Let’s get real about plumbing.
Many local plumbers are caught in a paradox. Kingston’s Chris Armstrong is one of them.
“We’re in such high demand,” he says. “There’s not enough of us to go around.”
Beyond the Hudson Valley, he has begun to make a name for himself online as something of a minor plumbing celebrity. Thousands of fellow pros, amateurs and curious homeowners across the world tune in to his social-media livestreams and posts.
Plumbers like Armstrong must fulfill this high demand amidst a broken supply chain, rapidly rising inflation, and a severe labor shortage. The socioeconomic pipes are clogged. A lot of life still gets through, but businesses must wait for these serious issues to be flushed out.
Armstrong does not enjoy having to navigate this turbulent flow, but he rises to meet the challenge with a sense of selfless enthusiasm. Since 2004 he’s been on his own, building what is now a well-known business that has served hundreds of area homeowners.
What makes Armstrong the brains and brawn behind so many area bathrooms and basements? And what makes his online plumbing profile a must-follow?
He tells it the way he sees it.
“I don’t have a lot of filter,” he admits. “I have a lot of passion.”
He gives customers options
As many homeowners facing expensive renovations or repairs will tell you, candor is highly prized in a home-improvement professional.
“The people who call me know that I’m going to give them some options. I’m not out there trying to sell you anything,” he says. “I’m giving you the opportunity to be my customer. That may sound arrogant, but I have enough business.”
A surge in homebuying has only exacerbated the demand for tradespeople in our area. The type of business has been changing rapidly for Hudson Valley plumbers. “Now we see a lot more big jobs, new construction, renovation work,” Armstrong says.
The same pandemic that accelerated Hudson Valley home demand has created a host of complications. Customer jaws often hit the floor when contractors reveal wait times for service and installation jobs. Material and equipment costs are at all-time highs. Nevertheless, the customers keep coming at a rapid clip.
“Most of my work is installations, renovation, and upfitting new bathrooms. In between the bigger stuff I’ll do service calls,” this plumber says. He’s constantly on the road, in the workshop, at the supply store, on the phone, and on social media managing a waterfall of jobs ranging from simple repairs to custom luxury bathrooms. It’s an understatement to say that plumbers are very popular in these parts.
“A lot of my customers have been the city people and weekenders,” he reports. “Since the pandemic stuff hit, a lot of the really expensive, over-the-top jobs where I’m doing bathrooms where the shower valves are $10,000 … that changed. An expensive, high-end bathroom was $70,000 to $80,000. Now it’s $120,000 to $130,000.”
There’s been a recent explosions in costs. “A stick of four-inch PVC pipe ten feet long used to cost me $18, now it costs me $52,” he says. “A three-quarter-inch copper ball valve from Lowe’s went from $13 to $45.”
Vintage bathtubs, getting help
Local homeowners are paying premiums to beautify trendy homes in trendy neighborhoods. Many Hudson Valley residences are known for their historic charm. It’s an area in which Armstrong, like many flourishing plumbers, has gained a lot of expertise.
“I’m very versed in vintage and historical repair and retrofit,” he says. “We reinstall the beautiful old Victorian radiators and bath fixtures that were tossed out of these beautiful houses 100 years ago. I also offer a lot of build-to-suit options, meaning we can take heirloom and vintage furniture and materials and build custom bath and kitchen fixtures with and from it.”
It’s faster these days to grab a nice vintage bathtub or sink from Zaborski Emporium, the legendary Kingston salvage retailer, than to get in line for an in-demand modern model. “A $5000 tub might be six months out,” he says, “but you can go to Zaborski’s and get a really nice vintage tub for less.”
There are other hairballs in Armstrong’s drain. It’s nearly impossible to find anyone to hire, let alone someone skilled. There simply aren’t the bodies to fill the positions, and training new employees from scratch is a time-intensive process.
“I’m having a hard time getting people to work, like everybody else,” he says. “In 2012, I had seven people working for me. Now I’ve got trucks sitting in the driveway because I can’t get people. I would love to have a couple more employees.”
Meanwhile, the local housing situation makes it hard for those just starting in the trade even to afford to live in the area. Armstrong cites a number of other reasons why it’s hard to find help.
“The average age in this trade is 60 years old, so we’re not getting the new blood in to have as much availability as we need for people in this area,” he says.
Stereotypes about plumbing contribute to a lack of interest in the trade, and a lack of awareness of just how lucrative it can be to have plumbing skills in a hot real-estate market. Armstrong says he would be happy to train staff if he could only find them.
“It is a considerable amount of work to instill aptitude,” he says. “Everybody thinks it’s more of a dirty-guy job, but there’s a lot of math, there’s sizing, there’s a lot stuff to know. Heat modes, cool modes, air velocities, water flows .… You’re not hauling around dirty toilets.”
There are silver linings. Armstrong sees a new interest by women in pursuing the trade.
“I’ve been plumbing for over 20 years, and there have been two women plumbers that I’ve worked with on jobs and met,” he says. “On Instagram, I know dozens of women who are getting into the trade.”
The plumber influencer
It seems there’s a lot of exciting activity to be unearthed in the “online plumber influencer space,” Armstrong’s oddly entertaining posts about pipe fittings and plumbing tools have been appearing in a lot of Instagram feeds (his account is @pstheplumber).
Turns out, Armstrong has built a cult following online, appearing on plumbing podcasts, guesting on other plumbers’ streams, and giving advice out to anyone who seeks to learn from his formidable skills. His videos recommending plumbing tools and materials regularly receive tens of thousands of views.
He has even attracted the attention of Ridgid Tools, which gave him a “golden ticket” all-expenses-paid trip to tour its manufacturing facility, then hosted him at baseball games and nice dinners. Life as a plumbing influencer has its perks.
“The difference between me and most of the people on Instagram, being a person in his forties I’m kind of the older demographic,” he says. But unlike stereotypes that suggest social media is a bunch of navel-gazing meme-dancers, experts like Armstrong have used the platform to become mentors to aspiring and working plumbers all across the world.
“I have conversations with people all over the world,” he says. “I was on a FaceTime call with a guy in Jamaica telling him how to fix a problem. I helped a guy with piping in a subway in San Francisco.
“There’s other high-profile personalities in the plumbing genre on Instagram,” he continues. “They say, ‘Why are you giving away all your stealthy tricks that make you do stuff faster or easier?’ If someone had told me this when I was younger, that would have saved me a lot of time, money and aggravation. So anything that aggravates me or bothers me, I write it down. I have notes all over my doors.”
Watching Armstrong’s fastidiously detailed and entertainingly blunt videos on social media, it’s easy to see hope that tired stereotypes about plumbing are slowly being shattered. The online exchange of ideas among professionals is being closely watched by an audience of potential plumbing apprentices who are coming to appreciate the technical skill, problem-solving acumen and rewarding lifestyle of helping others.
While he’s not getting paid to create any of this content, Armstrong continues to give back. His business is founded on contributing to solutions, not exploiting problems for short-term profit.
“Do you know how much shit I do for free?” he asks me.
I don’t have an answer. I tell him I don’t think I’m supposed to put that kind of language in print.
He doesn’t care. You can only get real plumbing from plumbers who get real.