Pipes of purpose: How a master plumber can change lives


Ever thought about the journey your water takes before it reaches your faucet, or what happens when you flush the toilet? Jed Scheuermann does. With tools in hand and a heart for humanity, this master plumber has transformed the lives of countless people across nearly 40 countries. From battling gut diseases in a Brazilian orphanage to fortifying communities against earthquakes in Nepal, Scheuermann puts his plumbing prowess to work safeguarding health and dignity. His story shows that plumbers don’t just place pipes; they change the world.

Master plumber

Scheuermann grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, a city of 200,000 where his father settled after surviving a concentration camp and fleeing from war-torn Europe. His school required students to pick a study “track” in eighth grade that would determine their high school experience. Students who wanted to go to college picked a five-year track that took them through grade 13, while students who wanted a career in the trades opted for a two-year track focused on skill training. 

“My dad in particular, who had very little formal education because of the war, he was like, ‘You kids are going to go to university,’” Scheuermann said. “It wasn’t a question. I was going to grade 13.” 

“If you would have told me, ‘One day you are going to travel the world and you’re going to use your skills to change the world,’ I would have been like, ‘What’s in that coffee there?’ I was a have-not kid from Canada who is a plumber. Plumbers don’t change the world. But yeah, plumbers really do change the world.” 

-Jed Scheuermann

Scheuermann graduated high school with honors — then surprised everyone by signing up for a plumbing apprenticeship. He said his decision was driven by finances: As the oldest of seven kids with one working parent, he couldn’t afford a college degree. The apprenticeship offered him a chance to get paid to learn. 

Some people told him he was “too smart to be a plumber” and should attend university. Those comments made him double down on the decision, he says. 

“It was like, ‘You know what? I don’t live my life by your rules, and this is a good thing,’” he said. “And who says further education is a closed door just because you’ve entered the trades?”

Scheuermann trained for nine years — the equivalent of some doctoral degrees — to earn a designation as a master plumber. That’s an unusual credential in the United States, where typically a skilled tradesperson tops out as a journeyman. But Canada uses a credential model similar to the old European guild system, so you need a “master ticket” if you want to run worksites, get permits, or talk to the chief plumbing inspectors, Scheuermann said. 

Six years after becoming a master plumber, he earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Emmanuel Bible College. And he went on to receive special training coordinator and instructor certifications from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) international union.

“The stereotype for a plumber, unfortunately, is a dim bulb, butt crack, knuckle dragging Neanderthal that can’t string together a coherent sentence without an F-bomb. … Nothing could be further from the truth,” Scheuermann said. “You’re using what you have as far as skills, talent, intellect, but you’re channeling it in a different direction than academia.” 

‘My trade can make a difference’ 

Soon after becoming a master plumber in 1989, Scheuermann left Canada for the first time — an 18-month trek that started with a visit to his sister in Brazil. She was working at an orphanage, and he remembers smelling sewer gas when he walked into the building. Staff and children in the orphanage frequently had diarrhea, stomach cramps, and vomiting, and he pieced together that the illnesses were caused by poor plumbing. 

“Their soccer pitch was built on top of a leach field (septic tank drain field), so any time you had a little bit of rain … they’re churning up this crap. It’s literal crap,” he said. “And then you wonder why you’re sick? Pathogens, they are not seen.” 

Microscopic bacteria like E. coli and Giardia can make humans extremely sick, and they thrive in dirty water and human waste. A good plumbing system whisks away waste and separates dirty and clean water, so people never come in contact with dangerous germs. But Scheuermann said it’s easy to take for granted because most of the work happens behind walls or under floors in the piping that plumbers install. 

“You can literally bet your life on plumbers because plumbers make sure the potable water is coming in safe and that the sanitation going out is safe,” Scheuermann said. 

At the orphanage, Scheuermann couldn’t resist helping. He’d hitchhike rides into town to buy new pipe, and over several visits, he re-plumbed the whole facility. 

“When I saw the result of that, the fact that the kids and the staff were no longer sick, that put it together for me,” he said. “Our creed as plumbers for centuries has been, ‘Plumbers protect the health of the nation.’ It was like, ‘Yeah, now I see that real close and personal. … My trade can make that kind of difference for people’s lives.’” 

Scheuermann continued his trip, stopping in nearly 20 different countries. He also continued to find plumbing problems. Inspired by his experience in Brazil, he helped whenever he was able. 

“When I ended up in Mexico and New Guinea and other places like this, it was like, ‘We can fix this. We can change this,’” he said. “From there on, then it became kind of a mission or a calling. I was going to seek out ways and opportunities to do this.” 

In the last 30 years, Scheuermann’s work has taken him abroad dozens of times, including to Indonesia, Haiti, and South Africa. In three Nepalese villages in the Himalayas, he built sanitary outhouse structures that diverted rainwater to a water tap and toilets. The toilets flowed into septic tanks and methane gas produced in the tanks was piped into houses to fuel single burner cooktops. And they were built to withstand a magnitude 7 earthquake, allowing the community to “escape the ravages of dysentery” that usually follow a natural disaster. 

“Their two biggest health issues in those three communities we were working in were gut disease because of unsanitary plumbing — the same kind of stuff I saw in Brazil — and lung disease because they burnt green wood in the kitchen hearth and they didn’t have a chimney,” Scheuermann said. “By disposing of human waste safely, we addressed a whole bunch of issues all at once.” 

‘It’s who we are’ 

Scheuermann and his wife moved to Portland in 1992 but continued to travel and volunteer on humanitarian projects. In 1994, Scheuermann began working full-time as a service plumber at Jack Howk, a plumbing contractor. At the time, the company was a signatory contractor with UA Local 290, and Scheuermann joined the union. He’s been a dues paying member ever since. 

“People have no idea of how good of a life we have,” Scheuermann said. “Look at the wages you command as a plumber, as a pipefitter, as a welder, as a sprinkler fitter. And oh, by the way, you also have a defined benefit pension … That’s radical, show me where else that exists in society.” 

Scheuermann left Jack Howk after about two years to accept a Local 290-represented job with the City of Portland. The city’s union contract provided ample vacation days and the option to take compensatory overtime as additional paid time off, instead of as extra pay. That let Scheuermann continue traveling for his charitable work. 

“I had as much as 12 weeks a year off, and I would use a lot of that to go do projects,” he said. 

Scheuermann also volunteered in the United States. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Northern Gulf Coast in 2005, Scheuermann used his time off to take six trips south to help residents there rebuild. Often the lone plumber on the first responder crew, Scheuermann brought valuable skills few others had. 

“What is the need after disasters? Security, medical personnel, and I would argue the next most important high is plumbing: Potable water and sanitation,” Scheuermann said. 

He stayed with the City of Portland for 13 years, then accepted a job as Local 290’s training director in 2008. For five years, he taught apprentices and recruited new members at local career fairs. 

Since 2013, Scheuermann has worked as the North American program director for the International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (IWSH) Foundation, a nonprofit that coordinates plumbing projects to bring clean drinking water and safe sanitation to communities without it across the world. Although IWSH works with both union and non-union volunteers, Scheuermann relies on the connections he made as a Local 290 member to recruit union plumbers for projects, both in the United States and abroad. He’s also connected with the plumbers unions in Ireland, Australia, and South Africa. 

In 2020, when the Centers for Disease Control instructed everyone to wash their hands and socially distance for COVID safety, Scheuermann called Tom Bigley, the director of plumbing for the UA international, asking for help building 20 hand-washing stations to install on remote parts of the Navajo reservation. Scheuermann and two other IWSH plumbers designed the stations to hold a refillable 210-gallon tank of water with pump systems that circulated the liquid so it didn’t freeze in the winter. The stations that would go to more remote parts of the reservation used solar panels to power the pump, while others included an electrical cord. The system also had pipes to transport the dirty water to a safe, designated drainage site. 

Bigley “volun-told” 10 UA locals to build two stations each through their apprenticeship programs, allowing the up-and-coming plumbers to see the power of their work, Scheuermann said. At least one of the wash stations was installed outside the school where children learn Navajo language and traditions. Under COVID shutdown orders, the school would have been closed if students didn’t have a place to wash their hands.

“One of the UA values is benevolence. … Some of that happens very anonymously, but I say, ‘You know what, we need to put a bigger face on this. We need to do stuff openly,’” Scheuermann said. “This is who we are. It’s not what we do, it’s who we are.” 

Scheuermann and Lucien with a cistern they installed atop a hospital roof in Haiti. | Photo courtesy Jed Scheuermann


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