10 Families’ Lives Changed Through Community Plumbing Challenge

Work wraps up on New Mexico’s Navajo Indian Reservation in one of the most challenging Community Plumbing Challenges to date

10 Families’ Lives Changed Through Community Plumbing Challenge

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Editor’s Note: Randy Lorge is one of the coaches for the Community Plumbing Challenge team, which just wrapped up a series of projects in New Mexico for residents of the Navajo Indian Reservation. It’s the fourth year for the program that aims to bring together plumbers and engineers from around the world to help regions that still lack basic sanitation and access to clean drinking water. Lorge had planned to blog more regularly during the team’s time in New Mexico, detailing the work that they were doing, but those efforts were largely derailed by what turned out to be one of the most challenging Community Plumbing Challenges to date.

In Lorge’s words: “In all my travels to third-world countries helping deliver safe water and sanitation systems, I have never seen as horrible of conditions as I have this week on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Our teams took on 10 homes spread over 40 miles. We were a bit short-handed due to the severity of the conditions these homes were in. My role this year changed a bit and I’ve been up to my neck in work. I’ve been working 10- to 12-hour days and just have not had enough gas in the tank to write the blogs as regularly as I was hoping to do.”

Here is a final blog post from Lorge wrapping up the 2018 edition of the Community Plumbing Challenge.

Imagine waking up every day in a home without running water or sewer. Pretty hard to imagine, right? Now realize that it happens to 1.6 million Americans every day.

From Oct. 21 to 27 the Community Plumbing Challenge was held on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the Baca-Prewitt area of New Mexico. Four teams of plumbers from around the world gathered to change the lives of 10 families who have lived most of their lives without indoor plumbing.

My team consisted of four plumbers, including myself: One from New Mexico, one from Nevada, and one from South Africa. We were assigned a three-bedroom trailer home that housed a family of 10 — Mom, Dad and eight children.

When we arrived on Day 1 to survey the work needed we found that the family had absolutely no plumbing. Where toilets once existed there were only holes in the floor where the closet flange was once mounted. Where the tub/shower used to be the family now piled some of their belongings. The only plumbing fixtures that remained were the lavatory sink in the bathroom and the kitchen sink. The waste from both sinks discharged to grade. A gas water heater installed in 1998 remained in the storage compartment adjacent to the main bathroom. The family had water delivered monthly and it was stored in a 70-gallon tank located outside.

Our challenge was to install a new water supply system, electric water heater, electrical service (done by an electrician), one full bath, and septic system and tank. We also had to re-pipe both the water and drains to the kitchen and bathroom, patch holes throughout the trailer, and insulate the underfloor to the best of our abilities. And we had only five days to do it.

We started by gutting the existing piping and prepping it for the new plumbing. In less than three hours we had a new underground, 1,200-gallon water tank installed. Another hour later the tank was filled with potable water and the water service was stubbed into the home.

New PEX water supply piping was installed to the plumbing fixtures as were new PVC drains shortly after. A new septic tank was installed the following day and the drainfield was designed and laid out.

There were literally holes through the floors and walls of the home that were open to the elements. Outside temperatures in the area range from well below freezing in the winter months to upward of a 100 degrees F in the summer. The skirting no longer existed around the trailer and the wind and whatever else was welcome to enter at will. 

By Day 3 we had framed in for a new tub and surround and beefed up the floor in the bathroom. We feared that if we didn’t, the fixtures and/or water heater would fall through. American Standard donated new faucets and a water closet, which was also installed. The trailer had a water heater compartment that was only accessible from the outside and was directly behind the end of the tub where the tub/shower valve was to be installed.

On Day 4, the team had the four-piece tub and surround installed with the new valve and shower head. We connected a 120v pump to the water service, installed the water heater, and connected all the water lines. In one of the most emotional days of my life as a plumber, I turned on the water for the first time for this family. To see water flow from the faucets not only gave me the chills, it caused me to choke up a bit realizing that this would be the first time the family would experience running water at the tap.

Of course, as with any job, some things didn’t go as planned. We had a leak at the connection to the new whole-house water filter. We had to shut down the system for the day and pick up the parts in town later that evening, some 35 miles away. 

We finished the day installing and connecting all the drains to the septic tank and insulating the underfloor.

On Day 5, I was informed that the excavator would not be able to make it to our project site to dig in the trenches for the septic system. He was still tied up with two septic systems at different project locations. A local area team was going to have to return the following week to complete the system. We patched the hole through the roof where the old gas water heater vent once was and replaced the bad fitting on the filter and fired up the pump. The water was on and it was going to stay on this time.

On this final day, the kids had off from school. I was doing some last-minute tasks outside when one of the young boys from the family came out to fill a pitcher with water from the old water tank where they used to get it. He and his family didn’t know yet that we had turned on the water. I watched him out of the corner of my eye and saw him open the valve on the tank only to find that the tank was empty. I will never forget the look on his face. It was as empty as the tank. 

I called him over and told him to follow me back into the home. I placed the pitcher in the kitchen sink and turned to him and said, “Try this.” He reached for the faucet and turned the handle. For the first time in his seven years of life, water flowed from the faucet in his home. He literally jumped up and down with joy. His mom and dad stood there in awe. Along with a couple of his siblings, we moved to the bathroom where they turned on the bathtub and shower faucet. Until now, the kids had bathed in a plastic tub and shared the water. When water came out of the faucet for the first time, they giggled like only young children can do. Their mom stood and smiled as the kids splashed each other with the water.

It was one of the most exhausting and rewarding weeks of my life. I am so proud I was able to be a part of the Community Plumbing Challenge and had the opportunity to work with other like-minded plumbers from not only the United States but around the world.

I will close with this: 1.6 million people in the United States live without safe water and sanitation. Plumbers not only change lives by what we do. We actually save lives. You are a part of the answer to ending this situation. Never take what you do for a living for granted. The plumber protects the health of the nation.

If you are interested in joining us in changing lives, check out the website of the International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation, one of the groups backing the annual Community Plumbing Challenge.


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