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Statewide standards for plumbers in works

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Jim Bucci of Kennihan Plumbing pulls a clogged storm drain pipe out of the ground that he and fellow plumber Shaun Rourke (top) had to cut at a home in Wexford on Monday, April 29, 2013.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Jim Bucci (right) and fellow plumber Shaun Rourke (left) of Kennihan Plumbing work a job at a home in Wexford on Monday, April 29, 2013.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Jim Bucci (left) of Kennihan Plumbing snakes a clogged storm drain pipe with fellow plumber Shaun Rourke (right) at a home in Wexford on Monday April 29, 2013.

The plumbers Bill Kennihan employs at his Butler County business each spent four years taking classes three nights a week to get their professional licenses to work in Allegheny County.

Yet, Ohio doesn't recognize their licenses, nor those of any of the nearly 2,000 journeyman and master plumbers the county Health Department certifies. And Kennihan says he and his three plumbers have to compete with untrained, unlicensed “guys in the back of a pickup truck calling themselves plumbers” in Butler County, which has no certification program.

“That is a real pain,” said the owner of Kennihan Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, which has done business in Middlesex for 43 years. “It would be great to have statewide standards and certification like in Ohio.”

A bill in the state Senate would answer that. The Plumbing Contractors Licensure Act would create a state board to establish standards and rules for people calling themselves a master plumber or journeyman, or anyone doing plumbing beyond personal work.

It would apply everywhere in the state outside of Allegheny County and Philadelphia, which have their own licensing programs.

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, a supporter of the bill, said it aims to professionalize the job, replace a patchwork of regulations that vary by county or township and allow recognition of Pennsylvania licenses in other states.

He also wants to ensure people get what they pay for.

“It's a consumer-protection kind of thing,” Solobay said. “It was first brought to us by some of the plumbing unions. Say a guy gets laid off and has a couple pipe wrenches in his pocket and thinks he can go out and advertise himself as a plumber. That could be a scam.”

Senate Bill 441, sponsored by state Sen. Edwin B. Erickson, R-Drexel Hill, passed the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee by a 13-1 vote in April.

“It might keep unreputable people out and elevate the profession,” said Diane Moran, who owns Moran Plumbing in Peters with her husband, Keith Moran, a master plumber.

“Sometimes you get general contractors who think they can do anything,” she said. “When they're done, a professional has to come in and finish the job.”

Plumbers are “one of the more complained- and inquired-about industries in Western Pennsylvania,” said Caitlin Vancas, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau.

The group last year fielded 22,175 inquiries about Western Pennsylvania plumbers — fifth-highest among all businesses — and 177 complaints, No. 6 on the list locally.

“A lot of times we see with emergency contractors, especially plumbers, that consumers don't think about it until they need it, so they may not do all of the research,” she said.

All contractors doing work in excess of $5,000 must register with the Attorney General's Office. But that registration doesn't provide any minimum experience or education levels for specific trades.

The Allegheny County Health Department's Plumbing Program requires someone to take 576 hours of training and spend four years working with a master plumber before he or she can apply for and take a test to be licensed as a journeyman. They must work two more years and take another exam to become a master plumber.

A crew of 22 inspectors and supervisors conducts about 40,000 inspections a year.

The county passed its rules in 1969 and put enforcement in the hands of the Health Department because of sanitation issues, said department spokesman Guillermo Cole.

“It was thought back then that there were public health concerns when plumbing is done improperly, especially with wastewater,” he said.

Growing communities outside Allegheny County such as Peters and Cranberry don't have licensing rules.

Since the economy soured several years ago, plumbers have seen more people who lose jobs from the manufacturing sector “buy a truck and put a sticker on it and say they're a plumber,” said Tim Custer, business manager for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 354 in Youngwood. He supports the legislation.

“A lot of people take it for granted that the job will be done right,” Custer said. “A lot of nasty things can happen if it's not done the right way.”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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