Strong legislation and enforcement: an economic driver for the plumbing industry

2020-09-19T12:29:36+00:00September 19th, 2020|Associations|

By Brendan Reynolds, executive director: IOPSA

Many supporters of free market economies would balk at this statement, but the fact is that for the plumbing industry in South Africa to survive and grow we desperately need strong legislation and enforcement.

Brendan Reynolds, executive director: IOPSA. Image credit: Eamonn Ryan

Brendan Reynolds, executive director: IOPSA. Image credit: Eamonn Ryan

In two successive annual surveys by the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA), plumbers have indicated that the biggest barrier to their growth and success are unqualified ‘plumbers’ operating in the market and the use of cheap non-compliant products. Furthermore, studies have shown that unqualified ‘plumbers’ outnumber qualified plumbers by nearly 10:1.

One may ask how this came to be. South Africa has good laws, regulations and national standards in place. Investment in vocational education and training is massive and plumbing has been identified as a critical skill. One would think that this environment would support the legitimate qualified plumbers and enable growth and development, but there are crucial elements that are lacking.

The legislative environment

Plumbing in South Africa is regulated by a series of laws, regulations, by-laws and national standards. When looking at the laws governing plumbers, one must refer to several different pieces of legislation, many of which are more than 20 years old. There is no single law which governs plumbing and drain laying. This creates confusion and often leaves things open to interpretation and therefore abuse. Further complicating matters is the municipal by-laws.

While some municipalities, particularly the larger metros, have good by-laws that are controlled and maintained, by far the majority of municipalities have outdated and inadequate bylaws which often refer to defunct legislation or standards. In a few instances they require now illegal practices or the use of discontinued products. Fortunately, we have good and well-maintained installation and product National Standards (SANS) but for them to be effective they need the support of clear legislation.

Enforcement

The frontline of enforcement in South Africa is the Building Control Officers and in certain municipalities the Water Inspectors. They are charged with ensuring that only qualified plumbers conduct plumbing installations using compliant products on new buildings. The biggest problem we are facing is that they do not get involved in replacements, repairs, upgrades and non-structural renovations. In many instances they are only mandated to inspect the drainage systems and not the entire plumbing system. As an example, it is estimated that 30 000 to 40 000 geysers are replaced each month in South Africa, of these only an estimated 25-30% receive a certificate of compliance as required by the South African National Standards. That means that there are potentially around 25 000 illegal or non-compliant installations taking place each month, with no oversight from any organisation or body.

The lack of adequate enforcement and confusing legislative environment has left the proverbial barn door wide open for un-qualified ‘plumbers’. With little or no enforcement, they can do installations in any way they want, using any materials they want, without consequence. The homeowner is none-the-wiser, they simply want clean water to come out of the tap, hot water when they need it and the poo to disappear when they flush. They do not know about the very real dangers associated with poor or non-compliant installations, until it is too late.

This leaves the qualified plumber trying to compete against non-compliant installers using non-compliant products. It simply makes their businesses unsustainable; they cannot compete and are eventually forced down to the same level. They stop investing in training for their staff and their businesses, they stop using permanent employees and shift to casual laborers, reduce fixed capital investments and generally start treating plumbing as a way to ‘make a buck’ and no longer as a vocation. The public perception of plumbers becomes severely damaged which impacts on plumbing as a viable career choice. An unsustainable negative spiral with disastrous consequences for public health and safety and the country.

The answer

So, what do we need to do to achieve this? Honestly, it is not as difficult as it may seem:

  • Firstly, we already have most of the required legislation, we simply need to clarify it and put it into a single set of meaningful and understandable regulations which covers the plumbing industry.
  • Secondly, we already have a professional body for plumbers, which should be given similar recognition, responsibilities, and powers as other professional bodies. It should be a requirement for all plumbers to register with this body and to abide by the rules. The professional body should be given the right and responsibility to act against those who transgress.
  • Lastly, there is already a proven system in place to inspect or audit plumbers’ workmanship through the professional body, this system needs to be expanded to include all plumbers.

The building blocks are already there it is now up to us to put them together in a way that makes sense to everyone.

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