first five minutes I learn enough to know that all the things I’ve bought to try to tackle my outside tap are wrong. 

We learn about pipe cutters, sink wrenches, how to tell elbow joints from shoulders, and why washers – which until now I could take or leave – are essential. 

Then we start on our first task: following a plan in order to assemble a small pipe system by joining up plastic pipes with push-fit connectors.

I try following Iain’s instructions for measuring and cutting pipes (‘don’t forget about the depth of fittings’) and quickly remember how bad I am at maths. 

None of my pipes is the right length so my circuit, which should be a rectangle, looks more oblong-esque. Iain makes me do it again. Finally, when we water-test our systems, miraculously mine works without one leak.

Next, we take this knowledge into plumbing in a wash basin, learning how to connect taps, run pipes, add a waste.

Iain gives jargon-free instruction – ‘When it looks squished in enough, stop’ – plus straightforward (if a touch sarcastic) explanations as to why, say, the waste pipes have to run in a certain direction: ‘Because of gravity.’

The room fills with grunts and swearing as we tighten bolts and screw in taps.

Every time more instructions are needed, Eddie, Steve and I perch on toilet seat to take notes. As I run pipes, the radio plays ‘2 Become 1’ by the Spice Girls.

I discover that I have the same problem plumbing in a wash basin as I did with my pipe circuit: I find planning boring and measuring dull. 

Instead, I take more of an intuitive approach to estimating pipe lengths, cutting as I go and finding myself going off at the odd tangent when my pipes don’t run as I’d hoped. 

Perhaps, I muse from my position lying under the sink, if I ever have my own plumbing company I’ll call it Go With The Flow.

We plumb in a toilet, learning about close-coupled and concealed, high-level, mid-level and wall-hung systems, siphon flushes and flapper flushes. 

Mostly the lav has my undivided attention, although I do have to periodically check over my shoulder for Iain in case he catches me taking selfies with my spanner. 

When my toilet works, I am filled with intense pride. I’ve never been so happy to hear the sound of a flush.

In a week we absorb a huge amount of knowledge. We learn why the hot pipe should always run over the cold pipe, about building regulations for WC pipe gradients and how often you have to use pipe clips and I realise all the things that are wrong in my house.

Parlez-vous plumber? 

What they say to customers – and what they really mean

‘You’ve got a problem with your nipples, love’

I’m sorry to tell you that the short lengths of pipe between these couplings are not fulfilling the purpose for which they were installed

‘Didn’t you notice the pilot had gone out?’

Are you irredeemably stupid?

‘You don’t know where the shut-off valve is?’

As above

‘Call that a floor flange?’

I am surprised by the way that your toilet has been connected to the sewer pipes

‘I’m off to the van for a joint’

I have erroneously left a length of pipe in my vehicle

‘I’m off to the van for some dope’

These threaded connectors need an industry-approved lubricant in order to seal them efficiently

We find out what to do when the flush breaks or wastes leak and I think of the number of times I’ve paid plumbers £100 to do jobs that take five minutes, and that I can now do myself. 

We learn how to bend and solder copper pipes; how to hang and drain radiators, flush central heating systems, change valves, add thermostats.

For those of us who might work as plumbers, we learn tricks of the trade, such as if you don’t know something say to the customer, ‘I just have to get something from the van’ – then go and google it.

We learn how vented and unvented central heating systems work, and how to solve common problems with them – which certainly would have saved me last winter when my boiler broke down and I couldn’t get a plumber to look at it for a month.

 Suddenly all the things plumbers have told me about my cottage fall into place, like finally hearing all the notes of a song. 

I realise how my whole house fits together, which is really the bare minimum a homeowner should know.

It strikes me that many of my male friends already know this stuff – perhaps they’re taught by their dads? 

What surprises me most is how much I enjoy learning about plumbing.

I leave at the end of the week with Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ ringing in my ears, a fine layer of plaster dust over me, a sense of empowerment and big plans for the outside tap. 

When my friend Martin calls me that night complaining his hot water’s coming on but not his central heating, I advise him to check his diverter valve.

He is gobsmacked. I feel pleased with myself. I have finally become someone’s dad.

  • Trades Training School runs courses from one day to six months in plumbing, tiling and plastering, with flexible starting dates;

Source: Read Full Article