Lack of licensing enforcement in Washington State is transforming a skilled licensed trade into a commercial con game costing consumers and skilled craftsmen dearly.
The Issues Affecting Licensed Plumbers and Plumbing Contractors:
- Unlicensed Plumbers – ineffective enforcement of plumber licensing
- Fake Plumbing Companies – General Contractors Advertising Plumbing Services
- The Cost of Advertising – Is incredibly high due to unfair competition from the unlicensed
- Lack of Consumer Awareness – They don’t know that real plumbers are a licensed trade
- Other trades wishing to perform plumbing services - i.e. Builders and the HVAC trades
The plumbing trade is a regulated industry in Washington State. All plumbing work must be performed by those with a certificate of experience; in other words – a license. Over the years there can been a concerted effort by those not in the plumbing trade to violate the law that restricts who may engage in the trade. The attack on the plumber and the plumbing contractor has come from multiple directions.
There is not one enemy of the licensed plumber, but many. The most significant root cause of the plumber license losing credibility and value over the years is the passivity and inattention of the licensed plumber. As a rule, once we have the license in our hand we don’t think much about it other than to complain about the renewal fees or the imposition of the continuing education requirement.
A plumber license represents years of study, certified training and official permission to engage in a regulated profession. The dictionary defines license as “a permission granted by competent authority to engage in a business or occupation or in an activity otherwise unlawful”. A license excludes others by law.
If enforcement of a law is weak or ineffective - nobody will obey the law.
Today the plumbing industry is under attack from those that wish to be engaged in the business of plumbing without a license. The sad fact is that there hasn’t been much resistance from those of us that are most affected i.e. licensed plumbers, plumbing contractors and consumers. The plumbing industry has been invaded by anybody that wants to represent themselves as plumbers without the license because nobody has had a keen interest in the enforcement of plumber licensing.
Who is violating licensing laws? Answer: Anybody who wants to…
The following trades and businesses all advertise plumbing services today – effectively violation existing law:
- Rooter companies with no licensed plumbers or only a token plumber
- General contractors advertising plumbing services
- Plumber trainees that abandon their training and advertise as contractors
- Handymen with or without contractor registration
- Fraudulent website plumbing companies with fake registrations
- HVAC companies advertising water heater sales and installations
- Water heater companies advertising installation of water heaters
- Hardware stores offering water heater installations
- Building maintenance service companies providing plumbing repairs.
- Retail Stores – Home Depot, Lowes
- Marketing Companies with fake websites selling leads
- Third Party Referral Services that promote plumbing businesses with no licenses
- Website resellers
It is a long list…
As a licensed plumber for over thirty five years, I have to admit that I had no idea how easily my license could become a worthless piece of paper until I saw my phone traffic drop off and customers demanding that we match quotes from unlicensed competitors. I didn’t realize that the value of a license is based solely upon what others think it to be. It’s like money. Money is just a piece of paper with ink on it. It only has value if you and I agree that it has some representative value. A couple of hundred years ago a dollar was a day’s wages. Today a dollar might buy you a day-old doughnut. That dollar bill is only worth what we are willing to trade it for. My father described Italians during the Second World War hauling lira in wheelbarrows to exchange at the bank for US dollars. My fear today is that our plumber licenses will be worthless soon and we won’t even notice until it is too late. The homeowners don’t know that plumbers need licenses so the license is worth nothing to them. The rooter companies advertise plumbing with a contractor registration as cover – the public assumes a contractor registration is a license. They don’t know the difference because the rooter companies, and others, have aggressively been substituting “plumbing technicians” instead of plumbers for years.
The Camel in the tent - A fable
One day, an Arab and his camel were crossing the desert. As the sun set, the temperature dipped. The Arab put up a tent, tied the camel to it and went to sleep. As the night got bitterly cold, the camel gently thrust its nose under the flap of the tent and said to the Arab, “Master, let me put my nose in your tent; it’s very cold outside.” The Arab allowed the camel to put its nose inside the tent and went to sleep again.
A little later the Arab woke up to find that the camel had not only had its nose but also its head and neck inside the tent. The camel said, “Master, please allow me to put my forelegs inside the tent; it’s getting a little uncomfortable in this position.” The Arab let the camel put its forelegs inside the tent.
As the camel was half in and half out, the flap of the tent remained open and the tent started to get cold. Noticing its master’s discomfort, the camel asked, “Master, may I just come entirely inside the tent? That would be most comfortable to both of us.” The Arab let the camel come entirely inside the tent.
The tent, however, was too small and the camel took up most of the space and left very little for the Arab. By now in great discomfort, the Arab still went to sleep. When he woke up a few hours later, feeling cold and ill, he found himself out of his own tent. The camel now had the entire tent for itself.
If the camel’s nose is under the tent, the rest of the stinky camel will follow eventually. We let this camel encroach into our tent inch by inch and now it has almost thrown us out of it. It’s time to throw the camel out of our tent. The only way to reclaim our tent is to put the camel in its place – tied outside the tent where it belongs!
This is the situation we find ourselves in today. Enforcement of the plumber licensing law has been so neglected for so many years that nobody notices that we are out in the cold with the camel inside our tent!
Con-men and criminals are willing to pay more for advertising than legitimate businesses. The consequence is that the real services can't afford to advertise.
How Counterfeit Plumbing Companies drive up local advertising costs:
In the old days, when there was only one phone book and life was simple, my quarter page plumbing ad cost me $600 a month. That was back in the 1970’s. We did about four jobs a day on the average with two plumbers and had a total advertising cost that worked out to about $7.00 a job. I thought that was a lot of money. I couldn’t argue with the fact that if you put an ad in the yellow pages your phone would ring so I paid it and was happy..
The world has changed. Back then we were not competing with unlicensed plumbers like we do today.
I received an independent survey comparing YP.COM and Google advertising costs. I guess that they sent it to me to make me feel better about signing an annual contract with them (the on-line yellow pages) that cost me thousands of dollars for an “enhanced” directory listing. (http://searchengineland.com/study-yp-delivers-better-value-than-google-adwords-129210)
According to the survey:
Plumbers are paying Google $94 per call. YP.COM will charge you $43 per incoming call. (In Seattle Adwords cost is $20 - $34 per click or $380 per call).
I thought that only the plumbers were paying the big bucks to make their phone ring,but apparently I was mistaken.
In Jan 2012 I checked out three sponsored Google ads that were advertising plumbing companies that nobody ever heard of here in Seattle. These ads had been hogging the top of the page results when “Seattle Plumber” was searched for with Google. The average cost per click was $32. A typical neighborhood service plumber cannot afford that kind of cost. The cost per call was over $300! The money-to-burn advertiser turned out to be an out-of-state “pretend plumbing company”, with a contractor registration and no plumbers. They were willing to pay any price to get their phone to ring. Obviously, anybody that pays $300+ for the lead is going to be very motivated to over-sell.
We need to find a way for our customers to find us without paying potentially hundreds of dollars for every incoming call. This is where all the corporate media providers are taking us: Hundreds of dollars per service call – we pay upfront or our phones don’t ring. All I can say is that we apparently are in the wrong business. Maybe we need to get into the marketing game and forget about selling skilled labor. In my opinion, a "virtual plumber" is not a good idea. If we don't fix this all the public will have is virtual plumbers as the real plumbers will be gone.
The primary resource that the homeowner uses to find a plumber today is the Internet. Unfortunately, the search engines and directories are so corrupt with false listings and pay-per-click schemes that no legitimate local plumber can afford to pay the bill without going over to the dark side.
The hijacking of the residential plumbing industry by powerful sales and marketing interests has seriously impacted licensed plumbers and plumbing contractors. But we are not the only victims. In fact, we are not even the primary victim of the frauds.
The homeowner is the real target for all the licensing and Internet fraud. The plumber suffers collateral damage as the fake plumber makes his way to the homeowner via the illicit marketing and advertising routes.
If we are going to get our integrity and our economic security back we are going to have to increase the consumers’ awareness of the difference between a real plumber and a fake one. Today the consumer has no idea that fake plumbers exists. Conversely, they are so used to fake plumbers that they have no idea what a real licensed plumber is.
There are many more consumers than there are plumbers or plumbing contractors. It is impossible for us to organize the consumers but we can educate and inform them. In fact we must do this if we wish to regain control of the relationship between our business and our customer. The only thing we have to figure out is how to afford to do it when most of our work has been siphoned off and we are having trouble paying our bills now.
What Can We Do?
Organize. There is strength in numbers. It is as simple as that.
Plumbers are licensed individually but only have a voice collectively. There are 5400 of us.
Plumbing contractors are small businesses. As a group we have power. There are about 1500 of us.
Consumers can’t be organized but we can organize education campaigns that achieve the desired result.
PHCC is the only organized association of plumbing businesses in this state. We need to start with what we have. We are interested and motivated. The first thing we need to do is get more members any way we can. Nobody is going to team up with us however unless we offer something of obvious value in return for membership. We have value now but nobody seems to know it. If they did they would be here already. The legislation we are endorsing and actively participating in is a good start. Perhaps we can expand small business seminars to small plumbing contractors here that address the issues we are all really concerned about. Training of apprentices is a problem for many service companies for example.
We need to have a central point where the licensed plumbers can gravitate. We are notifying every plumber in this state about the licensing legislation. Those that respond or wish to know more are candidates for a truly innovative association of plumbers. Can the PHCC organize programs for plumbers? Should we? What can we offer them? A job board? An on-line blog? Computer literacy lessons? Representation in Olympia? Free CE credits? We need to think about these things. The individual licensed plumber is the key to everything plumbing related in this state. The problem is that the licensee is just one person; consequently he has been ignored as an individual. If we can organize the individual plumbers around a common cause, like the devaluation of our licenses, we will have a force in this state that can change the direction we are heading.
We need to support legislation that requires plumbing advertising to be restricted to plumbing contractors and licensed plumbers. Washington State Law allows general contractors to advertise plumbing services. That is a big mistake. How can we regulate pluming is anybody can advertise the service? If we want better enforcement we need to change the law. We proposed such a change with a new legislative bill in Washington – SB6476 (2012) that would really make a difference. The bill never got out of committee because there was no obvious support for the bill from Washington plumbers, plumbing contractors or consumers.
The bill had massive oposition from the general contractors, the builders and the HVAC lobbies.
We have re-written the bill and changed the basis of the bill from license enforcement to false advertising enforcement. Those that want to perform plumbing services without hiring a plumber will have to justify falsly advertising. legislators that it has support.
We have a legislative committee now with the PHCC here in Washington State. We need to network with other groups that have an interest in consumer fraud issues; plumber licensing is a part of the overall consumer fraud problem. Small businesses as well as homeowners are affected by false advertising of licensed trade services.
Co-operative Advertising is a real way to keep out costs down while informing the public about the fraud issues.
Small plumbing contractors need a way to be found by their customers. There is no rational reason that a small neighborhood business should have to pay out-of-state marketing companies thousands of dollars to be found locally. Google and nationwide business directories want multi-thousand dollar annual contracts to show our business listings to our local customers.
Washington State defines “ plumber” and “ plumbing contractor”
The legal definition of a plumber in Washington State is defined in WAC 296-400A-005 as anyone who has learned the plumbing trade and has been issued a journeyman certificate of competency by the department.
WAC 296-200A-016 : A plumbing contractor in this specialty installs, alters, repairs and renovates all potable water, building supply, and distribution pipes; all plumbing fixtures and traps; all drainage and vent pipes; and all building drains and building sewers, including their respective joints and connections, devices, receptors, and appurtenances within the property lines of the premises and shall include potable water piping, potable water treating or using equipment, medical gas and medical vacuum systems, liquid and fuel gas piping, and water heaters, hydronic heating systems and vents for same. Includes solar heating equipment attached to potable water systems. Plumber certification is required for work within a building per chapter 18.106 RCW.
Any person, firm, corporation or association who, with intent to sell or in any wise dispose of merchandise, securities, service, or anything offered by such person, firm, corporation or association, directly or indirectly, to the public for sale or distribution, or with intent to increase the consumption thereof, or to induce the public in any manner to enter into any obligation relating thereto, or to acquire title thereto, or an interest therein, makes, publishes, disseminates, circulates, or places before the public, or causes, directly or indirectly, to be made, published, disseminated, circulated, or placed before the public in this state, in a newspaper or other publication, or in the form of a book, notice, hand-bill, poster, bill, circular, pamphlet, or letter, or in any other way, an advertisement of any sort regarding merchandise, securities, service, or anything so offered to the public, which advertisement contains any assertion, representation or statement of fact which is untrue, deceptive or misleading, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor: PROVIDED, That the provisions of this section shall not apply to any owner, publisher, agent, or employee of a newspaper for the publication of such advertisement published in good faith and without knowledge of the falsity thereof.