Here is a brief list of the most important inventions of the past couple hundred years: electricity, penicillin, refrigeration, the internet, the internal combustion engine, vaccines—and, of course, indoor plumbing. Not only does it make things convenient (taking a bucket to the outhouse whenever you’ve got to poop is a hassle), plumbing is a big part of why life expectancy in the U.S. went from an average of about 47 in 1900 to closer to 65 in 1941, when indoor plumbing was finally commonplace even in poor and rural communities. We call a plumber when our sinks get stopped up, but snaking drains is hardly the only thing that plumbers do. They work on gas appliances, ensure proper venting, and maintain drainage systems. Doing those things poorly can carry very real consequences, as anybody who’s ever had to call the State Board of Plumbing Examiners over a dispute with a licensed plumber can attest.
After we bought our house, we learned a plumber had botched the water tank installation years earlier. He ignored my calls. Then I called the plumbing board, and *15 min later* the plumber showed up and did the job for free. So I'm a fan of this board https://t.co/O4wWbEte6R
— Rose (@rosecahalan) May 31, 2019
The Texas Legislature, though, made a curious move during the final days of the legislative session: It failed to pass a bill that would have kept the State Board of Plumbing Examiners, which has been around since 1947, active for at least another two years—issuing licenses and regulating plumbers, on and on until the eventual heat death of the universe or someone invents something better than indoor plumbing. Instead, the board is set to be phased out beginning in September. Congratulations, everybody in Texas—you’re a plumber now!
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The potential consequences of this are troubling, of course. If everyone is a plumber, then no one is, or at least it’s impossible to know unless and until you have already established a relationship with a plumber you trust. And there are other risks. Licensed plumbers, for instance, have insurance that protects not just the property, but also the homeowner. In the event that the plumber is injured on the job, a homeowner who hires a plumber without such insurance could face a lawsuit. If the work the plumber performs isn’t compliant with local and municipal regulations, homeowners could be on the hook to pay fines for violations, and no state board would exist to wield influence in the form of licensure revocation, since there’s no license required.
“Regulation and oversight of plumbers and plumbing systems is not ‘making sure shit flows downhill,’ as I’ve heard some say,” Brandon Shiplet, a third-generation plumber from Wichita Falls, told Texas Monthly. “It is for the protection of society as a whole. Incorrect or poor installation isn’t just a direct threat to the life, safety and health of one person. One incident can affect thousands. This is something that needs to be addressed immediately.”
Texas won’t be alone in not having a state agency regulating plumbing—but it’ll probably be the first one to end up that way by accident. In New York, for example, plumbers are licensed and regulated locally, which makes sense given the differences in infrastructure between Manhattan and rural parts of the state. Most Texas cities have a local plumbing code, based on a standardized plumbing code used around the world, but those codes worked in coordination with the state regulatory body.
Cities haven’t been making plans to create their own robust enforcement arms, because the need didn’t exist until the State Board of Plumbing Examiners was suddenly set for abolishment. Some bigger, wealthier cities may be able to step up and ensure that the rules are followed. But given the Legislature’s attitude in recent years toward what Governor Greg Abbott likes to describe as a “patchwork of local regulations,” creating a new regulatory infrastructure in a city like Austin or Houston could reasonably make local leaders nervous.
This isn’t the first time that the Texas Legislature has demonstrated a lack of focus as a part-time lawmaking body. In 2011, an oopsie from the Lege, intended to allow for more stringent prosecution of copper thieves, made it a state jail felony to steal any item of value that contained any amount of copper, aluminum, or certain other materials—like a penny, which is 2.5 percent copper, or a six-pack of beer, which comes in cans containing aluminum. In 2013, the state was left without a way to punish 17-year-olds convicted of murder, because state law required a life sentence without the possibility of parole, while the U.S. Supreme Court ruling declared that courts should consider lesser sentences for people under 18, a problem that the Lege was unable to solve until then-Governor Perry called a second special legislative session.
Plumbers with dubious credentials have been offering their services in Texas, even with the current license requirements, of course. San Antonio homeowner Alan Ellis told Texas Monthly about a plumber hired by his home warranty company that misdiagnosed a water leak from his hot water heater as being from a faulty drain line, which required a second plumber to correctly identify. “Unskilled, fly-by-night plumbers are an issue in Texas,” he said. Christopher Sorrow, a homeowner in Dallas, detailed a nightmare of an experience he had with an unlicensed subcontracted plumber during a renovation project—and one he had no recourse for, as both the contractor, who requires no state license, and the plumber disappeared after he began pursuing legal options. “By removing licensing, the Legislature is basically putting folks’ biggest investment at risk,” he said. “It is that simple. Licensing is such a simple, basic expectation of most professions, and I just cannot understand any argument that would eliminate this simple protection to homeowners. I’m all for less regulation, but this goes too far.”
A special session doesn’t appear to be in the cards for 2019, which means that unless cities step up, it’s open season for plumbing. Running an unlicensed plumbing operation won’t be a violation of the law—instead, it’ll be the standard that every plumber will follow, whether they want to or not, simply because licensure isn’t an option. If that makes you feel a lot less comfortable when it comes time to address a plumbing concern—or if it sounds like a great opportunity to turn your freewheeling plumbing hobby into a career—you can thank the Texas Legislature.