The industry and standards

By RoryMacnamara

For many decades, the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) has been the bastion of standards and has been recognised as such internationally.

As a result of the separation of standards and testing from enforcement, it took 16 long years for the powers that be to realise that partial testing (which worked when the two functions had been combined) was an escape route for less-than-honest manufacturers, designers and installers.

We asked various professional bodies to respond to 11 questions in this regard. Thank you to the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA), the South African Plastic Pipe Manufacturers Association (SAPPMA), the Joint Acceptance Scheme for Water Services Installation Components (JASWIC), and the Polymer Hot & Cold Technology Association (PHACT) for their responses. It is not surprising that no response was received from the Water Institute of Southern Africa (WISA) and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), the latter being statutory and the one where their members — the municipalities — are very much at the centre of the enforcement problem!

In JASWIC being representative of local authorities water engineers, it is necessary for most of the questions to be posed to this committee. So the lion’s share of the answers will be reported on at a later stage. JASWIC, however, is a voluntary body that is an ease of reference for those in the field. SABS has always been a requirement to appear on the JASWIC list, as is having a test certificate. As these are both affected by the SABS, JASWIC needs to drill down into how to handle the ‘new regime’.

We have been conditioned to refer to ‘SABS approved’ — anything else is/was unacceptable. The theory that other country standards are applicable to South Africa is, for good reason, fundamentally flawed. Why would each country have their own standards if one can fit all? When the SABS/NRCS (National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications) change happened some 16 years ago, the South African National Standard (SANS) was established. Up to now, SANS has been conducting the testing, as no other test centre could handle some of the intricate testing.

So the reference now must be ‘SANS approved’.

This has changed dramatically with the SABS mishandling the issue and causing much angst in many industries, not only plumbing.

So we have let industry speak for itself. Questions by Plumbing Africa are identified with the acronym PA, and answers are identifiable from the respective professional body acronyms as listed above.

PA: Briefly describe your body’s involvement with standards

IOPSA: We represent all industry players and, mostly importantly, the protection of the public. IOPSA’s key objectives are to uplift industry standards and to ensure enforcement of these standards through the available mechanisms.

SAPPMA: One of our key focus areas is long-term product quality, and as such, we are intimately involved with standards — both national standards and some of our own (additional) standards. We regularly sample products of members at random and have it tested according to the relevant national standards. We also get involved in the development or amendment of national standards with SANS.

PHACT: Since its formation in 2004, PHACT has assisted the SABS in developing or adopting the correct standards for polymer hot and cold piping systems — and keeping them updated. We are represented on SABS technical committees to ensure that this is achieved.

JASWIC: JASWIC is represented on the body that develops standards, as well as amends existing standards.

PA: Has the industry you represent had bad experiences with SABS testing and delays in issuing certificates of approval under SANS?

IOPSA: We have had numerous meetings with manufacturers and conducted industry surveys. The quick answer is most definitely yes, with the biggest concerns being that the SABS permits expiry and it invoices for renewals but does not deliver testing or certification of products. No new products have been tested.

SAPPMA: Indeed, despite early and continuous warnings and interactions, many product permits expired without being renewed in time by the SABS.

PHACT: Most definitely, yes. PHACT knows of several companies that have lost contracts worth several million rand because they were unable to produce a valid SABS certificate — despite meeting the necessary product criteria — and in one instance having already paid for the testing to take place.

PA: What actions have been taken to address such difficulties?

IOPSA: Current laboratories that can test are PESC and TEST Africa, and current certification bodies include South African Technical Auditing Services (SATAS).

IOPSA and all manufacturers have met with the SABS and received excuses as to why the SABS has not been able to deliver, yet it continued its promises to resolve the issues. IOPSA has also met with the chief director at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Dr Tshenge Demana, who pleaded that the DTI had been unaware of the crisis at the SABS. The outcome of the meeting was for the DTI to facilitate a discussion between the SABS and IOPSA regarding industry concerns.

SAPPMA: After many months of fruitless attempts to get it fixed by the SABS, we decided to open an alternative avenue of certification. This resulted in most of our members migrating to a new service provider, SATAS.

PHACT: The European [Spanish] certification body (AENOR) has started offering certification to SANS for hot and cold water piping systems. AENOR is fully accredited by SANAS, who themselves accredit the SABS to offer identical certification. SATAS is also very close to being able to offer the same certification. Hence, valid certification is available once more from any of these sources. (Plumbing Africa has confirmed that at the time of writing, SATAS had received accreditation from SANAS, in addition to the timber accreditation that they have held for many years.)

 

PA: On the enforcement side, please rate the performance in this field, 1 being poor and 5 being excellent.

IOPSA: Enforcement lies with the local authorities, with a small porting of municipalities performing well. The bulk is not performing well at all, especially in the major metropolitan areas. The Plumbing Industry Registration Board (PIRB) is an industry enforcement mechanism that is gaining momentum. PIRB’s oversight covers not only new build but also replacement and maintenance plumbing work. Currently, the National Building Regulations (NBR) require all solar and heat pump installations to have a PIRB Certificate of Compliance (COC). Current amendments will include electric geysers. The NRCS is moving to have national specifications written for all products, which will move enforcement from local government to national government. JASWIC still has a major role to play in listing products that may be used by local authorities or within their jurisdiction.

SAPPMA: Enforcement under the NRCS umbrella was less than satisfactory.

PHACT: We would rate it as a three.

PA: If rated three to five, please elaborate as to what area of enforcement is performing well?

IOPSA: The plumbing industry is taking control of the enforcement of plumbers’ installations and now products. The manufacturers’ forum has approved IOPSA to look at an alternative advisory mark scheme, driven and sustained by industry, with the primary objective to create equality and oversight.

PHACT: PHACT provides a score of three, because enforcement of standards could certainly be a lot worse! Building inspectors are at least generally aware that national standards exist and often ask suppliers or contractors for proof of certification. The difficulty, however, is that such actions are inconsistently applied, and complete knowledge by these inspectors is rare and understandably very difficult to maintain. In addition, there is no assistance from the originator of the national standards to make it easier to have these standards enforced. Their [SABS] attitude is that they provide the standard and testing, but are not involved in enforcement. (PA has established that when the SABS and NRCS separated powers 16 years ago, this became the case.)

 

PA: In your experience or that of your members, is the enforcement legislation for water sufficient?

IOPSA: The plumbing industry is over-regulated and it will worsen due to incompetent plumbers. At the same time, regulation within the industry is extremely confusing, with water regulations forming part of the Water Services Act and not building regulations. This creates a problem within the local authorities that are tasked with enforcement. South Africa does require more simplified and consolidated regulation. There is also a call from importers of plumbing products that local standards should be more inclusive of international standards and requirements.

SAPPMA: What SAPPMA can say is that not nearly enough is being done to eliminate water loss in pipe networks.

PHACT: Absolutely not. We live in a water scarce country, yet water is wasted in the most irresponsible ways. Compromising on product quality contributes to this water wastage. The use of substandard products and/or the mixing of incompatible components in a system often cause failures, which aggravate the problem.

PA: Can or should the private sector become more involved in the verification/certification process?

IOPSA: The manufacturers’ forum has stipulated that it does not want to be put at risk again by relying on government or a single commercial entity for certification. The manufacturers’ forum has approved IOPSA to look at facilitating an alternative advisory scheme.

SAPPMA: As an industry association and therefore private, we do get involved in areas where we have influence; however, we are limited in terms of the political and financial constraints of the country.

PHACT: Yes. The certification process is clearly defined and controlled. Until recently, it was presumed that only the SABS could offer this service, but recent difficulties with the SABS have revealed that as long as you are accredited by SANAS, anyone may offer this certification. The private sector can and indeed should become more involved in certification. Enforcement of standards is another matter completely. If the private sector is to get involved here, it must be beneficial to that entity. The most obvious candidate would be the insurance industry who often carries the risk with substandard products being used in assets they have to insure. With the exception of hot water cylinders replacements, PHACT does not believe there is sufficient interest and involvement.

PA: What action has your organisation taken, if any, to remedy the lack of enforcement?

IOPSA: PIRB and an alternative mark scheme to support the development of independent certification bodies and testing labs, coupled with amendments to legislation and regulations to allow for enforcement through the professional body’s CoC.

SAPPMA: We are looking at alternatives.

PHACT: PHACT has effectively become the ombudsman for this sector of the industry. Many contractors, insurance companies, homeowners, and body corporates have contacted us to verify certification or to give advice regarding product failures. However, enforcement requires legal authority, and thus we cannot assist beyond advice.

PA: In your professional body’s opinion, is there a case for an umbrella body consisting of all water bodies that will take up the standard and enforcement issues with government and relevant departments, such as Water and Sanitation, Higher Education & Training, and ECSA (Engineering Council of South Africa)?

IOPSA: Yes, as described above, an independent industry advisory mark scheme. IOPSA believes this mark scheme will not only certify minimum requirements, but also recognise better quality products and efficiency.

SAPPMA: It could certainly be beneficial, provided the mandate could be agreed upon and it does not degenerate into endless discussions.

PHACT: Yes. Currently there seems to be no consistent approach to the availability and the control of certification and enforcement. The correct products standards have been created or adopted and the NBR codes reference them directly, so it should be a relatively simple task to offer certification to such standards and to ensure that these standards are enforced in practice. Regrettably, it does not seem to be a priority at government level, so the rot creeps in (as it does) and the market gradually deteriorates to the lowest common denominator, leading to long-term problems, especially in the construction sector. A nation’s wealth is largely underpinned by property values. If these are continually compromised, it has a serious knock-on effect on top sectors like banking and insurance. Compromising the quality of a country’s infrastructure also leads to risk, either in terms of water availability or in terms of public health, both of which affect the very structure of society and the country’s economic future. What might seem a low priority issue has huge ramifications in the long term.

 

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