A plumber who gets real and gives plenty of advice

Chris Armstrong (Photos by Zac Shaw)

Let’s get real about plumbing jobs.

Many local plumbers are caught in a paradox. Kingston’s Chris Armstrong is one of them.

“We’re in high demand,” he says. “There aren’t enough of us to get around.”

Across the Hudson Valley, he’s begun to make a name for himself online as a minor plumber’s celebrity. Thousands of other professionals, amateurs, and curious homeowners around the world tune in to his social media live streams and posts.

Installers like Armstrong must meet this high demand amid a disrupted supply chain, soaring inflation and severe labor shortages. The socio-economic pipes are clogged. Much life is still coming through, but businesses will have to wait until these serious problems are resolved.

Armstrong doesn’t enjoy navigating this turbulent flow, but he takes on the challenge with a sense of selfless enthusiasm. Self employed since 2004, he has built a now well known business that has served hundreds of homeowners in the area.

What makes Armstrong the brains and brawn behind so many bathrooms and basements around? And what makes his online plumber profile a must?

He tells it as he sees it.

“I don’t have many filters,” he admits. “I have a lot of passion.”

He gives customers options

As many homeowners faced with expensive renovations or repairs will attest, openness is valued in a DIY enthusiast.

“People who call me know I’m giving them a few options. I’m not out there trying to sell you anything,” he says. “I give you the opportunity to become my customer. That may sound arrogant, but I have enough to do.”

A surge in home buying has only exacerbated the demand for handymen in our area. The nature of business has changed rapidly for Hudson Valley plumbers. “Now we’re seeing a lot more big jobs, new builds, renovations,” says Armstrong.

The same pandemic that accelerated home demand in the Hudson Valley has led to a host of complications. Customers’ jaws often drop when contractors disclose wait times for service and installation work. Material and equipment costs are at an all-time high. Nevertheless, the customers keep coming in a hurry.

“Most of my work consists of installations, renovations and the creation of new bathrooms. In between the bigger things, I do service calls,” says this plumber. Constantly on the move, in the workshop, in the accessories store, on the phone and on social media, he manages a barrage of jobs ranging from simple repairs to bespoke luxury bathrooms. To say that plumbers are very popular in these areas is an understatement.

“Many of my clients were city dwellers and weekend travelers,” he says. “Since the onset of the pandemic, a lot of the really expensive, over-the-top jobs where I do bathrooms where the shower valves cost $10,000 have changed. An expensive, high-end bathroom cost $70,000 to $80,000. Now it’s $120,000 to $130,000.”

Costs have skyrocketed lately. “A 10-foot, 4-inch PVC pipe 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, get help

Local homeowners pay premiums to beautify trendy homes in trendy neighborhoods. Many residences in the Hudson Valley are known for their historic charm. It’s an area in which Armstrong, like many successful plumbers, has a wealth of experience.

A renovated bathroom.

“I’m well versed in repairing and retrofitting vintage and historical works,” he says. “We are reinstalling the beautiful old Victorian radiators and bathroom fixtures that were thrown out of these beautiful homes 100 years ago. I also offer a lot of build-to-suit options, which means we can take heirlooms and vintage furniture and materials and use them to build custom bathroom and kitchen fixtures.”

These days, it’s quicker to snag a beautiful vintage bathtub or sink from Zaborski Emporium, Kingston’s legendary salvage retailer, than it is to queue for a sought-after modern model. “A $5,000 tub might be six months off,” he says, “but you can go to Zaborski and get a really nice vintage tub for less.”

There are other hairballs in Armstrong’s drain. It’s almost impossible to hire anyone, let alone someone with experience. There are simply not enough positions to fill the positions and onboarding new employees from scratch is a time-consuming process.

“Like everyone else, I have a hard time getting people to work,” he says. “In 2012 I had seven people working for me. Now I have trucks in the driveway because I can’t reach people. I would like to have a few more employees.”

At the same time, the local housing situation makes it difficult for young professionals to even afford to live in the area. Armstrong cites a number of other reasons why help is difficult to find.

“The median age in this industry is 60, so we’re not getting enough offspring to have the availability we need for people in this field,” he says.

Stereotypes about plumbing contribute to a lack of interest in the trade and an awareness of how lucrative it can be to have plumbing skills in a hot real estate market. Armstrong says he would happily train employees if he could only find them.

“It takes a significant amount of work to teach skills,” he says. “Everyone thinks it’s more of a dirty job, but there’s a lot of math, sizing, there’s a lot of stuff to know. Heating modes, cooling modes, air velocities, water flows… You don’t lug around dirty toilets.”

There are silver linings. Armstrong sees renewed interest from women in the business.

“I’ve been a plumber for over 20 years, and there were two female plumbers that I worked with on jobs that I met,” he says. “I know dozens of women on Instagram who are getting into the trade.”

The plumber influencer

An air source heat pump from Mitsubishi (mini-split).

It seems that there is a lot of exciting activity to be found in the “online plumber influencers” space. Armstrong’s oddly entertaining posts about pipe fittings and installation tools have appeared on many Instagram feeds (his account is @pstheplumber).

It turns out that Armstrong has built a cult following online by appearing on plumber’s podcasts, guesting on other plumber’s streams, and offering advice to anyone who wants to learn from his impressive skills. His videos, which recommend plumbing tools and materials, are regularly viewed tens of thousands of times.

He’s even caught the eye of Ridgid Tools, who got him a ‘golden ticket’ for a full-expenses trip to tour their manufacturing facility, and then took him out to baseball games and nice dinners. Life as a plumbing influencer has its perks.

“The difference between me and most people on Instagram is that as a person in my 40s, I’m more of an older demographic,” he says. But contrary to stereotypes that suggest social media is a bunch of navel-staring meme dancers, pundits like Armstrong have used the platform to become mentors for aspiring and working installers around the world.

“I have conversations with people all over the world,” he says. “I was in a FaceTime conversation with a guy in Jamaica who told him how to solve a problem. I was helping a guy whistle on a San Francisco subway.

“There are other high profile figures in the plumbing genre on Instagram,” he continues. “They say, ‘Why are you revealing all your secret tricks that make you do things faster or easier?’ If someone had told me that when I was younger, it would have saved me a lot of time, money and trouble. So I write down everything that annoys me or bothers me. I have notes all over my doors.”

Watching Armstrong’s meticulously detailed and entertainingly blunt videos on social media, it’s easy to see hope that weary clichés about plumbing jobs are beginning to be shattered. The online exchange of ideas between professionals is closely watched by an audience of potential apprentice plumbers who appreciate the technical skills, problem-solving acumen and rewarding lifestyle of helping others.

Despite not being paid to create this content, Armstrong continues to give back. His business is based on contributing to solutions, not exploiting problems for short-term profit.

“You know how much shit I do for free?” he asks me.

I have no answer. I tell him I don’t think I should put that kind of language in print.

He does not care. Real plumbing work comes from real plumbers.

You might also like

Comments are closed.