The last few months of dealing with selling a house and buying one has put me in contact with my least favorite sort of engineer far too often: the licensed Professional Engineer (PE). My first experiences with that sad, paranoid, grossly conservative breed of “professional” came in my first engineering job—with a Misfortune 500 agricultural manufacturer. Not only did we have to design many of our products to meet UL’s erratic and irrational demands, but I had to carry on demented snail mail and telephone conversations with UL’s nutty in-house PEs. In a deranged response to the sluggish pace of UL certification, that company bend over and kissed its own ass goodbye and hired two engineers away from UL and a couple more who claimed to be UL and high voltage “experts.” For the next three years, we cranked out over-priced, horribly designed, grossly conservative crap that dropped our field reliability from an already-sad 30%-failed-per-year to an unacceptable (even to our Republican-party-henchman, John Connelly-loving CEO) 70%+ catastrophe. Two years later and several hundred thousand dollars down the drain, the company fired all of the PEs and returned the design task to the run-of-the-mill non-PE-credentialed engineers and techs, mostly out of financial and customer-dissatisfaction necessity. A complete redesign of all of the electronic and electrical components later, our field failure rate was slightly under 3%-annually. (That sounds awful, but most of our electronic components were part of a center-pivot irrigation system; the world’s largest lightening rods.)
A few years later and QSC was trying to meet good ole’ UL’s consumer product requirements and I’m back working with PEs. As usual, it was a depressing experience, not unlike working with a wagon-full of bricks tied to our backs. The UL drones are, like all PEs, terrified of creativity. If you attempt to do something in a way differently than every similar product they have already tagged, you’re in for a battle. There was only one way around their dislike for original thinking: like most bureaucrats, the UL kids are prone to react positively to bribery. Take their PEs to the most expensive restaurant in town, put them up in a Hilton, treat them like the royalty they believe they are, and you can get the dumbest possible designs past their objections. My case-in-point #1? Crown’s Power Base amps which ran a 120VAC single-insulated wire through the middle of the amp’s heatsink without any consideration to all of the safety hazard that design entailed. The UL PEs regularly harped to us, at QSC, about how much better they were treated when they visited Crown in Elkhart.
More recently, my son-in-law’s mother’s boyfriend is an ex-construction contractor who spent much of his career building roads for the state and Minnesota counties. His distain for “engineers” practically burned off my hair. After a few conversations, I found that the only engineers he ever had to deal with were the government road department PEs. He claimed he could design anything better than an “engineer” and after I realized he was talking about civil PEs I don’t doubt him for a second.
As for my most recent PE experiences, at one time I thought I’d have to redesign the basement supports in our Little Canada house and on the recommendation of a contractor, I asked a PE to look at the basement and make recommendations. Luckily, the guy I found was only handicapped by his PE credential but was still young enough to have some functioning brain cells. He gave me a lot of phone time for free and strongly recommended that I not asking him for written confirmation of what he’d advised because once he started to write up our 130+ year old house he said I might as well start tearing the house down. To cover his ass, he’d have to write up everything in the house that didn’t meet current specification and that would be pretty much everything in a house that was begun in 1884 and added on in the 1940’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s along with the updates we’d added in the past 18 years. The contractor who’d recommended this PE told me about a 2’ extension he’d added to the floor joists of a house he was remodeling. Due to the insane requirements of current engineering standards, the PE had required him to attach the 2’ 2”x12” floor supports with “1,000 nails” spaced at micro-intervals. Everyone involved realized that this requirement turned the joists into “Swiss cheese” but current code required that idiocy and PEs live and die by codes.
This week, I’m trying to resolve a flooding issue in my lower-level garage. The problem is that my 1947 house (I’ve modernized my living space by nearly 70 years.) has a garage that is within a couple of feet of the county’s right-of-way and over the years the road has been raised to the point that my garage is lower than the drainage ditch. Because the road belongs to the county, I have to deal with the county’s
Why are PEs so reliably depressing? Grossly conservative, bureaucratic sorts are attracted to the credential and security of an engineering job that requires the PE certification. The requirements—“engineers must complete a four-year college degree, work under a Professional Engineer for at least four years, pass two intensive competency exams and earn a license from their state's licensure board”—are very much like the sort of song-and-dance unions require for membership. Real engineers are too self-motivated to submit to the remedial drivel they’ll have to suffer as part of the “internship” with an old PE drone. A real engineer is more driven to learn how to make things and actually be part of invention and manufacturing than security. The main reason for chasing down the PE certification is the hope for a secure corporate or government job. Not exactly the sort of motivation that inspires a Wozniak, Edison, Tesla, Turing, Wright brother, Kurzweil, da Vinci, Harry Olson, or any other great inventor.
Dealing with a PE is best avoided, but if that’s not an option knowing who they are helps. High on the list of characteristics is their extension of the NIH syndrome (Not Invented Here). Not only are PEs uncomfortable with original thought, their attitude is if it wasn’t invented or approved and documented by a bureaucrat, it doesn’t exit. The best way to convince a PE that your idea is a good one is to convince him it’s not a new one. These guys are not particularly hard-working, so the chances that one of them will do the leg work to determine where an idea came from is close to zero.
When everything else fails, and it probably will, there is a sure weapon against PE-intransience. As best said by Warren Zevon, “bring Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” Lawyers, in particular. The reason PEs are so incapable of original thought or useful activity is that they are buried in their fear of liability. A bureaucrat would rather make no decision than take a chance on an idea might be wrong. The source of this fear is the terror that they might be “responsible” and the people who most scare PEs are lawyers who will identify the responsible bureaucrat and sue the pants off of him. So, bring a lawyer or three to the discussion and while that will not get a decision out of the PE, it will convince him to deny all responsibility and get the hell out of the way.