With plumbing innovation hitting a cracking pace and the building industry boom, public health stands in the balance. Master Plumbers Victoria Chief Technical Advisor Gary Bath explains the importance of regulations in safeguarding our community and the plumbers who serve it.

As a nation, when we are asked to define a unique aspect of ourselves and our society it is usually accepted that it’s the opportunity of a “fair go” for all.

Public health first

As an emerging country in industrial terms, we have been able to put physical infrastructure in place that has ensured our public health.

To provide safe drinking water and efficient wastewater disposal we separated our systems. Tragically, many third-world countries are still dealing with these issues, which cause a multitude of public health issues.

The reticulation of natural gas from existing town gas or oil systems was another massive achievement. Today there aren’t many town gas or oil systems in the southern States or Territories. Most rely on natural gas solely for heating and other industrial applications.

In the past

In the early days, the local water boards and sewerage authorities assumed the role of the regulator. They would make the rules, inspect the work to ensure it was carried out to their requirements and ultimately assume responsibility for the work the plumber carried out.

Similarly, for gasfitting installations, the authority, (Gas and Fuel Corporation in Victoria) tested and inspected the gasfitters installation before installing a meter and commissioning the appliances.

In both cases, non-compliance was dealt with immediately, usually via the authority’s inspector.

Each region or jurisdiction within this model was required to have a team of inspectors that met thepopulation or the physical size of the region. There were often conflicting requirements, compliance wise, and it was a system that didn’t lend itself too easily to plumbers moving into different regions and getting up to speed with local requirements.

When the change came

In Victoria, in 1985, the Victorian Plumbers, Drainers and Gasfitters Board was created and a selfcertifying regime was adopted. A big change to plumbing training also occurred. Driven by the regulator, the module system was abandoned in favour of an installation-specific curriculum and the regulator practical exam (journeyman) on completion of the training.

In this new regime:

• plumbers were responsible for their installation;

• they were required to carry professional indemnity insurance; and

• they would provide a Compliance Certificate to the consumer upon completion of the plumbing works.

A copy of the Compliance Certificate would also be lodged with the regulator, which would undertake random audits. This equated to about five per cent of work that would be checked.

At this time, this was a quantum shift for the industry and the regulator which had:

• an independent investigation team, which dealt with consumer complaints, illegal plumbing work and other plumbers’ complaints;

• an audit team which carried out the mandated audits; and

• a team looking after the Licencing and Registration of individual practitioners.

Not too long after there was the development of a national set of standards, designed to have uniformity on the minimum requirements for the installation of Water Supply, Sanitary and Drainage Standards. This was soon to extend to Stormwater/Roofing systems and Gasfitting. Australia was very soon getting a reputation for maintaining the highest standards in terms of plumbing systems.

So what’s the problem?

Talk to members and they describe an industry that has dropped its standards of workmanship, doesn’t care about meeting compliance requirements and hasn’t had an audit on its work since they don’t know when.

Many have moved from new housing work because they are being undercut in price by competitors who don’t follow the compliance requirements and aren’t interested in doing so.

This isn’t reserved to residential housing. Large commercial jobs areexperiencing failures largely due to inexperienced contractors and their plumbers having little understanding of the ramifications of their actions or the quality of their work.

The increasing density of our building envelopes and the emphasis on multi-unit development is not helping.

A look at any city skyline in Australia will quickly tell you that there is much more of these types of developments taking place and not just in the CBD but all through the inner suburbs and high-density development zones.

It is not necessarily the development that is the problem.

Intensive development requires a scale and intensity of building and plumbing systems which have to be done properly.

Taking short cuts in design, installation or quality of material just pushes the cost (and problems) downstream where it ultimately ends up with the consumer.

These challenges are multiplied when considering the complexity and rapid change in the technology used in these systems.

In Victoria, the responsibility for design rests with the licenced plumber, this creates no issues when dealing with residential housing or using the acceptable solutions within our Australian Standards.

On a large or complex plumbing system, the design is mainly undertaken by Hydraulic Consultants and yet there exists no recognition for this work by our regulator, outside of the fire and mechanical services sectors, and the responsibility again rests with the Plumbing Licence holder.

Our current compliance system that incorporates an audit by the Victorian Building Authority on completion of the plumbing works remains exactly the same for a residential house as it does for a multi-story building that shares a hot and cold water supply, gas supply, sanitary stack and drainage system. 

Master Plumbers Victoria is advocating for real change

Master Plumbers has advocated for changes to this approach that would, depending on the size and complexity or risk contained within the plumbing system, determine how the regulator deals with auditing for that building.

This may mean that some installations are ‘case managed’ or have ‘staged inspections’ in a similar fashion to how complex gas installations are handled by Energy Safe Victoria.

A robust regulatory system will:

• protect consumers;

• maintain the consistency of compliance of its practitioners; and

• advise and assist those same practitioners.

Inspectors require adequate resourcing to carry out these roles. Resourcing includes having sufficient access to the necessary expertise from a technical perspective through to the physical numbers required to carry out these role.

The majority of contractors would welcome a visit from the Inspector to check licences and have a chat about the job. They see the value in having a regulator, which is a visible part of the industry and the influence that might have on a new generation of our industry coming through.

It might also encourage those in the industry who currently don’t comply, to assume responsibility and recognise the requirements that we are all expected to follow.

Who knows, these changes might result in a fair go for all.