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."

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.


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Comments

it was very good ready.but as long as the person whom is doing the job whether he is a handyman plumber or license plumber has liability insurance and experience in the job you want done then you're fine.. liability insurance at least 1 million dollars. i am 58 yrs old and have worked with handyman plumbers and licensed plumbers over the years as i own a apt building with 23 apts.and a 10 room motel in florida.i have seen both sides of good comanys and dirt bagers ! and sorry to inform you of a scale from 1 to 100 35% of (license) plumbers that worked for me did a horrible job! from repair to billing they messed something up. and their attitudes was the worst! on the other hand the handyman plumbers got right to work hardly had attitudes and the work was fine and this is based on 75% out of 100!but no one works on my properties without at least 1 million dollars of liability insurance ! learn from this and you will be ok. remember to me the handyman plumber has more to lose then the license plumber.the license plumber can get any plumbing job he wants.that license they have gives them the right to charge what they want.there are so much bad plumbers here in miami florida that i have reported and yet there still doing plumbing job. now don't get me wrong i have met some real good ones too but more bad than good. but handyman plumbers need to do good because if there jobs are not good they stand the chance of never working in that field again!so to me they try to please the customer more.i don't know about your states but thats what is happening in my state.just seem that the whole plumbing thing needs to get reformed!what ever happened to trying to keep the customer happy?or pride in the work one does in his trade? . and believe me it's not getting the cheapest price for me. its workmanship and attitude is what i am looking for. it looks like all of that went right out the window with the new service men of today.(AGAIN NOT ALL)

A website devoted to unlicensed plumbers

Before allowing someone to work in your home or office you should make sure the person actually doing the work is the person licensed (Master) as many states allow for a LMP, for example, to hire someone who has no formal training and sending these people out to do the actual work and only God knows what skills they may or may not have. This is especially true for franchises who have one licensed master covering an entire chain in the area. Many decent inspectors condemn this as a cover up (pimping the license) and will issue violations. The license is for the consumers protection not the licensee.

Many locations have no idea how to test a plumber before they issue a license. NYC requirements for a masters license are the hardest in the nation to pass.. Shame the USA does not have decent codes and require proper testing theroy and practical

I read your “Toilet Issue” with great interest. I’m in the process of completing the renovation of my home. I’ve had very mixed experiences in hiring contractors. I’ve had an unlicensed contractor who has done impeccable work that had a full inspection. On the other hand, I had to fire a licensed contractor after three days because I knew full well the work he had done wouldn’t pass muster with the inspector. The best insurance I’ve found to keep me and the contractors honest is to ensure that all the proper inspections are performed by my locality. I also love the fact that I can get recommendations from Angie’s List, saving me from many of these frustrations.

Your plumbing lines should operate smoothly without problems. If you are having any of these common problems then you need a great plumber as soon as possible.

Shame how the "New " NYC plumbing code is placing safety on the back burners

Being a licensed master plumber and gas fitter and currently employed as a Plumbing, Gas and Mechanical inspector in Virginia. ALL consumers should ask for the contractors license and check with the local licensing authority for complaints Virginia's authority is DPOR.

I have one constructive criticism to make of this otherwise good advisory. You listed six states not requiring state-licensing of plumbers. One thing you did not explain or list: A number of states, (New Hampshire is one example)allow homeowners to do work within the confines of their. But other state's laws or building department REQUIRE that ALL plumbing, gasfitting and sewage work be done by a licensed professional. Massachusetts is one such state. Even installing a new toilet, or repairing a leaking pipe MUST be done by a licensed contractor.

I am a Master Plumber in Texas and the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners has a web site where you can go and check on any plumber licensed by the state. It also tells you if they are insured. I'm sure most states work the same way.

What is best way to validate a plumber's licensing before he/she begins their work in my house? Are they required to carry a certificate in their possession?

A great place to find licensed contractors is your local Home Builders Association website. These guys are Board Approved before they can become members.

Would like to clarify my story. NC does require GL for it's Licensed Contractors, but do not require Contractors send them proof of coverage. Mr. Dills had quarters where he was covered, unfortunately not when my job was done.

Wow, what a story!.... The good guys need to be encouraged. And, the bad guys must be sidelined! Thanks very much for letting me see this case.

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