Plumbing regulations explained

Plumbing regulations explained

The plumbing industry is highly regulated, and when you consider the detrimental effects that defective or shoddy plumbing work can have on society, it makes perfect sense. Traversing your way through the regulation mind game is no easy task though. Justin Felix paints a clearer picture of how the system works.

As you will read on page 26 in this edition, in late May we brought together some of the best and brightest minds from across the plumbing supply sector to listen, learn and question the plumbing industry’s key regulators at the 2016 Plumbing Supply Forum.

In talking to delegates during the day and since that event, it seems most industry people have a skeleton idea of how this industry works, but at best, few fully understand the legislation and powers (or lack of in some cases) that regulators have.

As for a few of the first-time attendees wanting to learn more about how the plumbing supply system works in Australia, there would have been a few eyes glazed over.

In terms of installers – the majority of our readers – working onsite every day, in your ongoing quest to understand all this stuff – and you need to, for the sake of your business and family – we’ve gone to lengths to clarify all the mumbo jumbo for you.

When Plumbing Connection publisher Jeff Patchell and I returned to our office, we agreed we needed to pull something together to give everyone a better understanding of the complex inter-relationships that operate between the product and installation standards, codes and installation guides.

Our thanks go to John McBride, a long-time expert and consultant to government and industry on these matters, who greatly assisted us in pulling this information together.

But before we get into the nittygritty, it’s worth considering how this complex system of regulations managed to reach this point.

A bit of history

For the past 25 years or so, the plumbing industry has been transitioning from what is fair to say a somewhat ‘protected species’ of an industry. In reality, plumbers barely took responsibility for their work as they were safeguarded by the support of a number of inspections during any given installation.

Other than a few regional exceptions, those days have gone, never to return. To track how well the sector is performing today, most state regulators – who are driven by consumer protection – audit a small percentage of jobs to form a view on how well the industry is tracking.

From a supplier point of view, if you go back 25-30 years, many of the plumbing products used in water supply were individually hand-stamped for approval (yes, you read that correctly).

Jeff recounted a story of personally witnessing Melbourne & Metropolitan Water Board (MMBW) employees using a metal approval stamp and hammer to imprint MMBW on the neck of brass taps. The manufacturers had to pay the MMBW for these ‘inspectors of quality’ to come into the factory a couple times a week. Other states had similar requirements, so the inefficiency was universal and quite staggering by today’s manufacturing processes.

When the WaterMark scheme was introduced, suppliers became responsible for their own product quality, albeit supported by product specifications described in various Australian Standards and compulsory third-party checks by independent third parties such as IAPMO, SAI Global and other product certification assessment organisations.

As things have progressed, government has built an ever expanding compliance system across this industry. However, as has been experienced, water authorities and state regulators don’t like giving up their power to make local decisions and we are left with even more complexity at a local level. Thank God we don’t have as many States as the US.

That’s enough of the history lesson; we just thought it was worth putting a few things into context.

Regulatory framework

The diagram above clearly demonstrates the chain of command when it comes to plumbing regulations in this country.

At the pinnacle of the chain is a state or territory government with its own power making Parliament. In general terms the head of power to enforce a plumbing regulation is usually driven from an Act of that State or Territory Parliament –In the case of Victoria it is more specifically the Building Act 1993 from which plumbing and building regulations derive. The Building Act enables or transfers the power to regulate to the regulator and then the regulator establishes the standards required into law.

Plumbing Regulations and Building Regulations are driven by the NCC Volumes 1 to 3 and it is here where the detail of the subordinate technical and functional requirements are used in a big bag of subordinate regulation where all the ‘how-to-do bits’ fit.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) was set in place to fix the issues of non-uniformity in the industry, the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) is not a regulator; they sit off to the side but advise the COAG on the major way forward. The ABCB does not have any legislative power but is the tool used to drive a national framework for building and plumbing.

NCC Volumes one to three

The NCC is an initiative of the Council of Australian Governments developed to incorporate all on-site building and plumbing requirements into a single code. The NCC sets the minimum requirements for the design, construction and performance of buildings throughout Australia.

NCC 2016 and all archived editions of the code are available to be downloaded on the ABCB’s website:

NCC 2016, Volume Three is a uniform set of technical provisions for the design and installation of plumbing and drainage systems throughout Australia.

Volume Three pertains to the requirements for plumbing and drainage for all classes of buildings.

The WaterMark Certification Scheme

The WaterMark Certification Scheme (WaterMark) is a mandatory certification scheme for plumbing and drainage materials and products to ensure they are fit for purpose and appropriately authorised for use in plumbing and drainage installations.

The ABCB manages and administers WaterMark as a national scheme.

NCC, Volume Three requires certain plumbing and drainage materials and products to be certified and authorised for use in a plumbing or drainage installation. These materials and products are certified and authorised for use through WaterMark. It is then the responsibility of each state and territory regulator to ensure that approved products are used in plumbing installations. This control is usually at point of installation. For further information on the WaterMark Certification Scheme please visit:

Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) Scheme

WELS is Australia’s water efficiency labelling scheme that requires certain products to be registered and labelled with their water efficiency in accordance with the standard set under the national Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act 2005.

The WELS Regulator is responsible for monitoring and enforcing the WELS Scheme and is committed to ensuring the integrity and credibility of the WELS Scheme. The WELS team is located within the Environment Quality Division of the Department of the Environment.

While the WELS scheme is supported by State and Territory legislation, most compliance and enforcement is taken under the Commonwealth legislation.

The Commonwealth legislation imposes obligations on corporations and entities that are engaged in transactions across state or territory boundaries, or are involved in the import or export of WELS products, including the likes of eBay and similar trading websites.

On 23 July 2012, new compliance provisions in the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act 2005 (Cth) (the WELS Act) came into effect.

These include new civil penalties and criminal offences, as well as a range of new enforcement options in response to non-compliance.

To date, WELS scheme compliance and enforcement activities have focussed on educating industry about its legal obligations under the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act 2005 (WELS Act).

Today, compliance activities are underway with investigators in the field Australia-wide and non-compliances against the WELS Act are being assessed and appropriate action taken. For more information and to learn more about WELS, please visit:

How Standards work

Standards Australia is the nation’s peak non-government, not-for profit Standards organisation. Its expertise and main responsibility is the development and adoption of standards in Australia. It also facilitates Australian participation in international standards development. It does not enforce, regulate or certify compliance with these standards.

Standards Australia forms technical committees or manages processes to develop installation standards mainly by bringing together relevant parties and stakeholders. Through a process of consensus, these committees develop standards for Australia’s net benefit. This system is currently under review. It is important to understand that Standards are not all lobbed together.

There are two specific types:

  1. Installation code (for plumbers): 5 parts
  2. 2003 Plumbing and drainage: Water services
  3. 2003 Plumbing and drainage: Sanitary plumbing and drainage
  4. 2003 Plumbing and drainage: Stormwater drainage
  5. 2003 Plumbing and drainage: Heated water services
  6. 2012 Plumbing and drainage: Housing installations Every plumber should own and study a copy of AS/NZS 3500 because if he/ she completes all of his/her work to this standard, it will be up to scratch. Unfortunately due to the eye watering $1200 price tag, many refuse or are unable to purchase it. Think of plumbers who have just completed their apprenticeships – it isn’t exactly a welcoming gift, is it? That’s a story in itself though.
  7. Product standards (for manufacturers)

These must meet the performance requirements of fit for purpose and durability of products that are required to be tested within the WaterMark Scheme and set in place via the PCA part 3 of the NCC.

AS/NZS 3500 Plumbing and Drainage defines the minimum standards upon which all installations must comply and sets in place a known pathway to achieve the minimum performance of a plumbing system.

The Plumbing Code of Australia part of the NCC ABCB approach sets in place the measurable performance that must be met with all plumbing installations, it sets clearly an alternative pathway of performance for meeting compliance.

The role of regulators

State and territory regulators are responsible for the overall regulation of plumbing, they are responsible for setting levels of competency for plumbers to perform the work, they set in place a series of technical regulations which perform as a deemed to comply pathway for plumbing installations, and alternatively through the Plumbing Code of Australia clearly articulate the minimum performance outcomes for a plumbing installation.

This, when all coupled together, delivers a level of consumer protection via a regulated scheme for both building and plumbing practitioners nationally to deliver a measurable efficient and competitive building and plumbing industry in Australia.

To ensure consumer safety, state and territory regulators conduct compliance audits where a plumber is self-certifying work and or inspections of plumbing work throughout country.

The intent of an audit system as opposed to an inspection is that the intent is to measure how the industry is functioning and meeting compliance, if non-compliance is a problem then the industry would be advised to lift its game.

Compliance auditors’ conduct onsite audits of a sample of plumbing work (varies from state to state) for which a compliance certificate has been lodged. The auditor’s role is to ensure the plumbing work complies with all relevant plumbing laws.

The various state and territory regulators are as follows:

  • VIC: Victorian Building Authority
  • NSW: Building Professionals Board
  • SA: Government of South Australia
  • TAS: Department of Justice
  • QLD: Department of Housing and Public Works
  • NT: Building Practitioners Board
  • WA: Department of Commerce

Regulation of plumbing starts from the top down and exists to ensure the minimum standards required to deliver consumer protection are in fact met. That includes the minimum competencies required to do the work, the minimum installation requirements to ensure plumbing works and meets the performance outcomes, and critically, the minimum standards for plumbing products as identified in the PCA WaterMark Scheme.

You don’t have to love the system but let us assure you there is little that you as an individual can do about it. So, we encourage you to get involved in your local MPA, the IOP or the PPIG if you are a supplier, as these are the groups that continue to exert lobbying influence on your industry.

The alternative, an unregulated industry, would be a disaster, not only for consumers but all stakeholders.

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