Engineer Profile

“We had an economic turndown, so I had to let him go. And, he was really pissed off about that,” Saltzberg explained. The young man was so infuriated that for months he would not even enter a room if Saltzberg was present. So, one can imagine the grimace of fear that crossed Saltzberg’s face when they finally did encounter one another.

“What for?” Saltzberg asked.

“I didn’t realize how much I learned from you,” was the reply. “I’m now head of the plumbing department for a large engineering office because of everything you taught me.”

The “everything” that the plumbing designer referred to is Saltzberg’s pride, precision, passion and persistence.

Since 1973, Saltzberg has worn a button on his shirt every day. The button reads, “Israel must live.”

He started wearing the button to remind others of the effects of the 1973 oil embargo imposed by members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC). The embargo was enacted as a result of an Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, a sacred Jewish holiday. The Soviet Union began assisting Egypt and Syria, and in response the U.S. began assisting Israel. The embargo on oil shipments to the U.S. was the Arab world’s response to the U.S.’s assistance to Israel.

After the embargo, the price of oil nearly quadrupled, and the U.S. saw fuel price hikes and shortages. Long lines began to form at gas stations around the country. Tension also formed. Propaganda surfaced with slogans such as, “we need oil, not Jews.” The oil embargo was lifted in March of 1974, but the effects lingered.

Helping Americans to understand the importance of Israel to the U.S. is important to Saltzberg. In addition to his button, Saltzberg’s car is adorned with bumper stickers that read, “Israel’s fate is the fate of US.”

“‘U.S.’ or ‘us,’ whichever way you want to take it,” Saltzberg said. “I’ve been fired off of jobs and cars have tried to run me off the road. But, I keep it on my car. I’m outspoken and performative about the survival of Israel and the Jewish people. Outside of plumbing, that’s my other persona.”

Saltzberg was introduced to the world of plumbing at the age of 11 years old. His stepfather was a plumbing contractor and owner of a wholesale plumbing supply house. Saltzberg helped out at the family businesses by digging ditches, laying pipes, and selling products to customers.

“To help people in buying plumbing products I had to read the code and understand it,” Saltzberg noted. “Eventually, I began sketching out plumbing systems, delivering products, and helping install them.”

As a teenager, Saltzberg began focusing his efforts on plumbing design. In high school, he enrolled in the Plumber’s Union Apprenticeship Program, which he graduated from in 1951. That year he was also invited to participate in one of the country’s first four-year college Plumbing Engineering Programs at Los Angeles City College and California State University, Los Angeles.

“This was a program that was created by all aspects of the plumbing industry. In other words, there were city officials, unions, suppliers, wholesalers and so forth that all put money in to create this program,” Saltzberg said. “There were only three of us who enrolled. Familian Pipe and Supply, which is now Ferguson, put in $10,000 in scholarships and they couldn’t give it away. They gave away $2,000.”

The program died when the students graduated in 1956. That year, Saltzberg began his career as a mechanical engineer. By 1967, he owned his own firm, and by 1975 he was licensed in 20 states.

In that time, Saltzberg also helped found the first organization in the U.S. for plumbing engineers. On September 18, 1964, the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) was incorporated in Los Angeles, Calif., under the leadership of seven board members, including Saltzberg.

“ASPE was started because an air conditioning salesman took on a line of plumbing products, tried to find a course or book about the fundamentals of plumbing engineering, and couldn’t find any,” Saltzberg said. “So, he wrote a letter to 10 engineers that he had called on regarding his air conditioning sales jobs. Fifty plumbing designers showed up to meet with him. We discussed the issue of there being no organization that was really aiding in the design of plumbing.”

After the meeting, an interim committee was established to explore partnership opportunities with existing construction organizations, as well as research the possibility of starting an organization.

“All the organizations said, ‘No we’re doing a great job and we don’t want to expand any more,’” Saltzberg said. “So, the committee said, ‘I guess we’ll start our own.’”

Since the society’s inception, Saltzberg has served in various capacities ranging from the office of president to its first class of fellows. He has also been a member of 18 industry and related organizations including the six he is still active in: ASPE, ASHRAE, IAPMO, National Society of Professional Engineers, Forensic Expert Witness Association (FEWA), and National Academy of Forensic Engineers (NAFE).

“Being involved has allowed me to see how plumbing designs are done in other geographic areas and to see the problems of enforcement agencies. It also allowed my projects to be approved quicker because plan checkers knew me and knew I was trying to do good work,” Saltzberg explained.

Saltzberg has hopes that ASPE and other organizations will do more to fill the age gap that the industry is facing. He explained that what he has observed is a knowledge gap.

“There’s nothing to really tell plumbing engineers, step by step, how to design a good plumbing system,” Saltzberg said. “There’s a lot of difference between a code plumbing system and a good plumbing system. The code is the minimum. If we accept that, we are not elevating the quality of plumbing.”

Saltzberg designed plumbing and mechanical systems for more than 60 years. And then, the thrill was gone. Yet, the 83-year-old’s desire to be a part of the industry is not gone.

“It’s all that I know,” he said.

Today as a forensic mechanical engineer, Saltzberg is hired by plaintiffs and defendants in litigation cases that concern plumbing, piping, heating, air conditioning or fire protection.

“My significant other says, ‘it’s for better or for worse, but not for lunch.’ She doesn’t want me there seven 24s,” Saltzberg commented. “As long as I’m physically and mentally able to analyze plumbing systems and defects, I will. Forensics is like a giant chess game. I find it absolutely fascinating. I love it.”

Saltzberg wants to see the love that he has for plumbing fostered in the next generation of professionals.

“High schools did a disservice to society when they did away with auto shop, wood shop and home making, and all the other things that gave you real world experiences,” Saltzberg noted.

He continued, “One of the big problems is that the younger generation has been so busy on computers that they have no idea about the real world. For example, just before I entered my current role I took a bunch of plumbing designers from my office at the time to a manufacturer’s open house. I showed them a 4-inch roof drain, which is about 12 inches in diameter. This young designer looked at it and his jaw dropped. When I asked him why, he explained that he thought a 4-inch roof drain was a 1/8-inch circle on the drawings. He didn’t realize the full size of what he was drawing.”

Saltzberg believes that employees entering the industry are going to have to take more personal initiative to gain the well-rounded insight that they need to perform at the standard that the industry has traditionally expected.

“Go out and look at the jobs in the field. If you drive by a construction job, stop and go wander in and look at how things are done. Look at how the carpenters are putting beams together. How the plumbers are cutting up to get the piping throughout,” he said. “All of this is part of the knowledge you need to be able to envision the system going in when you’re drawing it. If you’ve never seen it, you can’t draw it properly.”

There is a science to plumbing. That is what Saltzberg hopes to impart to the next generation. And, that is something that was imparted to him by his mentors, George Kauffman and Bob Woods.

Kauffman was a pre-eminent plumbing contractor in Los Angeles who was well-known for his analysis of the Uniform Plumbing Code, and training contractors. Woods, a professional engineer and former head of the Los Angeles County Plumbing Department, was also active in code analysis, focusing on the scientific aspects of plumbing.

“I’ve tried to emulate those two individuals in my dedication to the profession and utilizing the engineering aspects of plumbing,” Saltzberg said. “If this article motivates some young person to learn more and do a better job, then I’m happy.” 

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