Are the plumbing regulations and standards even working?
Metropolis Solutions co-founder David Pockett takes an in-depth look into two major problems in the plumbing industry and discusses what needs to happen to remedy the industry as a whole.
Most people would agree that Australia has some of the best, if not the best, plumbing regulations and standards anywhere in the world. It follows that we should therefore have some of the best, if not the very best, plumbed buildings in the world. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that in many cases we just don’t. Why?
As forensic plumbers, we are forever finding ourselves at the pointy end of investigating jobs that haven’t cut the mustard for one reason or another.
So what problems are we finding and just who is responsible? Let’s talk about two of the big ones.
THE RAIN HEAD DISASTER
Defective rain heads are potentially the biggest single issue we see, certainly in terms of sheer numbers of affected properties. AS/NZS3500.3 has been in operation since at least 2003 and clearly sets out what is required.
The associated handbooks SA HB39 and SA HB114 are also clear, but a fundamental error in the previous edition of HB39 (since corrected in the latest 2015 version) has caused nothing but total confusion. It’s been subject of a previous article in Plumbing Connection.
The problem with rain heads is real. Virtually not one currently fitted to any home or other building anywhere in the country is even remotely compliant with the various essential requirements of the standard.
Any casual inspection of a new housing estate or multi-unit development will confirm this. When you combine that with the important job rain heads are expected to do but can’t due to fatally flawed design, it’s a recipe for widespread disasters. And they aren’t just installed in homes. These disasters can occur in major shopping centres, warehouses and international airports.
We all know the physical damage which can be caused by defective rain heads is significant. The risk is also insidious because it can arise from even modest rain events.
Most property owners also have no idea their buildings are not adequately protected. Unfortunately this situation is a long way from the mandatory requirement that rain heads perform and safely overflow in at least 1:100 year storm events.
When things go wrong, the primary losers are the property owners and occupants in the first instance, then the insurance companies who are paying out many totally avoidable water damage claims.
We as wider members of the community are, in turn, paying for this through increased property damage insurance premiums on our homes and businesses.
And valuable economic and environmental resources are also being consumed to restore and fix things which shouldn’t have been damaged in the first place.
Our experience shows that the level of understanding of the requirements for overflow provision is demonstrably poor where roof plumbers are concerned. If it was otherwise, this problem with rain heads would not be occurring at all and certainly not all over Australia. It doesn’t matter which state or territory you look at because the problem is everywhere as the enclosed examples show. It seems fair to suggest this situation has come about due to a range of factors including:
- Inadequate basic training at trade school
- The complexity of carrying out the necessary mathematical calculations for flow rates
- A lack of understanding of the issue by those supervising apprentices in the workplace
- An entire generation of plumbers who have seen nothing but non-compliant rain heads and unfortunately do not recognise the problem for what it is
- The aforementioned error in HB39-1998 which remained uncorrected until 2015 but when it was fixed, there was no attention drawn to it by either Standards Australia or the regulators
- No effective enforcement of the issue by regulators across Australia
- Plumbing auditors themselves in many cases not understanding what the issue is
- Plumbing auditors in some jurisdictions e.g Victoria, unable to get on roofs to inspect finished work due to OH&S issues
- Building surveyors not understanding what is actually required by AS3500 and also not cross checking that what has been constructed actually matches what is on the approved plans
- No manufacturers making compliant product
Up until very recently with the introduction of the Dam Buster rain heads into the market, no one in the industry was even seeking to design or provide a viable, compliant solution that actually complied with the standards.
So what’s the second major problem?
THE BELOW GROUND PLUMBING PROBLEM
There’s a very old saying that doctors bury their mistakes. Our unfortunate experience is that some plumbers tend to do the same thing.
You can understand why, because the chances of getting caught are pretty slim and it often takes years before anything obvious occurs to make the property owner finally investigate the situation. By then the job is normally out of warranty and that means the serious fall-out once again sits with the hapless property owner who is not only facing a huge rectification bill, but also has a very hard time knowing where to turn for any redress. These sorts of defects are also not covered by normal building insurance.
The most significant failure we see is simply not observing the mandatory obligation to have an expert design a suitable installation for drainage in unstable ground. We have seen repeated examples now of geotechnical engineers coming back with “H” or “P” sites on a regular basis for new construction domestic homes, but even “M” sites require consideration under the standards.
The engineer’s advice in the above case was totally ignored. The construction involved a large, reputable and well-known volume builder. The house has suffered from ongoing sewer and storm water leaks ever since construction and the slab has now deformed so badly that it is beyond all tolerances. The home is likely to need complete demolition and rebuilding.
Our experience is that the geotechnical engineer’s advice is not followed due to the currently perceived unacceptable short-term industry cost of actually complying with the recommendation, particularly if the builder does not want to go back to the client asking for more money. The legal obligations of the standards themselves often don’t seem to come into the picture at all.
The job referenced above wasn’t a one-off. In another case I had a very experienced drainage plumber tell me that he (the plumber) fully understood what the geotechnical engineer had said and why, however the plumber knew full well that he didn’t have the expertise to design the required installation himself.
Because the builder then flatly refused to spend the money on getting an engineer to do it, nothing was done at all. As a result of this and pressing time constraints on both the plumber and builder to finish the job, and just like in the first example above, a very ‘bog standard’ and basic installation was done, then quickly covered up with the slab. The plumber also tellingly advised that if we checked, we would find that ‘all of the other houses in the street are the same’.
Despite now having done many below ground plumbing investigations on houses with drainage problems, we have yet to find a single house where the requirements of AS3500.2, AS3500.3 and AS2870 have actually been implemented. This means that just like rain head defects, potentially hundreds of thousands of homes are also now affected by significant below ground plumbing defects as well. Sure there will be examples of compliant installations, but anecdotally they seem to be in the minority.
Yet again this unfortunate situation appears to be due to a number of factors which for both the consumer and insurance industry, combine to provide a perfect storm coupled with enormous (and often unprotected) rectification costs. In many cases however we feel that plumbers themselves are broadly aware of this particular issue and do understand it – which contrasts signficantly to the situation with rain heads discussed earlier. The factors involved here include:
- Cost cutting by builders, even major ones
- Competitive pressures in the building market
- Competitive pressures in the plumbing market
- Failure of building surveyors to note the soil condition report and then actually insist on seeing an engineered below ground plumbing installation for inclusion in the stamped approved plans. All the building surveyors seem to look at is the structural plans. That is precisely what happened in the two examples given, so the person who could have prevented it all by pulling up the oversight before construction even started, also failed in their job
- Time pressures on builders and trades including plumbers to finish the job and get paid
- The additional financial cost of movement tolerant joints, properly grading trenches, using appropriate backfill and so on
- A ‘lowest price wins’ atmosphere whereby plumbers who are trying to ‘do the right thing’ and comply are being priced up against those who are taking short cuts and submitting unviable quotes for non-compliant work just to win jobs
- Lack of enforcement by regulators.
THE ROLE OF THE REGULATORS AND GATEKEEPERS
The common denominator in both instances is failure of the regulators to effectively enforce and regulate their industries by simply applying the existing regulations and standards and also ensuring that the ‘gatekeepers’ i.e building surveyors, are actually doing their jobs at the coal face.
Regulation affects all players in the industry. It is not just the trades. It certainly includes building surveyors; we also expect them to do their jobs properly.
In this context it is interesting to note that regulators have duties to perform in all jurisdictions. The public and the industry both reasonably expect the regulators to do their jobs.
In Victoria for example, the Victorian Building Authority which licenses and regulates all plumbers is required by statute:
- to promote the maintenance of adequate levels of competence among plumbers;
- to monitor and enforce compliance3 with the Building Act 1993 and the regulations;
- to monitor developments relevant to the regulation of plumbing standards in Victoria;
- to provide information and training to assist persons and bodies in carrying out functions under the Act or the regulations;
As with other regulators, the VBA is also certainly and very significantly empowered to perform these functions which include the power to determine whether the tradespersons and other professionals under its control are fit and proper to hold any licence or registration at all.
The same powers exist for all other trades and professions regulated by the VBA which includes builders, architects and building surveyors. There are many and significant powers of the VBA set out in the Building Act 1993, however in summary they amount to this:
The VBA may do all things that are necessary or convenient to enable it to perform its functions.
With the state and territory building regulators having already been exposed as being asleep at the wheel during the still-unfolding flammable cladding fiasco, indications point to there being many more problems yet to be aired and resolved in this space.
The two major defect items discussed in this article are but some of many currently plaguing the plumbing and construction industry. While a range of factors are at play, it’s clear to me that from a plumbing perspective, this situation is significantly due to our world class regulations and standards just not being adequately enforced by the people who we all rely on.
These concerns are further supported federally, including by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews MP who in an interview with ABC Radio “AM” in early February 2019 identified a range of matters including:
- there is a broader issue of which cladding is a symptom and that is non-compliance with building codes across Australia
- there needed to be a plan from the states to deal with what is systemic non-compliance in the building industry across Australia
- there are key issues across the states and territories with building compliance
A WORRYING FUTURE?
Everyone in the plumbing industry needs to be extremely concerned about these problems. Licensing of plumbing itself could be one of the first casualties if the entire plumbing industry gets deregulated or else is reduced to Corn Flake packet status simply because regulation of plumbers themselves via the various state authorities is suddenly perceived to have been a complete failure necessitating the adoption of ‘new methods and solutions’ in a completely free market.
Such an event can of course be completely prevented simply by the current regulators just doing their jobs properly, making sure the existing standards and regulations are complied with and also effectively bringing anybody who is doing (or approving) non-compliant work back into line.
All responsible plumbers should be more than happy with that, as should everyone else. This will not only protect consumers, but also protect the entire industry and everyone who benefits from it.
My concern is that if these widespread problems are not addressed in any useful way, we risk heading towards loss of the fundamental integrity of the entire plumbing industry, if not the entire building industry.
From a plumbing perspective, behind such an outcome would not only be a class of rogue plumbers and installation disasters; the likes of which nobody dares to even have nightmares about. There would also inevitably be a court system clogged with dissatisfied consumers desperately seeking re-dress, along with insurance companies armed to the teeth with expensive lawyers and refusing to pay out, plus a network of regulators floundering in the morass and wondering what happened.
I can hear readers saying that plumbing will never lose its licensed status no matter how bad things get because the risks to public health are simply too high. We need however to take note of what is already happening in other jurisdictions.
The State of Texas has only just announced that the entire Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners will be abolished in September 2019 and after that, anybody who wants to call themselves a plumber will not be stopped from doing so. It will literally be a free for all in which all 58,000 licensed plumbers in Texas will also lose their protected profession overnight.
The comparison with Texas is certainly worth making if only to show how suddenly these things can occur due to political paralysis, stupid decisions or plain incompetence.
Interestingly the Texas issue has not arisen over standards of work but rather due to a simple disagreement in the State Legislature when lawmakers debated whether to keep the plumbing board as it is or roll it into the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.
Agreements were voted down by the Texas House on May 26. The same night, a motion to reconsider the action also failed and so the politicians through their unbelievable stupidity decided to effectively wipe the entire plumbing profession from the map at enormous risk to public health and safety.
We simply cannot risk any sort of perception that plumbers are unable to reliably perform compliant work, nor a perception that yet more standards and regulations are needed nor that the existing ones are somehow defective or inadequate.
Our role as concerned industry players therefore must be to support the regulations and standards by ensuring only compliant work is certified and also doing what we can to ensure that the regulators do their jobs.