Delaware County woman a master plumber, business owner

Master plumber Kelly Ireland of Ridley Park works on the pipes inside dormitories at University of Pennsylvania in an undated photo. Ireland went out on her own during the pandemic, forming TPG Mechanical LLC for residential work after working in the commercial field, a woman in a historically men’s occupation. TPG stands for tiny plumber girl. (COURTESY PHOTO)

RIDLEY PARK — “I absolutely love what I do,” exclaimed Kelly Ireland, also known as the “tiny plumber girl.”

“Not to toot my own horn, but I’m really good at my trade and I take immense pride in my work.”

The Ridley Park resident is a master plumber, recently featured on an episode of “Ask This Old House” on PBS.

Her trade mastery has taken her from sharing her expert skills in the construction of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Roberts Center for Pediatric Research to having an instrumental part in installing the plumbing in the 60-story, 1,121-foot Comcast Technology Center at 18th and Arch streets in Philadelphia.

Standing at 4 feet 11 inches, the petite Ireland has gained the respect of all who know her and made a stellar name for herself in a competitive, male-dominated business.

“I’ve had a pretty diverse career: starting as a union commercial plumber until I became a master plumber and began my own business during the pandemic,” said Ireland, the owner of TPG Mechancial LLC. “Engaging with other women in the trades and seeking and doing trade work has been something I love doing.”

When Ireland graduated Ridley High School in 2005, she wasn’t sure of her career path.

Kelly Ireland on the roof of the Comcast Technology Center. (COURTESY PHOTO)Kelly Ireland on the roof of the Comcast Technology Center. (COURTESY PHOTO)

Born in Northeast Philadelphia to Patrick and Shawn Ireland, she moved to the Milmont Park section of Ridley Township with her nine siblings when she was 13. After graduation, her parents encouraged her to attend college.

“I honestly didn’t want to go to college,” Ireland shared. “I went to Neumann University to study nursing and I didn’t like it at all.”

She dropped out in her junior year and went to work in a variety of jobs, from Qdoba and Swiss Farms to the Bagel Factory. She also got married. Ireland has two children, both current students at Ridley Middle School: Isabel Maldonado, 14, and Sebastian Maldonado, 13.

Needing health insurance at the time, Kelly’s father, Patrick, a retired union plumber in Philadelphia Local 690, encouraged Kelly’s former husband, David, to apply for an apprenticeship.

“He kept dragging his feet about going to apply,” Ireland shared in a recent interview. “He was a chef so he wasn’t really interested. Finally, I just got aggravated and went up and applied myself!”

The rest is history. In 2012, Ireland got into the union and served a five-year apprenticeship.

Kelly Ireland, of Ridley Park, talks about her nontraditional career as a woman plumber in a recent interview.Kelly Ireland of Ridley Park talks about her nontraditional career as a woman plumber. (PEG DEGRASSA – DAILY TIMES)

“From a first-year clueless go-getter, to now entering my 12th year as a master, I don’t think that younger girl had any clue about the road she was taking or that she was starting a career that would become her passion,” Ireland shared. “I enjoyed it from the very beginning. I felt like this was where I was meant to be.”

When she first entered the plumbing field, she found that the few women who were in the predominately male field of plumbing, usually went into maintenance.

However, it was the commercial field that excited Ireland so she ignored the odds and the disproportionate gender ratio and followed her dream, going to work on huge projects like high-rises, apartment buildings, dormitories, hospitals and more.

Kelly Ireland isn't afraid to get down and dirty to repair or install pipes and other plumbing systems. Here, she works on a radiator inside her parents' home in Ridley Township. (COURTESY PHOTO)Kelly Ireland isn’t afraid to get dirty to repair or install pipes and other plumbing systems. Here, she works on a radiator inside her parents’ home in Ridley Township. (COURTESY PHOTO)

She worked for some big commercial plumbing companies.

She laid the plumbing work and used her plumbing skills for huge projects, including dormitories at Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Pavilion Hospital and Chester County Hospital.

She worked on the plumbing system for the cafeteria at Independence Blue Cross and laid out the plumbing for the entire building, when the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia built the CHOP Roberts Center For Pediatric Research.

Plumber Kelly Ireland, of Ridley Park, installs roof drains on the roof of Chester County Memorial Hospital.Kelly Ireland, of Ridley Park, installs roof drains at Chester County Memorial Hospital.

While on the job at CHOP’s Roberts Center in 2015, Ireland was laying on the South Street Bridge, working on pipes, when a giant storm brewed.

A gust of wind picked up a big piece of plywood from the job site and blew it into her, fracturing three vertebrae in her back. The freak accident caused the master plumber to be laid up for three months.

That didn’t keep the tiny plumber girl down for long.

She worked hard toward recovery, and when she had the chance to be a part of construction at the Comcast Technology Center, she put on her hard hat and work boots.

She was there at the Center City construction site for a year and a half, laying out and installing the plumbing system for the tallest building in Philadelphia, and in the entire state of Pennsylvania.

“Working on the Comcast Building and the CHOP building are two of my most favorite memories,” Ireland shared. “I used to get up really early so I could get to the top of the building and watch the sun rise. It was just so beautiful and so awesome!”

‘In a man’s world’

But, it wasn’t all sunrises and rainbows on the job during those years.

Ireland continued to battle men’s attitudes and prejudices toward “a woman in a man’s world,” especially on the CHOP job.

“I would get so overwhelmed sometimes,” Ireland remembered. “I had little support from the men on the job as the only female. Some guys were great and extremely helpful, but others would tell crude jokes or say mean things. Sometimes men would talk to everyone with me and act like I was invisible and not even there. All I want to do is be a plumber and do my job and do it right. I love what I do and I’m darn good at it. Not everyone is always willing to accept that a woman can do this job as well as any man.”

Not every male plumber was threatened or intimidated by Ireland. She gained respect and comradeship because she “knew her stuff” and was always eager to learn.

On one of the jobs, the men nicknamed her “TPG,” an acronym for “tiny plumber girl.” She didn’t mind the good-natured pseudonym, formulated with lighthearted intention, and eventually even adopted it as a company name.

Master Plumber, Kelly Ireland, of Ridley Park, clowns around, posing for an impromptu fun photo on the job.Master Plumber, Kelly Ireland, of Ridley Park, clowns around, posing for an impromptu fun photo on the job.

When she was a young girl, Ireland’s father, Patrick, who used CAD to devise plumbing systems for high rises, would take his daughter Kelly into the office on Take Your Daughter to Work Day each April.

However, even though it was a positive learning experience, neither father nor daughter ever thought a future career was in the making.

“I’ve heard my father tell people that he has 10 children, seven girls and three boys, but out of any of them, he could see me doing this more than any of the others — probably because I used to raid his garage for tools,” she said.

Master Plumber Kelly Ireland threads black cast iron for the installation of a boiler in West Philadelphia.Kelly Ireland threads black cast iron for the installation of a boiler in West Philadelphia.

During her years working at the Comcast building, Ireland started an Instagram account to post the progress of the monumental job.

In addition to gaining a following, Ireland began to meet other female plumbers. Up until then, she had only met one other female plumber in the union, who was in maintenance at University of Penn Hospital.

“She was as glad to meet me as I was to meet her,” Kelly said. “Finally, I had contact with another female in a male world.”

The business takes off

In 2020, right after passing her master plumber test, COVID hit and the big projects came to a halt. She was laid off.

The tiny plumber girl began to get lots of calls for drain cleaning. People were staying home and working from home, and residential plumbing problems were becoming rampant.

“With the toilet paper crisis that happened at the start of the pandemic, people were flushing wipes and that was causing a lot of clogs. My phone began ringing off the hook,” she remembers. “I was suddenly swamped with work.”

It was then that Ireland founded TPG Mechanical LLC and stopped her unemployment compensation because her pandemic business took off.

No job is too challenging for Master Plumber Kelly Ireland. She gets right in there and tackles any plumbing issue that she comes across.No job is too challenging for Master Plumber Kelly Ireland. (COURTESY PHOTO)

“I do no advertising whatsoever with my business,” Ireland said. “I have no website. It has been strictly word of mouth.”

Her business takes her around the suburbs and Center City to Fishtown, West Philly and other parts of the city and tri-state area, and it’s all residential work. Much of her work, she says, involves replacing cast iron pipes, which are often at the end of their lifetimes, and other updates to plumbing systems.

“In the beginning, I liked commercial work a lot better than residential,” the business owner shared. “However, the ability to help a person having a home plumbing issue, and solving it for them? I have to admit, that is super rewarding. I have really grown to like it. My hope is to become a signed service contractor in the residential sector.”

Ireland enjoys mentoring other women and has joined the website matriarchybuild.com, which provides a network of women in a wide range of trades who will connect with other women who are tackling a project or need construction advice or consultations.

Women can visit the site to learn basic things like how to change a flapper or install a water filter under a sink.

The TPG is also active in Women In Non-traditional Careers, an organization for current Philadelphia-area tradeswomen in construction, manufacturing and transportation to support one another and plan activities. When she can, she also volunteers for Poor People’s Army.

Kelly Ireland is pictured working on three-inch copper water mains at Chester County Memorial Hospital, back in 2018.Kelly Ireland working on 3-inch copper water mains at Chester County Memorial Hospital in 2018. (COURTESY PHOTO)

In addition to her Instagram acting as a connector to other females in the trades, the social media platform has led to other unexpected opportunities. In the 2020 USA World Plumbers Tour, Ireland represented Pennsylvania in World Plumbers and Plumbers Without Borders.

Noticed by others

Also, in 2020, she was contacted by the designers of The House That She Built, who invited her out to Utah to be a part of the plumbing team on their unique project.

The Utah Chapter of the National Association of Home Builders Professional Women in Building designed and constructed a home that was showcased in the 2021 Utah Valley Parade of Homes. The goal of this home was to highlight and utilize women professionals, skilled tradeswomen, and women-owned companies for all stages of the project.

“The project showed we can do this, and it raised awareness that women are thriving in the trades, and women should see the trades as a very real career option,” Ireland stated.

Ireland flew out to work on the project with her partner, Corey Smith of Steamfitters Local Union 420, and said it was a project that she’ll always remember and treasure.

“This was such a cool experience,” Ireland said, smiling at the memory. “After being at so many construction sites where I was the lone woman, it was such a special time to be among only women professionals. even our Porta Potties stayed clean!”

Not long after her enjoyable Utah excursion, someone else tracked her down through her Instagram account.

The team at “Ask This Old House” reached out to her to say their crew was coming to Philadelphia and asked if she would be willing to appear as the Master Plumber on the show.

Ireland appears in Season 21, Episode 18 of the PBS program.

She and Richard Trethewey, a regular on “This Old House,” visited a female homeowner in a Habitat For Humanity-sponsored home in Philadelphia.

The homeowner was smelling gas fumes while baking in her oven, so she stopped using it.

Ireland and Trethewey tackled the project, while teaching viewers, step-by-step, how to remove the homeowner’s gas stove and microwave and install new ones, plus add a ventilation system.

Ridley Park resident Kelly Ireland is pictured with This Old House plumber Richard Trethewey on the set of Ask This Old House. The episode aired on public television in April on WHYY in Philadelphia. Kelly was featured as the expert plumber who helped a homeowner solve a gas smell coming from her oven.Ridley Park resident Kelly Ireland with “This Old House” plumber Richard Trethewey on the set of Ask This Old House. The episode aired on public television in April on WHYY in Philadelphia. Kelly was featured as the expert plumber who helped a homeowner solve a gas smell coming from her oven. (COURTESY PHOTO)

“Richard was so nice and encouraging,” Ireland remarked about the television personality. “Filming the show was a really good experience. The show filmed last fall and aired this past April.”

‘Good point in my life’

Ireland credits much of her success in the field to Chris Tucker, a plumbing contractor who believed in her, saw her potential and mentored and encouraged her. She also says her parents have been her greatest, steadfast supporters.

“I know my parents are proud of me, but honestly, there is no way that I could be where I’m at if it weren’t for them,” she said. “If it weren’t for my dad, I would have never found my passion or career path. My parents helped me every step of the way, especially with my kids, and so did my siblings. I have a great family support system and my parents are fabulous role models.”

When she’s not under a sink or draining pipes, Ireland says she can be found spending time with Corey Smith, her parents and siblings, or at the Ridley Hockey League Rink with her son or at a volleyball tournament cheering on her daughter.

“I’m at a good point in my life — I’m happy at home and at work,” Ireland says. “At 4 feet -11 inches tall, I know people get stunned when they first see me on a job. But I love big work, challenging work. As soon as they see me working, they are convinced, because I know what I’m doing and I’m a hustler. I can run circles around anyone!”

To contact Ireland, call 484-802-6662 or @TPGmechanical on Instagram.

To watch Kelly’s “Ask This Old House” episode, visit https://www.thisoldhouse.com/season-21-ask-toh/88250/s21-e18-oven-ventilation-ev-charger. To read about the House That She Built, visit https://www.utahpwb.com/the-house-that-she-built.

Kelly Ireland takes a selfie while working on the Four Seasons at the top of the Comcast Building in Philadelphia.Kelly Ireland takes a selfie while riding high in a bucket during her time working on the Four Seasons at the top of the Comcast Technology Center in Philadelphia. (COURTESY PHOTO)
Kelly Ireland is pictured on the job while she worked on the building of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Roberts Research Center.Kelly Ireland is pictured on the job while she worked on the building of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Roberts Research Center.

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