Plumber licensing: Experts explain reason for hefty regulations
by Staci Giordullo
Having just moved to Pisgah Forest, N.C., Laurie Schumann wasn't sure who to call when the waterline broke under her driveway. "I called the water company and they sent out their guy, who I'd seen working around my neighborhood, so I thought he must be OK," Schumann says.
William "Jeremy" Dills, owner of Dills Plumbing in Hendersonville, N.C., arrived and assured Schumann he could fix the problem. However, after Dills failed to find the waterline and needed to rent heavy equipment to search, Schumann expressed concern over the location of her septic system.
"He insisted he would miss it, but he trenched right through it," she says.
Schumann says Dills told her the problem was resolved after consulting with a colleague in the septic business, but began to worry when she saw effluent running down the hill the next day.
"I called him several times and left messages but he never called and never showed," she says. "I called the building department to see if a plumbing inspector was coming out, expressed my concern, and they immediately referred me not only to the Department of Health but the State Board of Licensing, which informed me [Dills] had not pulled a permit."
State licensing for plumbers isn't required in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.
Dills has a plumber license issued by the North Carolina State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors in 2002, but is currently on probation through May 2010 for at least three complaints — including Schumann's — of misconduct, incompetence, gross negligence and performing work outside his current licensing qualifications, according to the Board. His license allows him to work on residential plumbing; it does not allow him to work on community well systems like Schumann's.
"You need a well water operator license or a licensed water supply supervisor should've been on sight," says James Emory of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Calls to Dills from Angie's List Magazine weren't returned.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 500,000 plumbers across the country providing critical services that maintain and protect the nation's water supply.
"At one point in history, plumbers were considered as important as doctors," says Ike Casey, executive vice president of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association. "Waterborne diseases are extremely serious, and it's critical to have clean water and proper plumbing. We've taken that for granted in this country, but if you have someone who's not trained, improper plumbing could create a very serious health problem."
Forty-four states require plumbers to be licensed at the state level, which Casey says is the most practical.
"If it's regulated locally — which in some places it is — it makes it difficult for those contractors to work because they need a different license for each area," Casey says. "Also, it makes sense for the states to regulate licensing more than a national body because of the weather and environmental conditions. Plumbing in South Dakota is a lot different than in Texas."
Some service providers in larger cities, such as New York City, prefer to keep plumber licensing local due to the intricacies of the metropolitan infrastructure.
"If you climb down a manhole and look at the amazing piping, electrical lines and cables, it's easy to see the difference between New York City and the rest of the state, even the rest of the country," says Joann Billharz of Billharz Plumbing.
"If you're having an unlicensed person work on your water-source piping, you have no idea if the water is drinkable or not. Think about your waste lines. Do you want them going to the wrong place? The destiny of our population demands the protection of the license."
Billharz says unlicensed plumbers pose a threat to consumers and their homes, as well as to licensed plumbers.
"They can cause the customer to receive very expensive violations, and if hurt on the job, he can sue the customer because [the plumber] doesn't have the correct insurance," Billharz says. In most instances, only licensed plumbers can obtain the permits required for certain jobs.
A number of licensed plumbers say those who aren't licensed may be able to offer homeowners a lower price, but don't offer the quality of workmanship that comes with the standards of a licensed plumber.
"They put a bad name out there for licensed contractors," says Laura Beavers, vice president of Water Heaters Only Inc. in Los Angeles. "They may have a nice website, but they don't have the training."
Schumann says she learned firsthand that hiring a plumber with the proper licensing, permits and insurance is of utmost importance. She adds that Dills didn't have general liability insurance — the state licensing board doesn't require it — so her home insurance policy covered the damage to her septic field; however, she was left with unfinished work.
Schumann successfully sued Dills for the $1,750 she paid him before he abandoned the job. She also gave Dills an F on Angie's List, his only report.
"It's just a really bad thing," she says. "My advice to everyone is check with the license board for previous complaints and to determine what work they're permitted to do, and make sure they have insurance. And ask to see it — call the insurance company directly!"
Angie's List member Jeff Jones agrees. After hiring Holomon Plumbing in April 2006 to fix the main drain line of his Bossier City, La., home, Jones says the work, which required breaking a concrete slab and removing the pool pump, was botched and not completed.
"After a couple of months of no returned calls or visits, I contacted the licensing board," Jones says.
According to the State Plumbing Board of Louisiana, owner Paul Holomon has received several grievances since 2003, including complaints of him working with an expired license.
While Holomon's license has been periodically inactive over the years, board spokesperson Katie Ramazof says Holomon was licensed when Jones hired him and that he currently holds an active plumbing license.
Holomon Plumbing is on Angie's List and could not be reached for comment.
"You just have to do your homework before hiring," Jones says.