Risks in maintenance plumbing – prevention better than cure

By Kerry Hayes, Mike Simpson, and Shanna Jacobsen

Tight margins and lack of business skills may be the biggest risks for maintenance plumbers, but there are other risks, such as health and safety, correct tooling, as well as comebacks.

ShockRisk of electrocution by poorly installed or uninsulated wires are real dangers.
Image credit: Creative Commons

Enter the plumber, who is ultimately responsible for the installation, care, and repair of a vital aspect of everyone’s lives, and each day has to manage their own risks, both from a business operation and health perspective.

Maintenance is something customers do not always think about. A call placed to the plumber is most often a delayed response to a leaking tap or blocked shower drain, by which time the problems may have multiplied — along with the time, resources, and cost to repair it. But even the most basic of maintenance plumbing jobs is regarded as a grudge purchase.

A critical risk factor for the industry is low margins caused by non-compliant and unqualified competition. While some bigger players may be able to maintain sufficient margins to adequately deal with issues such as health and safety requirements, for example, comebacks and adequate day-to-day operating efficiencies for small operators are simply too cash-draining to properly mitigate risks.

Like any other mechanical system, plumbing has stress points and moving parts, so regular maintenance ensures it continues to operate reliably. This is more distressing in a commercial environment, where a business can be temporarily shut down due to plumbing issues. Take a restaurant or hospital, for example: blocked and overflowing drains or sewerage pipes can be detrimental to business operations. Regular maintenance could prevent such situations, lending itself ideally to the phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’. This again refers to a grudge purchase where preventative maintenance is not always taken into consideration.

“However, the public often do not see value in plumbers’ competencies and base their buying decisions purely on price,” says Steve Brown, acting executive director of the Institute of Plumbing SA (IOPSA). “Then there are handymen and so-called plumbers [unqualified] who will do the work at even lower rates, further stressing the industry.”

Health and safety first

Every line of work comes with a degree of risk, and plumbing is no exception. Most workplaces carry the risk of injury or hazard. The plumbing and construction sectors in particular, by the very nature of their environment, pose significant occupational hazards. From the use of inferior building materials to the presence of harmful chemicals on site and working with incomplete or poorly built structures, these are just some of the most common dangers against which plumbers can protect themselves.

clothingProtective equipment, such as gloves, boots, eye protection, and even heavy-duty overalls, are usually an afterthought, disregarding the implications.
Image credit: Creative Commons

“There are many risks involved,” notes Mathew Jones, owner of Mat’s Wonder Worx and Maintenance. “Bad chemicals, such as solvents, and being in dirty roofs where there are rodent droppings, are not great to work in. There is also the risk of falling debris either landing on or cutting you,” he says. On the job, prevention is better than cure. Protective wear and equipment, such as heavy-duty overalls, safety boots, gloves, facemasks, and goggles, will protect a person from debris, dust, harmful chemicals, and animal droppings, while wearing earplugs will make working in noisy conditions far more bearable. When working with power tools, it is essential that whoever is handling the equipment is qualified to operate a particular piece of machinery and that safety switches are used at all times.

It is to be common practice across all divisions of the plumbing sector to conduct risk assessments.

Taking care to clear the area from any flammable, unstable, or loose objects that could fall on a person, as well as anything that could lead to potential electrocution, are crucial as these are the types of hazards that could lead to death. Plumbers often work in roofs and underground, or in confined spaces with poor light and airflow. Therefore, it is important for teams to work together on a job to safeguard everyone.

“Aside from cost and resource implications, safety is a major consideration in plumbing maintenance. Poor or no maintenance can be dangerous to people or premises,” says Maurice van Wyk, owner of Plumbing Beat. “A water heater could explode if its temperature and pressure-relief valves fail, and basements can flood if a sump pump burns out and stops working. Whenever dealing with natural gas or electricity, it is best to practice extreme caution,” he adds. All of these situations, and similar situations, create health risks for team members.

Health risks are always associated with exposure to sewage, toilets, sewers, and septic tanks, as bacterial infection is possible. Additionally, neglected gas water heaters are sometimes a source of carbon monoxide poisoning if not vented and maintained properly.

Brown adds, “It’s very clear, though, that if you are charging R200 an hour, you cannot sustain your business, and based on this rate, you would not be able to comply when it comes to occupational health and safety standards, as well as other necessary/compulsory requirements. The key is to understand what your actual cost of being in business is, and to build your rates accordingly.”

Kyle Bruch of Bruch’s Plumbing agrees that a lack of margin is a critical factor in his business. He says he deals with health risks, like a sewage spill, by wearing gloves. But there is no special protective clothing when dealing with spills, for example. “We usually just deal with it as best possible,” he says. He adds that they typically also wear masks when entering manholes because of the dangers of methane gas. They also use harnesses where necessary, but “guys take safety risks all the time”, Bruch notes.

It’s a different situation at Burgess and Partners — a larger plumbing operation targeting corporates and upper-income clients. “We are very strong on health and safety,” says managing director Craig Preston. “We have our own training centre and if the guys are working on grease traps, for example, then they will get training on how to clean themselves and on what protective equipment they need — whether it’s gloves, a protective suit or goggles. The guys on the drainage side get hepatitis injections on a regular basis. We do our best to take all necessary precautions.”

randCosting and efficiency are major risks for the plumbing industry.
Image credit: Creative Commons

If sewage does back up, it may contaminate carpets, wooden floors, or even furniture exposed to the biological organisms. These items are difficult to clean and must usually be discarded.

Know your stuff

This may sound obvious, but not all plumbing professionals see the value in knowing — and adhering to — the industry standards and obtaining proper certification. Industry regulators — like the Plumbing Industry Regulation Board (PIRB) and IOPSA — guide, monitor, and regulate nationwide standards of operation and service delivery to protect both plumbing service providers and customers.

“The national building regulations are clear that you must be a trained [qualified] plumber to work on plumbing installations, or ensure the people working on the installations are adequately controlled by the trained plumber. In the case of SANS 10254, 10106, and 1352, it is required that a plumbing certificate be issued,” says PIRB chairman, Lea Smith. The latest changes to these standards can be found on the IOPSA website at www.iopsa.org.


Comebacks remain a financial risk to any plumbing business. But, notes Preston, they can be an opportunity too. “We train our guys to avoid comebacks, but obviously it happens. When it does, we try to turn them into a positive. It all depends on how you respond. If you respond in the right way, then customers are often very happy with you — more so than if the comeback never happened in the first place.”

According to Bruch, the increase of cheaper, low-quality fittings from China can also contribute to comebacks. “You can give the customer a choice of fitting, but sometimes the cheapest one is what they want,” he explains.

Preston has a different take and says his company’s policy is to use SABS-approved fittings and only deviate from that when there is no approved product available. However, he points out that there are difficulties with the SABS testing procedures, which means that finding approved product is becoming increasingly difficult.

If a customer’s drains and sewer have a history of problems, which can be an upfront discussion, it is best to have these cleaned annually, or as often as necessary to prevent backups. Bruch says that “when dealing with a difficult-to-resolve problem like tree roots in pipes, sometimes the client will call you back to the job and it’s obviously not your fault, but either you fight with the customer and lose them, or you fix it and keep the client.”

Investing in the right tools

Along with relevant accreditation, to enable plumbing professionals to deliver the best maintenance plumbing service, they need to be equipped with the best, most reliable tools and parts within their budgets. If a tool or part proves itself, buy more of it and keep a backup in stock. Cheap tools and parts tend to have a way of failing at the most inconvenient times, resulting in more work or callbacks. Shop around, talk to other companies about the tools they carry, and read reviews.

Correct tooling is also critical to efficiency. “The right tools help to get the job done that much quicker,” notes Brown. “It’s not necessary to buy top of the range, but have the testers; have the drills. It will help you to minimise and optimise the time you spend on site as well as add to the professionalism of the company.”

Bruch agrees and also notes that the price of some previously high-cost machinery has tended to come down in recent years, and investing in the correct tools has definitely helped their business.

sewer coverSewers contain toxic gases such as methane.
Image credit: Creative Commons

As for the ‘Holy Grail of plumbing tools’, Smith wraps it up in one, powerful word: knowledge. Know your standards, know your tools, know your limitations.

Hard and soft skills

For any plumber, achieving day-to-day operational efficiencies is critical. Brown believes that one of the biggest challenges in this regard is the disordered nature of the working day. “We constantly hear that the only appointment the plumber can guarantee is the first one of the day; thereafter, it dissolves into chaos.” He says it is normal for customers to expect immediate service, but it is up to the plumber to have the necessary communication skills to manage client expectations. “You cannot always tell how long a job is going to take, so it is about taking on as much work as you can that day, but making it clear to the client what is and is not possible up front.”

According to Preston, one of the biggest risks he sees for small plumbing businesses is that they do not know how to charge. “They’re great tradesmen but don’t always understand how to arrive at a price. If they could charge a better rate, then a lot of the other processes — like the lack of health and safety — would fall into place.” He believes training needs to be taken up on how to cost a job, as this would help uplift the industry. Brown adds that one of the areas of discussion is always hourly rate versus a fixed rate for a job. He considers the latter to be the best option in many instances. “Customers want certainty as to what a job is going to cost them. So, he advises to have some flat-rate prices, but also to ensure you have good margins.

Inability to collect payment is another major risk. Bruch says COD is the way to go and points out that the thousands of rands he writes off each year are a result of deviating from this rule. Brown agrees, but says that plumbers will often ignore their own policy. “They’ll say the job is COD, but then allow the customer to leave the site before the job is finished — without paying. The reality is that the level of customer appreciation for the job that you do is gone as soon as you leave their premises.”

There’s also the lack of skills that many other types of businesses take for granted. Brown says most of the complaints that IOPSA receives relate to this: “When it comes to things like negotiating, asking for money, personal presentation, and marketing, then many plumbers fall short. But they need to think about advertising, the appearance of their staff, and the way they answer their phones. That’s what sets you apart from the rest and creates a successful business.”

While ‘wowing’ customers with fancy tools, for example, is a momentary feather in the cap, maintaining good relationships with your customers is far more valuable. In a tight-margin business environment where money isn’t easily parted with, especially when being invested for maintenance, managing your customer relationships is vital.

Do not overcharge your customers; do take responsibility for mistakes; embrace open communication with your customers; and be honest and forthright with them. They will appreciate your honesty, and your transparency will build trust in the long run. These two elements will likely lead to repeat business, good reviews, and word-of-mouth endorsement. Better to have a customer for life — who almost becomes a self-elected brand ambassador — than one who feels cheated and shares his or her negative experience with as many (non)-potential customers as possible.

Big Five of best practices

Everything you do on a professional basis, and every decision you consider, can be make or break for your business. That is where best practices come into play, and Smith shares his recommended ‘Big Five of best practices’:

  1. Make sure you secure your payment
  2. Price correctly
  3. Deliver compliant installations
  4. Ensure written agreements are put in place
  5. Take pride in what you do.

Put these best practices into place, along with your accreditation, customer relationship management, and servicing your maintenance customers with the best tools and stock you can, and you will have not only a successful business model, but a successful business legacy.

Empower the youth with knowledge

Looking at the plumbing sector and artisans as a whole, there is a growing concern that there are not enough skilled workers to meet current market demands. The Artisan Training Institute (ATI) highlighted this in 2016 when it observed that there was a 50% pass rate at universities for artisanal qualifications. “The irony is that many jobs in the corporate world will simply disappear in the very near future. But there will always be jobs for artisans. Mechanisation, coupled with smart production technologies, are on the increase. This will lead to a plunge in semi-skilled jobs. In the near future, many occupations will no longer exist, but artisans are the bedrock of the economy and will always be needed,” says Sean Jones, CEO of ATI. To remedy this, he says, we should be encouraging the youth to consider becoming an artisan for a living because they are almost guaranteed formal employment upon graduation and can earn a decent salary per month that is more than most university graduates will start out on. Given direction and knowledge to manage and sustain their business on all levels of risk, from small business to large companies, can only result in success.

Click below to read the March 2018 issue of Plumbing Africa



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